Hagar Wirba is a Cameroonian portrait and lifestyle photographer, born in Angola and now based in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Hagar has been a recipient of the I am: Woman: 500px Commercial Grant and also took part in an eBook collaboration between 500px and FeatureShoot in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Q: Hagar, how would you compare the photography and arts community of Cameroon and British Columbia, Canada?

A: Unfortunately, I haven’t been back to my home country since I was five years old, so it’s hard to talk about what makes up the Cameroonian arts scene. ?However, I can definitely say that BC is full of dedicated, amazing, and passionate artists.?

I believe the natural beauty of the province, with its deep-rooted connections to the vast wildlife and traditional native roots, provides a unique and powerful opportunity for creative energy.

It has also been a challenging experience at times, as a Black artist living in Kelowna, which doesn’t have the same multiethnic presence as a larger city such as Toronto would have. However, I’ve been lucky to see that grow with more community building, engaging activities, and events over the years, that have been included and initiated by members of these multiethnic groups.

Q: How have you kept motivated and productive over the past year?

A: With Covid-19 hitting the way it did, and life being turned upside down for a lot of us, it was a drastic change and quite unsettling. Honestly, being a student at the Centre for Arts and Technology through 2020, the prospect of graduating was my biggest motivation. Typically, I find it hard to stay productive and motivated during major life transitions, but I was very determined to not only pass my classes but challenge myself to do really well. It was a commitment and a half.

Q: What kind of photoshoots are your favorite to work on, and why?

A: I love shooting with my friends! Or just shooting with other creatives—overall I enjoy shoots with a great energy exchange.

I think a large factor of why portrait photography resonates so strongly with me, is the equal give and take between myself and my subjects. This leaves room for us to connect on a more personal level, which ultimately leaves room to capture some of their more genuine moments. It’s amazing to see how your subjects express themselves and reveal who they are throughout the shoot like a flower blossoming in the sun.

Q: How would you describe your creative process for developing your shoots?

A: My creative process is dual in nature (just like me as a Gemini). There are shoots I conceptualize through mood boarding and coming up with briefs that detail the intent, participants, location planning, etc. However, for the most part, the process I enjoy most is allowing things to flow. Photography is the most fun to me when it feels like creative play; I thrive off the uncertainty of what the results of the shoot may be. Going through the photos after is like unwrapping a gift, you never know what you’re going to get, so it’s usually a pleasant surprise.

Q: You have previously participated in “I am: Woman: 500px Commercial Grant”, capturing content that focused on real women, their lives, and their connection and impacts on their communities. Why do you feel this is important?

A: For far too long, in media, there hasn’t been enough representation of diversity and the many forms of womanhood. Personally, this Commercial Grant was an incredible opportunity for me to connect with, and celebrate, women in my community. It was an honor to play a part, however small, in redefining how women are portrayed in commercial photography.

Q: Could you describe what you are looking for or feeling right before you hit the shutter?

A: The feeling is akin to nostalgia. A longing for an event, person, or period in my life that I have experienced before. When this feeling arises, then I know the time is right.

Q: Commercial photography and Licensing are always changing and evolving to reflect the concerns, needs, and values of the times. What is one way you would like to see the industry change in the future?

A: I would like for the industry to allow for artists to have more in the way of artistic freedom. Commercial photography typically has a set standard of how something should be shot or portrayed, and in a world with an ever-growing amount of accessible content, it produces a lot of similar work, that can strip part of the artist’s identity away from their creation.

Building stronger relationships between the commercial sector and artists is a win-win, as a company can separate its media and content further from its competitors, while the artist has a greater opportunity to fully realize their vision.

Q: Your photography has a great sense of realness—the models, their relationships to one another, and their actions always feel genuine. What are your three tips for directing and capturing this kind of authenticity?

A: That’s such a great compliment, thank you!

I’d say you can’t really expect your subjects to show up authentically if you don’t create a safe space for them to do so, so the biggest tip is that you really have to engage! Get to actually know the person you’re shooting. Are they more introverted or extroverted? Are they fluid and comfortable in their body movements, or do they need a bit more of a push with directions? How are they feeling today? What is something that you can both share a connection through? It starts to feel less like work and more like engaging with a friend, which leaves room for sincerity.

The second biggest tip sort of contradicts the first, but know when to disengage! Sometimes we interrupt and get in the way of people having their moments because we impose our ideas or even conversation on them. There are always instances with my subjects where I remove myself and just become the silent observer. They enter this space that’s so very much them, and I feel rude getting in the way of that, so I just shoot.

And third, I like to be honest and transparent with the models I shoot, and share real parts about myself that they can also connect to. If I’m feeling particularly shy on the day of the shoot, I let them know that I’m actually nervous! Most often, they are too. So, it’s a great way to build a bridge and sharing honest moments.

Q: What is a photo from your 500px Profile that you’re particularly proud of and why?

A: This is a tough question to respond to as I’m equally proud of and attached to most of the photos on my 500px Profile. Most of them are very intimate and candid moments shared with people I’m really close to, so there’s an emotional attachment to these memories too. For the purpose of this question though, I’ll say “Child’s Play”.

I love the depth of field and the colors of this image, there is such a warmth and comfort to it. I’m also attached to its backstory, because it came about through the celebration of a realization I’d had! Adults, too often, get mad at children for getting dirty and making messes while they’re feeding their curiosity. I got to witness the son of friends, who are dear to my heart, grow up for the first two years of his life as we lived together. In the moments prior to this photo being taken, I was in conversation with his mother, Dia, who was cooking whilst she let him play around with a banana on the cutting board. I watched in awe as he studied this fruit with curiosity, and I really admired the mess he made of it. I saw him respond to the texture, the taste, the smell, the shape, and I longed to be able to experience the joy in discovering something new and to acknowledge this feeling, I decided to immortalize it.

There are a lot of technical errors I could point out, but to me, the imperfections and messiness of the technical aspects reflect the beauty I found in the moment.

Q: Do you have any projects on the horizon you would like to tell us about?

A: Well, I’ve just recently participated in an exhibit called “Storytellers”, alongside artists Maura Tamez and Ashleigh Giffen, which was showing from February 12 to April 11 at the Kelowna Art Gallery, organized by ARTSCO. It aims to highlight some of the different narratives that exist within the artistic community of the Okanagan. You can find more on this exhibit in this link: https://artsco.ca/storytellers/

I’m currently in the middle of a transition that hasn’t given me much room to continue working on the creative projects I had started a few months ago. One of these projects, “What Does it Mean to be Me”, is an exploration of authenticity, and a celebration of the various and intricate forms of expressions of individuality and identity by Black people. I’m anxious to finish up the work and to be able to share it with the world.

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