Creative Lives — Mahaneela: “The idea of being good at one thing is redundant now”
Asked if she could do her job forever, multitalented London-based creative Mahaneela responds with an affirmative, “Hell yeah”. This self-assurance hasn’t necessarily come from settling on that one perfect job, but instead the satisfaction of juggling a number of pursuits. Taking the idea of wearing different creative hats to a new level, she switches seamlessly between directing, shooting and writing to working as a creative consultant and also as a DJ. Part of creative agency In Bloom, she has made content for the likes of Converse, Schuh and Nike, and pointed her camera at musicians including Sampha and FKA Twigs. Most recently, she co-directed Everything is Recorded, a 30-minute documentary about the Mercury Prize. Here, she recounts her creative path – from dropping out of a philosophy degree to starting online magazine COZY Mag in 2014, and shares her future aspirations.
Freelance Photographer, Director, Manager to Denai Moore, Founder of COZY
Converse, XL Recordings, iD Magazine, ELLE Magazine, Gal-Dem, Adidas, Because Music, Interscope Records
Head of Communications and Curation, XL Recordings and Young Turks (2016–2018)
Heythrop University, University of London (Dropped out before the end of the course)
Mahaneela, photography by Krystal Neuvill
How would you describe what you do?
Well, I wear many hats. First and foremost, I’m an image maker. It’s how I express myself, in both moving and still images. Beyond that, I’m a creative thinker and I work directly with artists and brands in this way to do many things – from photographing album and magazine covers, to directing music videos, curating social media, strategising and building visual platforms, organising events, that kind of thing.
Regardless of age, everyone has the capacity to be multifaceted and multitalented. I just think that my generation has the tools and the knowledge now to actually craft careers that allow them to excel in the various skillsets they have. The whole idea that you have to be good at just one thing or being a “jack of all trades, master of none” is redundant now. It’s a post-social media world, where creativity is currency and the notion that you can’t build a career doing what you actually like to do has been turned on its head.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I travel a lot for work, but if I’m in London I usually work from home or from an office I share in London Fields. It’s a great creative space where people are working on different projects. Me and Sadé have a COZY desk.
“My generation have the tools and knowledge to craft careers that allow them to excel in various skillsets.”
Could you tell us about In Bloom and Cozy, and how being a part of a collective has impacted your work and path?
I am one eighth of In Bloom, a creative agency founded by eight women. We work on commercial projects for brands such as Adidas, Converse and Nike to name a few, and the team is made up of photographers, visual artists, stylists and directors. In Bloom started as a friendship; we’re all creative and were developing our crafts at the beginning. We formed a collective, using our skillsets to help each other, whether it was planning an exhibition, doing a photoshoot, creating a video or styling.
“It’s important for black women to be in creative positions. By pooling our talents we can have a real effect and maintain creative control when working with brands.”
We feel it’s important for women, especially black women, to be in creative positions, and we’ve found that by pooling our talents we were able to have a real effect and creative control when working with brands. I feel that’s important because you so often see young people get the short end of the stick when it comes to these things. So many brands profit from our cultural expertise and the creatives suffer. We’ve been able to create content in partnership with these big companies, which has been great.
I also run COZY, which started as an online magazine and event series, but now myself and my best friend Sadé have branched this out to include creative consultancy, management and production too. We both DJ and throw parties as we travel, which has introduced us to a lot of dope artists who we’ve gone on to work with and help develop.
Work for Schuh as part of In Bloom
Work for Schuh as part of In Bloom
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your work?
The most enjoyable is the fact that I’m doing something different every day. I’m constantly flexing my creative brain. I guess the least enjoyable is the lack of security – although, since going freelance, I’d say I’ve done pretty well to secure work for myself. But that’s always going to be a worry I think.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The music video I shot a couple months ago for Amber Mark & D.R.A.M! It was incredible. Either that or the documentary I just shot called Everything Is Recorded.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I use my iPad mini when I’m on set to refer back to treatments, and my little Macbook goes with me everywhere! I also do a lot of work on my phone: emails, writing documents and so on. I also always have a notepad on me. Beyond that, I pretty much live on Photoshop and InDesign.
Cover shoot for Gal-Dem magazine with Raveena, 2018
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
The Prime Minister or an author.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
My grandfather was a wildlife photographer and painter, so just knowing that was a viable career definitely was a privilege, especially coming from an Indian family where, stereotypically, that wouldn’t necessarily be approved of.
How useful have your studies been in your career?
My time at university was extremely useful simply because I studied philosophy, which I also did at sixth form. Philosophy is a great subject because it challenges the way you think and makes you question things. I didn’t actually end up finishing uni because I decided I wanted to pursue a more creative path, but the things I learnt in philosophy definitely have helped me in being creative.
Beyond that, getting to meet new people was a great experience. As I studied in London, there were many international students. It’s not for everyone though, and technically, everything I do for work is what I’ve taught myself or learnt in the work place. I worked during my entire education, from the age of 13 onwards, so I think I also picked up a lot from that.
Mahaneela on set
What were your first steps when starting out?
Like I said, I hustled all the way through my schooling, so by the time I quit university, I was the supervisor of a concession in Harrods. I did work experience at a creative studio and then eventually got an apprenticeship at an ad agency doing ‘social media for business’, and after that, I moved to another agency and became head of communications. From there, I moved to XL Recordings.
Throughout all of this, I hustled. I started an online magazine in 2014 called COZY Mag and built various connections across the creative scene from there. For a long time, I photographed and wrote everything in the magazine, but eventually it grew and I built a creative network from it. My work with COZY definitely helped me get the job at XL.
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I guess a lucky break would have been getting the job at XL. I applied for a press role (even though I didn’t really know much about press) because I was just so keen to work there. I didn’t get the job, but I made an impression – a few months later they hit me up and said they wanted to create a role for me at the label based on my skillset. I feel like that was incredibly lucky, as XL at the time was a really mysterious company and it wasn’t easy to get in there.
“Creativity can be seen as a commodity within the industry, and when dealing with executives or clients it’s so important to protect yourself.”
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
I’d say dealing with people is the biggest challenge I’ve had to deal with so far. It’s easy to be naïve in this industry and think everyone is coming from a well-intentioned place. But I’ve definitely had to fight for myself as a director and photographer. Creativity can be seen as a commodity within the industry, and when dealing with executives or clients it’s so important to protect yourself. I’ve learnt that the hard way!
Is your job what you thought it would be?
What would you like to do next?
Continue travelling the world, creating beautiful work that inspires people and representing black and brown people all over the world.
Could you do your job forever?
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Keep hustling. Always have more than one thing on the go, know your worth and don’t be afraid to fight your own corner!
Only do what you love if you can help it. Loving what I do makes me get up in the morning. My passion is what drives me, whether creating videos, films and coming up with creative ideas that help people’s music get out into the world. If I wasn’t passionate about it, I wouldn’t be able to manage doing so many things.