Meet Araba Ankuma—Strictly Funk dancer and director, esteemed photographer, GQ Magazine intern, trendsetter.
Araba entered the room scooter–first. It was electric blue, and she was wheeling it beside her. It leaned against a banister while she talked. She had just gotten off the phone with her boss at GQ Magazine.
“My friends—my two best friends and I—started the scooter trend,” she said. “In our sophomore year. No offense to anybody else, but we really did.”
Other trends Araba may start: wearing two watches (one on either side of her wrist) and having her own interns (two).
But then again, Araba needs two watches, interns and a scooter because she has to be efficient. The College senior balances working part–time at GQ as a production assistant, photographing Penn performing arts shows and a handful of other extracurriculars with her visual studies course load.
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At the center of Araba’s photographs is empathy. She uses the visual composition of her images to tease out unspoken stories. For Araba, good photography is more than a technically artistic image. It requires the savvy to uncover previously untold perspectives and the vision to tell those stories. Leave cityscapes, animals and nature shots to other photographers—her medium of storytelling is people. She is most comfortable shooting portraits.
“For me, understanding a human being starts with, ‘How do I get them to pull out what I know I can see in them, but maybe other people can’t—how do I pull that out?’” Araba explained. “So I have a conversation.”
Even though she is masterful at spinning other people’s narratives now, Araba has not always felt that she had a cohesive narrative about herself. As a child of immigrant parents, who moved from Ghana to Virginia in 1992, she has had to reconcile the many disparate communities to which she belongs.
“I used to think I was untethered,” Araba recalled, “because of my identity as a black woman growing up in the United States whose parents came straight from Ghana, who was raised as a Ghanaian but doesn’t speak the language, raised in an all–white K through high school. I used to think I didn’t have an identity, but my identity is my ability to jump around.”
Self–discovery is a theme that is also recurrent in her photography, which especially examines black identity. For instance, her project “Locs” is a documentation of dreadlocks and a celebration of natural black hair.
“I pride myself on my adaptability, on my ability to be a chameleon in a lot of different spaces,” Araba said. “My skin is almost like the container for who I am—it never changes.”
Moving between various spaces has not changed her identity, but honed it. From Ghanaian and American spaces, black and white spaces, on the stage as a dancer and director in Strictly Funk or off–stage as a performing arts photographer, the constant is herself: Araba.
“I can be me in so many different spaces,” she said.
However, the story of Araba is not the one she documents with her camera. She enables other people to express themselves by giving them a space to be vulnerable. She must create this space with each subject for the shot. Araba is good at this because she is a natural extrovert and she—in her own words—loves people. For instance, this past summer Araba shot a portrait series in Chicago of black men and boys. She stopped passerby on the street and asked each subject the question, “What is your biggest fear?”
Most people couldn’t unflinchingly ask strangers probing questions. But the result of her boldness and their candor is the series called “Chi Boys.” In the project description on Araba’s website, she says that the project explores “what the black man is running from,” so that “we may better understand what they are running towards.”
Araba runs towards vulnerability, even if it means making her subjects step outside of their comfort zones. For her senior thesis, her subjects strip off their clothes and then she asks them four questions: what is the part of your body that you value the most? What’s the first thing that people say they notice about you? Has that part of your body ever influenced the opportunities you’ve been afforded? And finally: do you believe that humans, as they were physically constructed, were done so equally?
Then she photographs them nude. The project, called “Send Nudes,” explores the perception and privilege of physicality.
When she finishes her thesis, Araba will graduate and begin working full–time at GQ in New York as an editorial assistant, handling both administrative and creative tasks on the GQ website. The position is a step up from her current job at GQ, as a production assistant for the photographs on their website. This is the next step on her path, which she is always paving, as she prefers to do far in advance. Araba is always looking toward the next thing. She likes to plan things out. She likes order and prefers to be at Inbox (0).
Further down the line, her plan is to be a documentary and editorial photographer, shooting in different environments and for brands, respectively. Ideally, she’ll realize half of this dream at GQ, advancing up the ladder to product shoots. Araba already has experience with commissioned photography for brands like RushCard VISA.
Her plans don’t always chart their expected courses. Araba expected to become a doctor; she was pre–med for almost two years at Penn. Even though she was still majoring in Visual Studies, she was fulfilling the pre–med requirements to apply to medical school. In the middle of her second semester of her sophomore year, she realized she was more passionate about art, and subsequently dropped the pre–med track. Araba identifies this time—this deviation from her then–current plan—as her most difficult time at Penn.
“I had had this whole idea of what my life was going to look like, and suddenly it wasn’t there anymore,” she said. “It was black. It was like walking into midnight.”
From the darkness, Araba sketched a new plan for herself, one in the artistic world. This switch represents not only a change in her course of study, but the affirmation of a life ethos—nothing worth doing should be done halfway. When GQ told her that she couldn’t take time off to work on other documentary projects—she doubled down at GQ. When she wasn’t happy with the students who were assigned to photograph for her when she worked at Penn Student Agencies—she branched out by herself and took her own interns.
Currently, Araba has two interns, students she mentors in photography so they can fill her role as a performing arts photographer when she graduates in May. They work for her eponymous photography business, taking jobs that Araba can’t fit into her schedule, and learning under her guidance.
“I realized that all the work I was doing junior year—that was when I was most busy—and doing almost everything for Penn, I realized that when I leave there would be a giant vacuum,” Araba explained. “A lot of people would not have a photographer.”
There aren’t many photographers at Penn who can photograph performing arts groups. There also aren’t many students at Penn who leave a vacuum behind them when they graduate. But this is characteristic of Araba, what she does in places. She carves out a space for herself, so even when she leaves, you notice the absence.
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