Oluwanisola “Sola” Olosunde is a 27-year-old documentarian, visual journalist, historian and photographer. The Nigerian-American, Brooklyn- born-and-based Olosunde aims to preserve his community’s legacy, past, present and future. He talks to the writer, model and activist Livia Rose Johnson about his work, which celebrates Black nightlife in New York, and explains how he’s intent on maintaining and growing his community. He aims to educate and enlighten young people on the power of history today and teach them how to preserve it through his version of activism.
Livia Rose Johnson: Tell us a little bit about who you are, your background and your craft as a photographer, historian and documentarian.
Sola Olosunde: I started taking photos around five years ago to document my surroundings, the streets and life in general, because things are always changing in New York. I wanted to capture what I saw when I was young before it was all gone. I consider myself a historian, photographer, visual journalist and archivist [who is aiming] to preserve the legacy of the present, future and past. My archival process consists of hours on the internet and trips to the library. I use online and college library databases to search for historic photos, videos and documents. I also use more accessible sites like YouTube and Google. The trick is knowing what exactly to search for. That’s where the trips to the library come in. Some facts are only discovered by reading books and the decades-old books in reference collections and college libraries help with that a lot.
LRJ: What sparked your interest in photography, especially the documentary style?
SO: I felt the things I would see were worth capturing but I was annoyed at the fact that sometimes you’d walk down the street and the next week it’d be a totally different thing. I started to take pictures on the street and then at events. Being a historian influenced me. I studied history in school and looked at a lot of photos and videos. It influenced how passionate I became about photography because sometimes those photos are the only sources of specific times and places.
LRJ: I’d like to know more about you as a historian. How do you think history will look back on this moment, your moment?
SO: Well, I think we’re on the tail-end of what was a huge moment in history. We’re still trying to figure out how to navigate what “normal life” is post-pandemic. It’s been hard, obviously. Everyone moved back to the city and now rent prices are higher than ever. Simultaneously, at least a third of offices are sitting vacant due to remote work. How do we fix that? Companies have gouged the prices of goods because of Covid staff shortages, but our wages haven’t gone up one bit. What do we do about this? I see this era in history as somewhat like the Gilded Age in the late 19th century. Inequality, mass migration to cities and industrialisation were large themes of the day. We go through the same thing now, but instead of industrialisation, everything is being digitised.
The internet has been around for a while, but in the last 10 years it has taken over so many aspects of our lives. With the internet comes misinformation, which I think is as big of a problem as climate change. We’re at the point where people will trust a TikTok video before a statement in a cited, peer-reviewed article. Trump was a major contributor to this issue, but Covid kicked things into high gear. How do we fix this? I don’t know. With that being said, I don’t know what future generations will make of these times because if things keep going like this, they may not even think 2020 was a real year.
I don’t know how future generations will perceive my work. With history, I think I’ve done a lot, but what I need is more written work. Social media is great, but an app can delete your work. I always think about Myspace and how they deleted so much of the old music on there a few years ago. What we write on these platforms is essentially our diaries that the future can look back on. But if Twitter ceases to exist, what happens to that information? Books and [print] articles are the only sources of information that truly outlive you.
I hope people use my photos as a historical reference for New York City’s culture through the years. Two things drove me to keep shooting: trying to capture the NYC I grew up in before it’s all gone and showcasing the beauty of Black women, both generally and particularly at [nightlife] events. I honestly don’t know where I’d be without social media. But like I said, I need to do more print work to be solidified in history. That, and storing my negatives correctly.
LRJ: As a Brooklyn-born, creative individual, how has the NYC experience, particularly at night, shaped you?
SO: Nightlife gives you a way to meet a lot of different people. It exposes you to the transient nature of New York. Being a born-and-raised New Yorker, you realise you’re in the minority. People come here for all different types of reasons, such as work or vacation. Sometimes you may only spend one or two nights with someone and that’s it. It also showed me how diverse New York is in terms of the crowds. What made me start was the diversity of it all. I liked how people looked. I had this idea of photographing Black women that I encountered and showcasing their beauty. I ended up falling into doing that at night. It’s the easiest place to do it because people come to parties to look nice and are open to having their photos taken.
LRJ: How do you use this as a concept to activate, influence, create and connect with the community you’re building?
SO: I use nightlife to help document my generation having fun. I wanted it to be a time capsule that people could look back to. People started to understand my mission more. They would often want their photo taken and would come up to me. The general mission is to create an archive of pictures and videos of New York when I was young, especially in nightlife.
LRJ: You have recently created your Beautiful Faces event for just this. What’s the atmosphere like? What is its purpose now and as it continues to grow?
SO: Beautiful Faces is a photo party. It’s a safe place for Black people to come and have a good time. It’s nice because this was all through word of mouth. It started with a few friends and has grown into this thing that’s known across the city. Over time I hope to create a book or a collection that showcases the different faces that have come to Beautiful Faces.
LRJ: Where do you put your intention both within your photography and your team’s nightlife curation? What’s the significance of the spaces within nightlife in which you operate?
SO: The team, which includes me, my brother Wole and our friend Kyle, are always looking for different venues that are suitable for Beautiful Faces. We are trying to keep the parties in Brooklyn because that’s where all our friends are, and it is also the nexus of nightlife in New York.We are familiar with Brooklyn but recognise that it is changing. We are natives. But people from all over the world come to Brooklyn. The goal is to bring everyone together and have a good time. We try to reflect that with our DJs and music choice. We are trying to touch on all types of tastes.
LRJ: What are some of the patterns or trends you have noticed within the culture that is being created? What’s changed or died out?
SO: One thing that has changed is the number of large venues in NYC. In the ’70s there were a lot of abandoned old factory buildings where people would have parties, a bunch of different types of places because the property wasn’t as expensive. Even the idea of a house party was bigger! People don’t own houses or have space to host these days. Fighting for four or five big venues in Brooklyn is tough. Nightlife has not died down in New York, though. Back in the day, things were freer, but nightlife is still alive and well in New York. Social media has allowed for many new possibilities as well. It has made New York a lot more accessible. People make friends through the internet and come to parties.
LRJ: What is the importance of nightlife for your community and within New York?
SO: It’s a place where people can gather, casually network, make friends and have fun. For creatives, it’s a place they get to get together, talk and brainstorm! It’s a glue that brings creative people together. I know people who are different from me that I wouldn’t have met unless I went to certain parties. You meet people that you have stuff in common with and end up becoming best friends.
LRJ: As a curator, historian and documentary artist, what are your goals for the future of these events in your community and community spaces?
SO: I hope Beautiful Faces becomes one of the biggest parties in the city. This would certainly help my documentary photography. I hope to continue to document nightlife. I would like more accessibility when it comes to taking photos. I just hope that we, as Brooklyn natives and Black people in general, continue to have parties.
LRJ: What other projects are you working on?
SO: I’m working on a book which will be an overview of my street photography, event photography and self-portraiture. I’ve been building an archive of Black adult media through the 20th century with my friend André Uncut, and we’re trying to figure out the ideal roll-out for it. I’ll also be selling prints. I have begun building a community when it comes to these things: namely, Whaffle and André Uncut. Whaffle is a ’70s enthusiast and André is a photographer whose inspiration largely draws from 20th-century Black culture, mainly the ’90s. We call ourselves WAS – an alliance formed to take on period projects of all kinds. Photoshoots, videography, curation, event planning, you name it. I focus on the more socio-political aspects of history while they focus on the more cultural aspects. However, we still come together and discuss all the research we’ve done, teaching each other along the way. Collecting artefacts is another thing we do together, especially clothes and magazines.