Welcome to Conversations with Black Creators! This month, we're chatting with Dubai-based photographer and Creative Director, Sandrine Somé.
Editor's Note: The Conversations series is intended to highlight Black creatives’ work in various fields. At Tako Agency, we are really proud of being creators--people who pour creativity and skill into beautiful projects that add value to the world--and we want to make sure that all creators have a platform from which to make every corner burst with life.
To support Black creatives, Tako Agency is making a donation to the Black Art Futures Fund for every feature in this series we publish on the Tako Stand. The outpouring of funding and philanthropic giving that was initiated when #BLM re-entered the spotlight in May 2020 was a GREAT thing, but we believe it’s consistent support over time that makes the most difference.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured, please fill out this form and we'll be in touch!
-- Grace, CEO & Creative Director
Sandrine is a Burkina Faso-born resident of Dubai by way of Toronto, Canada. I discovered her on Instagram and was immediately drawn to the rich colours, unique composition, and effortless cool girl attitude that permeate her feed. The captivation continued as I clicked through her website--a clean, modern digital showcase of her photography, creative direction, and modeling prowess.
Something that struck me about Sandrine: her portfolio exudes rock solid, longstanding self-assurance. In talking with her, though, she readily let me in on the fact that she’s a relative newcomer to unapologetic confidence in her work. I’m always amazed when I meet truly talented people who are open about struggles with Imposter Syndrome and second-guessing. It’s comforting to know that creatives I admire stare down some of the same roadblocks I do--and seem to come out on top anyway. (Hope you feel that way too, dear reader--we’re all in this together.)
I wish Sandrine all the joy, clarity, and self-assurance in the world. Girl, you deserve it.
Hey Sandrine! Go ahead and introduce yourself.
Hi, I’m Sandrine. I'm a Creative Director and [brand] Strategist currently living in Dubai, but from Toronto. I’m very into photography, so that's something I do on the side and am hoping to do more of.
That's cool--you get to marry that whole classically left brain, right brain thing. You exercise the creative side with creative direction and photography, but still get to apply critical thinking in brand strategy.
Absolutely. I originally went to school for business. I dropped out but stayed obsessed with that [analytical] side of things. [The role I have now] is perfect because I get to help people solve business problems, but then I get to execute the actual campaigns on the creative side too.
If you had to pick one “side,” what would it be? Or is it just the marriage of those two things that you like the best?
[laughs] I've actually never thought about that before!
I think if I really had to choose, I’d gravitate to the creative side because I'm really working toward building the skills to do [photography] forever. I just love making images. That and music are really important to me.
I also feel like creative pursuits would allow me to live a more free-flowing life. Business is very structured and you have to sacrifice a lot of time to be really good at it. Like, working in agencies, the hours are hectic. I'm hoping to eventually get to a point where I have more time to do the things that inspire me--which are almost always on the creative side.
That totally makes sense. You're also not so much at the mercy of other people when you’re doing your own creative things. Like, when you're doing strategy stuff for other companies, you're bound by their needs and desires.
Yeah, and it can be hard to nail down solutions because the way that I think about a problem may not be the same way someone else sees it. A client may come to me and be like, “My sales are down because of our brand messaging.” I do some digging and realize it's actually not a messaging problem--it’s an awareness one. A lot of my job is just convincing people I’m right, which is great for a Virgo like me [laughs], but it can be difficult.
Photo by Jacqueline Ashton
[laughs] Love that. Tako’s CEO is a Virgo and we laugh about that all the time; she's exactly the same way.
[smiles] I don’t really like to openly admit it, but, secretly, I just love to always be right.
Well, I'm a Leo, so I'm kind of the same way. [smiles] OK--enough of the cosmic stuff--let’s go back to your photography. It’s actually the reason I tapped you for this series.
I found [your photography] on Instagram, then did some more digging and found out about the creative direction and strategy, digital marketing, social media, and eComm management stuff. I was like, damn! What doesn’t she do??
[laughs] I guess if you just go to my Instagram, you’d never know I do anything other than photography and some modeling. It’s funny--I actually spend most of my time working in a very corporate environment, but I only like to put out the shoots I do with friends or when I travel.
