If you ask Joshua Asante about his photography, you’re likely to participate in a part-philosophical, part-autobiographical discussion. No doubt you’ll learn things along the way, not only about Asante’s photographs, but also about yourself.
“I feel my greatest skill as a photographer is my empathy,” says Asante, perched beside crackling, vintage speakers in his apartment. The walls are filled with African American art, most done by friends of his.
“It’s my empathy and authenticity.”
Asante got his first camera in 1999, and back then was more concerned with the camera as an object instead of a way of seeing. He says, “I remember shooting on 120 mm film – those were slim cameras. At that point I was more intrigued with how they looked and felt over use.”
Asante began taking self portraits, sealing his interest in portraiture, even when he relied on disposable cameras. “I was taking photos of myself five years before I really got the hang of composition and balance,” he says. “Every portrait is a self portrait, it’s all a reflection of you as a person.”
Even though he may not give much direction to his subjects, he’s always chasing a vision. He joins his subjects in the vulnerability that is inevitable when having a portrait snapped – a photo shot.
For this reason, he often works with prime lenses. “I like them because I have to get up on a subject and share space – empathize,” he explains.
He choses people to photograph because they’ve caught his eye. Consciously, yet even subconsciously, he believes he’s working toward a new language for beauty. He says, “I was doing a shoot and the woman I was photographing said, “Nobody has ever asked to take my picture.” That conversation kept occurring with people that I was taking pictures of.”
He often shoots series, as well. Over a year ago Asante created one in which he photographed the women in his life he was close to. He shot through a mirror, so that his subjects were looking at him, but he wasn’t returning the gaze. When he got the prints back, he was surprised to see his friends in a completely new light.
“We are forced to frame ourselves how other people regard us, so we’re never free … It was a new way of looking at the feminine energy around me,” he explains, “and I was completely blown away by it.”
Locally, Asante respects Nancy Nolan’s work and even considers her a mentor. In terms of the scene, though, he’s not sure where his voice fits. “The duality that black people experience daily, the art scene here is a microcosm of that, that two-ness,” he says.
He points to the art created by both people he knows personally, and not at all, displayed prominently on his walls, “This is my community support, being a part of African American art and expression.”
He’s not complaining too much about Rock City, though. “I love the pace of Little Rock,” he says, “I am so blessed to have a creative outlet here.”
You may have seen Asante perform music with Amasa Hines, as he plays guitar and sings. He says, funnily enough, that social media helps him write lyrics. “I use social media mostly as a visual journal and to share my work,” he explains.
Often when he posts photographs he posts poetry alongside the images. Every now and then he’ll go back and print off his poems and write songs around a phrase or sentence that jumps out at him.
He does think that social media can be harmful to artists, though. “It’s most damaging to an artist when accomplishments are celebrated even though there’s not one.”
It’s not likely Asante will stop taking photographs soon. For him, it’s more than a simple action, and is filled with self-expression. “If you don’t celebrate yourself and your culture, you’ll go insane. My photographs are a way of me trying to stay sane,” he says.