Creative Lives — Life through the lens of director, photographer and art director, Filmawi
London-based director, photographer and art director Filmawi’s love of photography started early, when his mum gave him a few Kodak disposable cameras to photograph with. Moving to London from Eritrea aged 11, Filmawi continued to shoot – and he hasn’t stoped since. Today, his portfolio is filled with work for the likes of Adidas and Dr. Martens, and recently he even directed the visuals for Post Malone’s world tour. Though he regards all his projects as lucky breaks, they are also testament to the undeniable power of network; “They came just from meeting and connecting with people,” he tells us. Here, Filmawi shares the inner-workings of his practice, as well as his hopes for the future of the industry.
Director, Photographer and Art Director
Adidas, Puma, Dr. Martens, Napapijri, Gaffer Magazine, Wave Magazine
Creative Art Director, AMV BBDO (2016–2018)
BA Digital Film Production, Ravensbourne University (2012–2015)
Filmawi; photograph taken by loungeinfilm
How would you describe what you do?
I use my lens to express and communicate with others.
How are you right now, and do you feel this period has changed the way you work?
At the start of lockdown, part of me was actually happy, as I have been wanting to work on my short film scripts. Lockdown gave me time to focus on my personal stuff, but there are days when I do miss being on set, creating and connecting.
Then recently, with the death of George Floyd, as a Black man it’s been an emotional few days, so I’ve been just protecting my energy as much as I can and focusing more than ever to fulfil the plans I have for my Black community.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
If I’m working on a brief, I’m usually in my room or a coffee shop somewhere in East; I like to pick at random on the day to just experience a new space. When I’m shooting, it’s either on location or set with my crew – this is my second home, even tho I would prefer it to be my first. I’m also often jumping from meeting to meeting. I try to do face-to-face as much as I can, rather than phone calls – the human connection is very important to me, but for now will have to do with Zoom!
Is there is anything that is particularly inspiring or helping you at this time?
I have been getting into meditation a lot more, I use the Waking Up app by Sam Harris. I think it’s important to not always look out, but to look within.
What has been your favourite project of the past twelve months?
There are two, the first one was directing the visuals for Post Malone’s world tour. It was a collaboration with my boy Lewis, who’s a talented stage designer and my third eye Joel [Honeywell] who was the DOP. I was also able to join them on road, so it was crazy seeing the visuals play out on the large screens and watching people react to them.
The second project was shooting Krept & Konan’s album cover which I think was over a month worth of process collaborating again with Mauro (creative director), Aidan (art director), Zee (set designer) and James (stylist), who are all super talented. A lot of love and hard work went into bringing the cover to life – I owe so much to my amazing crew, too.
Krept & Konan album cover, 2019
Visuals for the Post Malone World Tour
How has your work evolved over the years?
As the scale of my projects grew, more people began to trust me with handling bigger budget projects, which allowed me to show what I’m capable of. On top of that, I’m always challenging the stereotypes of how Black people, specifically Black men are seen in the media. Through my lens I’m able to show who we truly are and not how the world sees us to be. At the end of the day we are humans and it’s an exciting time to also see the growth of Black creatives who are constantly pushing the boundaries, it’s time we controlled our own narrative.
“I’m always challenging the stereotypes of how Black people, specifically Black men are seen in the media.”
Are there any resources that have been useful to your work or career?
I highly recommend the Joe Rogan podcast; it’s really insightful. You can also watch the video recorded version on YouTube; he brings on a wide array of guests from Neil deGrasse Tyson who talks about quantum physics, and Tim Kennedy who’s working on a documentary about finding Hitler (yup, apparently Hitler escaped to Argentina) to Elon Musk who talks about developing artificial intelligence.
It’s important to always take in a variety of things – memory is the source of your creation so unless you have a rich reserve, it’s hard to create anything. I’d also recommend two books, Tao of Wu by RZA, which will challenge your thoughts – I see it as my bible – and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho which I think every human should read.
Stormzy X Adidas, 2019
DaBaby for Wave Magazine
Jay Prince, Wonder EP, 2019
How I Got Here
Did you go to university? If so, do you feel you need formal education for what you do?
I did, and it was great. It gave me the space to experiment and explore, but also fail and learn from my mistakes. I would recommend it if you want it – just use the space and time to find your voice.
Did your upbringing influence your career in any way?
I was born in Eritrea and it was actually my mum that got me into photography when I was six or seven. Every few months she would buy some Kodak disposable cameras and I would grab one from the bag and take it everywhere with me. I’d take pictures of friends, family, just anything I found interesting. Then I came to London when I was 11, continued to shoot and I haven’t stoped since.
“All my projects have been lucky breaks; they came from just meeting and connecting with people.”
What was your journey like when you first started out?
I started reaching out to magazines and offering to shoot for up-and-coming clothing brands while I was in my first year of uni, which allowed me to build a client list and also have a professional portfolio that wasn’t just university shoots. That opened doors to record labels, who reached out to me to shoot their artist press shots. Later, that evolved to album cover shoots and music videos.
By the time I graduated I had built a decent body of work that I could approach agents with. It’s even easier now with the power of Instagram – you can reach out to anyone so don’t wait till you graduate to begin your journey.
How did you begin to tell stories through the medium of film and photography?
When I came to this country my English wasn’t so great so I used the only thing I knew, photography, to tell the stories I was failing to put into words. That later evolved into films which was just another creative outlet that allowed me to live in those moments for longer.
Work for Napapijri, 2019
Jesse Fromse, 2018
Portraits by Filmawi
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break? Or has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
I think all my projects, from small to big, have been lucky breaks; they came from just meeting and connecting with people. I also highly recommend looking into production companies or some sort of representation; my voice and style developed as a result of having a company like Compulsory take me in, support and challenge me.
It’s also a bonus when you have genuine people in the industry support you. Dan Sanders at Virgin EMI Records gave me opportunities like the Krept & Konan cover, but ultimately, collaborating with all my crew who helped me achieve what I have done so far has hugely impacted my development – my love and appreciation goes out to them.
What’s been your biggest challenge in navigating the industry, if any?
I think just being Black in this industry is tough, especially when people think you’ll only be good for certain projects and not others – basically just trying to pigeonhole you into shooting ‘urban’ stuff, I hate the sound of that word. The industry does still have a long way to go, so I hope more people of colour and women are given the opportunity to show their voices through their lens.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work, or use their skills to tell powerful stories?
What comes from the heart touches the heart. Learn to be vulnerable; it’s the birth place of creativity. It will allow you to create honest work that will connect with people for long periods of time, more so than what’s trending to cool at the time.
Also don’t be afraid to fail – a life lived in fear is a life half-lived. Don’t ever stop moving; travel abroad if you can – even to areas you’ve never been to before. Don’t be afraid to talk to new people. Connection is what gives us purpose and life.
In light of what’s happening at the moment, do you have any thoughts on how artists can work together or use their skills to create change or impact?
Don’t be afraid to reach out to one another and say, ‘Yo let’s make some shit’ or ask for advice. We should all be sharing knowledge and lifting each other up, especially in these difficult times, so continue to stay safe and stay creative!