An artist’s most intimate and vulnerable setting is their place of creation; it is the safe haven where inner expressions manifest. In late April, George Kwesi Abbensetts—the Guyana-born, Brooklyn-based 40-year-old photographer sometimes known as Spaceship George—wandered his work space calmly, perusing his archives for inspiration, undisturbed by the frequent passing of the J train. His focus and process were more important. As a photographer, Abbensetts, who studied film at Montgomery College in Maryland before finding inspiration to create the kinds of images he’d been exposed to in director Spike Lee's early work, now says he is a representative of himself and his culture—his people. Over the years, goals of creative freedom and an escape house in Jamaica, which he visits frequently, have kept him hungry. As we settled to talk, Abbensetts readied himself for our interview with a lightness in his demeanor.
FADER: What made you want to be a photographer?
Abbensetts: I didn't know I wanted to become a photographer. I was always very interested in things that were expressed visually and I kind of found photography. When I was young, you bought disposable cameras and you developed it. I grew up in Guyana, so there's not this technical aspect of the avenues where you're encouraged for art. So, for me, it was when I went to college in Maryland and later moved to New York for film school—that's when I bought a camera. I wanted to figure out how to take pictures; I wanted to learn. Digital film had just become very popular. In the beginning, I guess I didn't think to go toward photography because film is expensive. I went to film school and finished but didn't want to [work in] film. I was hustling, trying to live and make money. There weren't many film jobs or assisting jobs, so I bought a camera and I just started experimenting with it. That's where the love started. It all stemmed from cinema.
What do you shoot with?
Since I began, I've been shooting with a Pentax digital camera. I've never shot on film in my life, except with disposable cameras. Generally, though, I try to make [my work] look like film. I also studied a lot of things related to cinematography, so I try to bring all those feelings to the image. Even with how I relate to my images and my creativity, it’s intuition based; I just go with the feeling and achieve the meaning afterwards. Pentax gives me a quality that looks like film and, for some reasons, gives me more options than a Canon or a Nikon. They have all the bells and whistles, but Pentax helps me achieve a better feel. Mimicking film isn't my intention—I’m just trying to create, intuitively or visually, how I feel about the image.
“I’m looking for beauty and something compelling. I’m seeking to make you see yourself a different way.”
How would you describe your process?
The process of photographing is very experimental, in a sense, when I'm going after a particular look. Now that I've been doing this for years, my work has a look. But in terms of how I explore things, it's never a fixed idea. I don't always know what I'm going to do, I just have an idea and I let the moment dictate the rest. It's very free. I don't wonder about the frame, or if anything is correct. At this point, I know the fundamentals and I can manipulate them. My process right now is very free. It's not imposed on by any commercial way or style.
What do you look for in an image?
Certain practical things: like the physicality of a person—what they're wearing, colors, and space. Those things add to the magic or excitement of the image. Other than that it's just an instinctual thing. I'm looking for beauty and something compelling. I'm seeking to make you see yourself a different way.
Which photographers do you admire?
Andrew Dosunmu. Koto Bolofo, he’s a South African photographer based in France. Barron Claiborne. Some of my peers. I respect these people's work, but I try not to look at other people's work too much. I never try to copy, but sometimes the images around you influence you and you recreate something impressive you saw somewhere else.
When you're creating art with your hands—literally with your hands, like with painting—you are transferring energy from your body into an art. And the more you are sure of that energy, the more it manifests in your own work. And that's where it starts to move you. As a creator, that thing, that vibe, in you is embedded in your work. And as you grow older it becomes more and more prevalent, even if you write two sentences. Essentially you're giving something that's dead life. You're feeding this thing, you're planting it and watering the seeds and mixing the soil for it to grow.
What do you think smartphone photography has done to the practice?
I don't have a problem with any instruments that are made, because that's just what moving through time is. New things come along and you're going to either embrace it or not. It's something we can’t avoid. With photography, everyone having a camera doesn't mean they're a photographer. In terms of skill level, when people need professional work, they're going to get a professional photographer. You have to be able to create that vibe. But you can't fight the development, you have to just let it all happen. I think people should be more worried about social media presence [in our lives]. People who aren't really photographers [are getting jobs]—like that footballer’s son, I think it was David Beckham Jr's son, got hired to shoot a fashion line. But they didn't hire him because he's a photographer, they hired him for having a lot of followers.
What’s the best advice you were ever given?
I'm a loner; nobody has ever really given me advice. I tell myself to just keep going, to keep doing it. I revisit my work everyday, check my archives to remind me to keep going. I just want to do my work.