Un-covered: Ouni on Documenting the Realness of Hip-Hop

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A self-proclaimed non-journalist, non-photographer, and non-groupie; Ouni, creator of A Polaroid Story (APS), began her project way back in 2009, determined to shoot the perfect candid of N.E.R.D’s very own Pharrell Williams as a birthday gift to herself. APS follows the 5-year (and counting) journey of her hunt for the ultimate Polaroid shot of other A-list artists.

Ouni eagerly answered my questions in a raw, unedited manner, showing just how hard she hustles for her work to be given the credit it deserves.  Her mantra for the project is No Balls, No Glory, a recurring theme in her posts as she struggles with hardcore fans (read: groupies), bodyguards, and – sometimes – unwilling artists.

She shares with us some of the adventure and opportunities she’s come across in the years she’s been working on this project and what exactly is in store for her next.

I read that you decided to start the A Polaroid Story project while hanging backstage at a N.E.R.D concert – what exactly made you think of the concept? Was it simply a spur-of-the-moment idea?

I decided to go for A Polaroid Story after my experiences with N.E.R.D and shortly after The Roots. I was aiming for a Snoop Dogg Polaroid and decided to contact a magazine editor and ask for tickets to his concert. I didn’t know anything about the music industry, media partnerships, etc., so the editor obviously couldn’t help me. However, he did enjoy my very entertaining mail and advised me to write my adventures down. Shortly after, I started a WordPress blog and that was the beginning of APS.

Pharrell Williams
Pharrell Williams

You write sometimes of artists that you are unable to snap photos of, whether because they refuse or the timing is just all wrong. Because of this, your posts are (understandably) not the most consistent. How big of an obstacle is this for you? What are the ups and downs you often face?

I’m not a copy-paste content blog. I don’t communicate about fresh news, new music releases, or gossip. I think I can say my content is original, created from scratch, and it’s a mix of storytelling with Polaroid’s, pictures and additional video documents.  I do this on my own, living in Belgium with a small team of volunteers, and little to no help from industry people or labels. So needless to say, this blog is all slow growth. I can’t force events, tour dates or the will of artists to tour. I have a job, so I can’t do this full-time, nor can I always afford to do every concert that I want to.

This is a project that got out of hand because of my love for music. Whenever I had the chance to portray somebody, I went out and tried. With time, things got a bit easier, but things are still not as easy as you might expect. My last story with Pharrell Williams proves that. The biggest challenge so far is letting the blog grow on a professional base and getting revenue out of it that I can use to invest back into APS to let it grow. I’m not that bothered with not being able to write a story every day or every week. As long as the story that is published is real, that’s all that matters. APS is not a click bait blog. I don’t use teasing titles. Nobody is waiting for my stories but the true fans of those specific artists and my loyal readers – and I have peace with that. The continuity has been shown over a time span of 5 years and hundreds of Polaroid’s. My body of work is what counts in the end.

Every opportunity is something that I actively worked or chased on. Nothing comes for free or on a platter.

You’ve taken Polaroid’s of huge A-list hip-hop celebrities (T.I., Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, etc). How do you feel when you get those opportunities? Who are you just dying to snap a photo of?

Every opportunity is something that I actively worked or chased on. Nothing comes for free or on a platter. Even if there is label support, nothing is sure yet and you can’t predict the outcome of the interview or meeting. One minute they say you’ll have 10 minutes, the next you get 3. Every opportunity is taken with big focus and certain visualization, and then it’s up to faith to decide what and how things will happen. With every new Polaroid, I feel blessed that it happened because as you can imagine, these moments with artists from that level giving you a bit of their time and trust (especially when I do video documentation) are very rare.

T.I.
T.I.

I have many, many people still on my list to portray on Polaroid. The usual suspects, like Kanye West and Drake, would be really dope. But I also would like to portray more women, like Sade, Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim, Faith Evans, Foxy Brown, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, etc. And then there are the classics, like Stevie Wonder or Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata, Melly Mel…

Still so much work to do…

How do you gather up the courage to continue with this project? A sense of shamelessness is needed to boldly ask for their photos – how do you ensure that your pride/embarrassment doesn’t get in the way and that you get all of the information that you need for your stories/videos?

It’s something I learned along the way. Pride doesn’t bring you far anyway, but it’s a bit in my nature, so I try to put it aside. The real me would probably leave the artists alone. For this project, I need to set my pride away and hustle. “Fanning out” is also important. Being a true fan is dope, but you need to “fan out” in order to do your work and get what you want out of a 5 minute meeting. You need to be very focused to get both the Polaroid, an interview, or have permission to document on video.

“Fanning out” is also important. Being a true fan is dope, but you need to “fan out” in order to do your work and get what you want out of a 5 minute meeting.

Thing is, I think the artists quickly know I’m very chill and I’m about documenting realness. I’m not looking for gimmicky stuff. I just want things as they are at that moment. So I try to stay focused on that and just be myself. Sometimes it works very well, other times a bit less, but that is how the story goes. I also learned that artists are not necessarily offended if you show that you know what you want in a picture. Some like to be directed. I just had to learn to dare and direct. Wiz specifically asked me: “What’s your vision?” I told him what I was aiming for and he gave it to me. Then again, Wiz is a very open and free soul, not every artist is like Wiz.

Wiz Khalifa
Wiz Khalifa

Your greatest achievement with APS so far? What might be next for you?

I have a few achievements I’m happy about. Portraying artists like D’Angelo and Gil Scott Heron is something I’m very proud of. The current is important, but the classics are just as important. I’m happy I managed to relaunch apolaroidstory.com with APS’s 5th birthday this past summer.

And last but not least, I always wanted to do more videos, and since TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment) gave me the chance to document Kendrick on video, I only grew from that moment on.  With every video I release, you can see and feel the growth. It’s not the story; it will never be the story. A video is always an edit and a certain perception, but I think I have shown diversity in content if you look at what’s currently online. I’m planning to grow better and better into that.

A$AP Ferg
A$AP Ferg
Vic Mensa
Vic Mensa

What’s next?  This year I’m finally launching my apolaroidstory.com online store, somewhere between April and May 2016. For the first time, you are able to purchase limited edition prints from my extended Polaroid catalog, some exclusive APS merchandise and special collaborations. You will only be able to buy this via the store online or through expositions. Income from that will be invested back into APS so it can grow. I would love to move around a bit more and plan a few expositions in Europe. At least I hope so, because it’s quite a production to set up and not very cheap. In the future there will be a book, but there are too many artists missing so far for a book, plus it’s a hell of job to put in production so this is not a top priority at the moment.

So basically, I hope I will be able to tell more stories, more videos, move around more, seal some solid partnerships and get my Polaroid’s and their stories into the world. We’ll see. Step by step.

To see what Ouni is up to, check out her Instagram.

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Ellen Haile
Ellen Haile

My hair falls between the 4A to 4C category, so I’m always looking for the best manageable styles. I live for big, stretched hair, so I often keep it blow dried and call it a day.

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