I did notice your photography seems to be pretty travel-focused!
Yeah, that's my favorite thing to do when I travel. It's my way of learning about the places I go. For example, in Burkina Faso--where I’m from--taking photos of people is a big no-no. You have to be very careful--similar to Dubai. I'm still not 100% sure why; it’s just one of those cultural nuances you only learn if you’re [out there shooting].
So, you model in addition to your photography and...everything else?
Yeah, I didn't mention that in my intro because it's something that kind of happened by accident, but yes, I do that on the side.
How does that happen... by accident?
Well, essentially I used to work at this cafe on Ossington, which is a really well-known street in Toronto. At one point one of my regulars was like, “Can you model for this thing*?” And I was like, sure. [shrugs]
I guess other people in her circle saw those photos because I started getting asked to model for a bunch of different things. There was a lot of cringe-worthy stuff, [grimaces] but the more I did, the more I started actually styling and planning shoots with the photographers.
Now, a lot of the shoots you see on my website or on social media--even if I’m the model--I’ve tapped a photographer for collaboration and then directed the shoot myself. Once I [did more autonomous work like that], a couple of brands reached out and that kind of escalated my modeling work as well.
Overall, I’d say yeah, it’s fun, but it's not something I’d want to do full-time. It’s just one more way to express myself creatively.
*Writer’s Note: Sandrine filled me in on this later. This “regular” has a large collection of vintage designer items and wanted to do a small editorial. Fun!
Do you think you’d do it at all if you didn't have some level of creative control over the process?
Definitely not. I'm still very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, but it's not something that would be enjoyable for me long term, except under particular circumstances.
Like now, I try to align myself with brands and people who are already doing stuff I really love and whose values are similar to mine.
What are the values you look for?
I’d say the primary ones are authenticity and diversity. As I’m sure you’re aware, the sort of “reckoning” [related to #BlackLivesMatter] that happened in the States over last summer affected residents of Canada as well; we were all aware and got involved. More big brands than ever started reaching out to me for collaborations and I just felt like, “I’m not stupid, I know what you’re doing.” You know what I mean?
I know that we were asking brands to better advocate for diversity, but at the same time, it was the way they were all rushing to do it. I didn’t want to be used for diversity clout, so I would only say yes to brands I knew were already on the path of doing those things--those who likely would have reached out regardless of what happened over the summer.
So yeah--authenticity and diversity. I want how you [as a brand] represent yourself in public to be exactly who you are in the boardroom.
It can definitely be difficult to separate the real from the fake, especially considering how easy it’s been for brands to influence public opinion using social media.
Social media has also impacted the world of art. I feel like the perception of “what is art” used to be pretty well-defined--like, you had fine art, lowbrow art--for lack of a better term--music, fashion design...very clearly defined categories. Now it’s all sort of a mutation; like this really bizarre sea monster nobody can define. Do you think that social media has helped or hurt the creative world?
Ooo, that's such a loaded question. I personally feel like it's hurt the art world in a very serious way. Artists don't have the same timeline to put something out--nothing is timeless anymore. We just make things because we're searching for likes; and we kind of have to. If you stop posting, maybe your followers go down. Maybe your engagement rate goes down. The algorithm moves you to the bottom of the pile.
That's not how we used to look at art. It was more about, does this make you feel something? Now it’s Content, and Content only makes you feel something for 30 seconds; then you scroll and you’re looking at something else.
That timelessness we hoped to create in music or fashion design in the past--it’s really lacking now.
I feel like [collectively, as a culture] we’re losing ourselves in creating things for social (and literal) capitalism instead of pushing humanity forward, in a way? The speed at which you need to create content in order to stay relevant is not a positive thing for art.
Speaking of art, do you explore other avenues of creativity outside of the ones that we've discussed so far?
I’d say that the only other avenue that we haven't covered is music. That's always been really, really important for me. In Toronto I was really lucky to surround myself with DJs and other audiophiles.
