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by Alice Oliver

Ameena Rojee is a portrait and documentary photographer who enjoys telling stories about adventure, the outdoors, and
our relationship with the natural world. Ameena is also the editor of Black River and the newsletter 
‘For the girls who go alone'.

AO: Could you tell us a little bit about your early life, where did you grow up and how did that environment shape you and subsequently your practice?

AR: I was born and grew up in south London. My parents are from opposite sides of the world, from Spain and Mauritius respectively, so I grew up experiencing three very different cultures, foods, environments, landscapes, beliefs. It was interesting to grow up like this, though of course, I didn’t truly appreciate it until I was much, much older.


For a long time, I didn’t realise how much these parts of my childhood and youth shaped me and my practice, and it was only recently in the past few years that I realised and understood that it was growing up in such a mixed and diverse family that has me with a deep-seated need to seek and understand new places, people, and cultures as their fullest – and I hope that doesn’t sound like a massive “travel” cliché.


The truth is that with family from at least two of the four corners of the earth – and we’d come to discover more family in another corner, Cuba, during my teenage years – the rest of the world never felt that far away. As I got older and started to genuinely appreciate my ancestral homes, I wanted to find out more, explore more, and was often on the move, regularly flying somewhere new.


It’s with guilt that I write that because the climate emergency is no joke, but I can’t deny that I enjoy being in a plane; it’s the feeling of being weightless, up in the sky with the clouds and the stars and the sun, literally flying. If only our movements weren’t so destructive, because getting to experience this world so wholly is only a good thing.


AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? Where did you study and what were some elemental moments in your photographic education that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?


AR: I had a bit of a strange journey to becoming a photographer. I was always the creative child in a fairly non-creative family and I loved to read; I thought I’d become a writer. That turned into wanting to illustrate scenes from the books I loved, and I got into drawing and painting. Then, and I’m not sure I really remember how anymore, I became interested in cameras and photography.


My brother gave me a small digital camera when I turned fourteen and I started to go outside and just take photos of anything and everything; you know, the classic Dewdrops-On-Pretty-Flower type of photography. 


At the same time, I started to go to these local rock gigs with friends. I brought my camera along one day and started photographing the bands. The photographs were awful at first but soon enough I started to understand how things worked – lighting, composition, photographing fast movement in low-light, etc.


Eventually, the company putting on the concerts became interested and I started photographing the gigs for them, and I did that for a couple of years. That’s how it all began for me, and years later I went on to study photography at degree level at UWE in Bristol. It was an influential time. It wasn’t so much the degree itself as much as the chance to discover who I was, the experience of living independently, forming a strong friendship group that still exists today, and crucially, stepping outside of my comfort zone and experiencing so many new things. It was momentous and I really miss that time.


As for the study itself, sometimes I feel that I went to university a bit early. I didn’t have the motivation or true understanding of myself that I do now to be able to make the most of my time there. While the work I did wasn’t bad, and I wasn’t a complete loss of a student, I didn’t even start to “get it” until my final year.


We were able to choose our own assignments for our big end of year project and I chose to pursue something I was completely, selfishly interested in – not something I thought I should pursue, or something I thought others would like. Finally in those final few months of my degree, I found myself completely motivated and engaged, and started to understand then what it was I was trying to do.


AO: Can you tell us a bit more about what you are currently working on?

AR: At the moment, I’m in an in-between time. I’ve just finished working on a huge project I photographed in 2019 which has taken me until now to work through, edit and sequence, and figure out what it was all about, and I’m waiting for the right moment to launch it. 


Aside from that, I’m slowly working on a few different projects: I have something big coming next year which I can’t talk about yet but am very excited about. I’m working on Issue 02 of Black River. I’ve also just launched ‘For the girls who go alone’, a newsletter about women walking and adventuring solo.


AO: What are some of the themes or starting points for your work? 

AR: These always tend to happen quite naturally. I don’t knowingly pursue any particular themes or have a solid starting point. I tend to work with stories that I’m interested in personally and the “themes” have emerged after years of doing it this way.


It’s interesting to look retrospectively at my work and see what it is that has emerged, how that’s developed over time, how my approach has developed over time, and how my interests and I change. It’s a continual process that never ends.


At the moment, what I’m interested in is a mix of the outdoors, adventure, women in these spaces, community, and culture.


AO: How does your surrounding landscape influence your work and how do your feelings towards the natural world affect your photographic practice?

AR: I never realised exactly how much my surrounding landscape influences my work until recently, to be honest, but it does greatly. I grew up and still live on the edge of London, in Croydon, a strange place that’s very urban but also very green with an infamous reputation.


I often find myself daydreaming of being somewhere different, looking at where I am now and only seeing what’s lacking; no towering mountains, no unending forests, no wildness.


It’s a negative mindset though, and not completely true. I have to shake it off every so often, especially at the moment after so much time “stuck” in Croydon. Having had the chance to be still has let me look properly at where I live and find the beautiful moments, which I actually ended up putting together in a project that was later published as a zine ‘A love letter to Croydon’.


At the same time, I thrive on being outdoors in wild places and I dream of the day I can look out of my window and see big skies and the calling mountains. I think that’s very much reflected in my work because much of the time, it’s the landscape that influences the choices I make on what stories I want to tell.


AO: As I understand, quite a lot of your work comes out of your wandering journeys. How did the pandemic and lockdowns affect your photographic practice, were you still able to roam as freely as before?

AR: Not in the slightest, but there were some good things that came out of that.


I had a bad habit of wanting to escape home and find more “exciting” places to be. If I’m honest, I still do sometimes. Any “roaming” as I had understood it previously ended with the lockdown, but like many, I found that I could still roam and wander and find exciting places and moments within the one mile radius of where I live.


I walked to places which I’ve driven by a hundred times, non-places that existed in my mind as “yeah that place near home” but only experienced on foot for the first time in 2020 even though I’ve lived here for three decades now. It was a good exercise in appreciating what’s been here all along, as well as learning to be more still.


AO: You are also a writer and the founder of the photographic journal Black River; how does storytelling and writing play into your own photographic practice? 

AR: The telling of others’ stories has been formative for my own practice. I find that even just looking at other people’s work is crucial; for a couple of years after graduation, I hardly worked on any of my own photography but my job required me to look through numerous portfolios and photography almost on a daily basis. After I left the job, I found that my tastes and what I thought I had enjoyed in photography had completely changed without me ever realising.


Writing is also a huge part of my practice, more so now that my business is all writing and not photography anymore after I had to swerve during the first year of the pandemic.


I’ve always heard the fact that if you need words to go along with your photography, then it’s not good photography. I don’t find that to be true at all, and I don’t mean in terms of photojournalism and documentary-based work where context is vital. For me, imagery and words are not mutually exclusive, and I love to explore the different ways of putting them together.


AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photobooks and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?

AR: The simple answer is I don’t know! I’m still too early in my career to have figured that out, and honestly, I don’t think I’d ever want to box myself in. Photobooks, publications, exhibitions… They have different purposes and different results. I like to work in many different ways and I like to have all options available to me. I don’t think I’ll ever get to a point where I’d say, yes, only exhibitions for me.