All photos by Sierra Nallo

Sierra Nallo travels the world to connect with strangers

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By Sarah Krichel

Sierra Nallo steps into a neighborhood in Accra, Ghana with her camera strapped around her neck. She’s alone, but she prefers it that way. Nearby, Nallo sees a stranger, and a story (as she does with most of her subjects). She smiles and instinctively grips her camera, hoping they’ll allow her to take a step into their life. Holding the camera to her face with her finger on the shutter, Nallo takes the photo and adds it to her repertoire of Ghana photography.

The former Ryerson student only lasted one day in the graphic communication program. She switched into sociology, but the program didn’t fully satisfy her interest in studying human nature.

Nallo was born in Victoria, B.C. and attended Ryerson from 2008 to 2010. Following university, she left Canada for Sierra Leone to be more in touch with her heritage. Nallo found herself teaching English to children—the same children that ended up being the subjects of her favourite photo. In the midst of the group is a young girl looking directly into the lens. It was this sepia-toned shot that would make Nallo realize that photography can have its own language.

“There’s just something about the look in her eyes that’s way more mature, beyond her time,” Nallo said.

Children provide the “reality” that Nallo tries to convey in her photography—organic facial expressions that are uncommon when shooting adults of the West who, according to Nallo, are usually too concerned about camera angles and poses.

When Nallo photographs, she doesn’t strive for perfection. She takes the time to connect with her subjects on a human level. “The camera just acts as a secondary element to our dialogue,” she said. Capturing a photo becomes a personal experience for both of them. It’s real.“I don’t use a lot of Photoshop on my images. Whatever it looked like photographed is very similar to what [I’ve] seen,” she said.

Nallo is no stranger to photographing celebrities, either. She has shot famous faces ranging from Winnie Harlow, a model with vitiligo (a skin condition where white patches appear on different parts of the body), to R&B artist Frank Ocean and American director Spike Lee. But she sometimes faces the decision of putting her subject in front of her career.

A friend of Nallo’s was working on Ocean’s album “Blonde” this year and Nallo got an invitation to a studio in California to take some photos of the artist. Her intimate portraits seemed too intrusive to his private and reserved disposition, so she decided to keep them to herself. “I felt like he was a very quiet and mysterious person—by posting those images it would be kind of disrespectful to him and his image.”

Nallo often sits in the living room of her host’s apartment in Ghana, flipping through some of her favourite photography publications, including National Geographic, Magnum Photos and LIFE magazine. She remembers that, despite her freelance commercial photography, she loves shooting the community in Ghana. Someday, she wants to focus on ethnography and photographing Indigenous people.

Ethnography is the telling of a story through the eyes of another culture. But Nallo believes to do this, she must step out of her portrait-oriented comfort zone by separating herself from the human face a little more than she’s used to.

“You kind of have to look at the different pockets of an image—notice that there’s a car driving by, and there’s a family having an argument on the other side,” Nallo said.

Over the next 10 years, she wants to give back to her African heritage by facilitating a change for those who need it.

“I feel like I’m indebted to do something,” she said.

Nallo’s itch to not stay in one place for more than five or six years keeps her moving forward. After growing restless in Toronto, she went back to Ghana and felt like she was ready to make a greater impact.

Her love for solitude is something she tries not to over-embrace, because she doesn’t want to miss the opportunity of networking. But she is still looking forward to finding those “snapshots of real life” in Ghana while she can.

“I haven’t been alone very much here, so I am looking forward to just getting out there and doing my normal thing, where it’s just me, my camera and the city that I’m in.”

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