“I like to show beauty that is often overlooked or underrepresented. It all boils down to me trying to highlight the everyday beauty in its simplest form.”
Photographer, film-maker, and art director Armstrong Too is an innovative force from Kenya. The young creative’s work combines traditional scenery with haute couture, contemporary design, and landscape all with a distinctly African inflection.
One of the most striking aspects of the work is the absolute regality of the African people depicted, the scenery in rich or stark contrast. Indeed, the artist’s seamless use of both theatrical views and everyday imagery express a connection between the maker and subject, a moment that is essential to the character of the work.
And so, even when the work is exposing practices that show how local traditions continue to break national law, and take advantage of young people, Armstrong is able to establish a bond of trust with his subjects, and touch the conscience of his viewers..
After all, the activist artist’s vision does not stop at ideas of beauty, much of his work has a social purpose, including the campaign 16 Days Of Activism in honor of International Women’s Day, raising awareness of gender abuse.. In this arresting series, Armstrong’s photographs unflinchingly confront myths and exposes suffering.
Whatever the subject, Armstrong’s work has many layers, and is not only about the gaze that renders women as one-dimensional characters, mere players in fantasies, rather the woman in these images has a voice, an experience and life, and a beauty that is in fact hers alone.
This autonomy is key to understanding the richness of Armstrong’s way of depicting women. One such example, on a more intimate scale is the series Somali Women Refugees. In these iconic saturated series of portraits, an invisible demographic is shown with objects from their way of making a living -offering a glimpse of their spirit, and everyday lives, compassionately and beautifully presenting individuality and depth.
One of the most riveting projects is Armstrong’s seminal series entitled Catwalk to Freedom gives voice to the stories of girls who are married in early childhood in South Sudan and Kenya. The pioneering project documents the children and young women’s journeys through a sensitive and compelling series of narrative, photography, and film “developing bold initiatives to enable them to unleash their potential and self-reliance..”
She was as well-dressed that day, likely a new bride. According to the Ministry of Gender, Child, and Social Welfare, half of South Sudanese girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are married, many of them against their will. (Catwalk to Freedom)
Why use fashion?
We know that pairing child brides with high fashion is an unlikely couple; but that is the beauty of the concept. South Sudanese women have long been sought after by the fashion industry for their tall slender builds. So working with the fashion industry to raise awareness about social issues facing the community is a natural fit. Moreover, fashion has always been used to inspire and transform. At Catwalk to Freedom; we hope that a few beautiful dresses and well placed accessories will help girls facing child marriage to imagine a more vibrant future for themselves and in the process help the world see that these young girls are worth protecting and investing in.
Rosa: What type of equipment, techniques, and processes do you use?
Armstrong: I use such a wide range of gear — all depending on what end-product I’m trying to achieve. For portraits, my favorite lenses are Canon’s 85mm and 70-200mm. My number one technique is to create a connection with the subject I’m capturing so that they are comfortable around me so as to capture their essence in that moment.
RB: While you are a self-taught photographer, you mentioned that you liked physics and math very much in school and this has enhanced your understanding of lighting. Please tell me a bit about your chiaroscuro style?
A: Light is the main ingredient in photography. I apply highlights, mid-tones, and shadows to create depth, define shape and set the mood in my images.
RB: What is the editorial, fine art photography scene/ or even art scene like in Kenya?
A: It’s very rich (in terms of the variety of ideas and concepts) and competitive but not extremely lucrative yet. There is a growing population of Kenyans who are interested in and consumers of art, especially local content.