I’m also a partner in a coffee company, called Nile, which I run with my friends Taher and Jamal back in Toronto. We have a monthly radio show [called Nile Radio Club] we do with ISO radio, which gave me the opportunity to make a [recurring] mix, so now I have a reason to dig for music and explore different genres. Recently, I've been into Zouk music* because I’ll listen to one track and be like, “Wow, I'd really love to know more about what was happening in Haiti during this time.” I love learning new things, so being able to tie music to history and vice versa is really great.
*Writer’s note: a personal fav of Sandrine’s is The Look - Metronomy.
How did that idea come about? Not everybody who starts a coffee company is like, “Let’s start a radio station as well.”
Well, both of them are DJs. I'm this third random music fanatic. They had an ISO show and when the coffee company started, we [decided] we wanted to integrate music and coffee, which are both really big parts of our lives. We wanted to evoke the feeling of drinking coffee and listening to music--having a nice morning.
So we brought on friends or people within our network whose taste we really value; DJs, not DJs, doesn’t matter. I think it's really interesting to ask creative people what they're listening to because--regardless of what they’re making--music inspires. Listening to the music [choices] of people you admire gives a little view into who they are. I love that.
Sandrine by Jacqueline Ashton
Have you experienced any unique challenges related to being a Black creator in your field?
I would say, it's the need to sort of silence yourself sometimes--to not say what you're thinking so you don’t come off like the “angry black girl.” Recently, though, I’ve found that I don’t care as much anymore.
Good for you!
Thanks, yeah I feel like that comes with age, right? Like, I’ve always had [the obstacles of] my origins, my race, but I was also very young for the advertising industry when I entered it, so I didn’t feel confident enough to be myself. Now, I'm just more self-assured and I know what I like. I'm less afraid of saying things because I have the knowledge to back them up.
Totally makes sense.
To be quite honest, I have this conversation with people often. I wouldn't say that anyone has overtly put roadblocks in my way because I’m Black...but that's in Canada. [Racism in Canada] is very low key. No one really says anything to your face. I imagine it's different in the States, right?
It definitely depends on where you live. There are rural areas of Texas where you'll see Trump signs everywhere and people are very unapologetic with their biases. Then there are other places--like Seattle, where I’m from. People are very concerned with appearing to protect Black people--saying the right things, attending rallies, all that stuff. But the proof is in the pudding, and most of the Black population lives in South Seattle, which is forgotten in many ways. So while everyone is so concerned about looking totally un-prejudiced, they’re more about appearances than authentically engaging in anti-racist behavior, either because they're ignorant or because they don't really want to upset the ecosystem that’s benefiting them.
Yeah--instead of doing the work, they love to speak about doing the work.
Yeah. It's a lot easier to talk about it than it is to do it, and you still feel all warm & fuzzy because you're like, “I went to the march.”
Yeah. Like, what did you do after, though? Last summer, so many brands were busy talking about all these initiatives. It felt like every single company put out a statement, but then a couple months later, I don't know many who have actually acted on what they said they would do.
Yeah. We should have seen every single one of those brands releasing statements monthly saying, “Hey, we said that we were going to do this back in May. Here are the ways we're making good on our promise now.” Who's done that? I haven't seen it.
Nope. I can't even name a company that has.
Such fucking bologna. Ugh. OK, next question. A lot of people allow Imposter Syndrome to discourage them from pursuing things they love and sharing them with the world. Have you experienced that before?
Yeah, I’ve dealt with that a lot, actually. It comes back to the age thing I mentioned earlier and also the fact that I dropped out of school. With strategy, you often rely solely on observation and intuition. You're reading through the data, trying to find a message, so you can form a strategy. Having not finished school, and being very young and working with people way older than me, it was kind of like, “Who am I to even say this thing? How do I know that I'm right?”
I think I'm in a good place now, though, because everyone on my team is quite young. I think the oldest person in our agency is maybe like, 32? 35? So that whole, “How do you even know that if you didn’t finish school?” question doesn’t even come up. There's more trust in the process than you might find in a traditional corporate environment, where it’s more about your credentials.
That's great. Good for you! What, in your opinion, is art's place in the grand scheme of things? Why does it matter?
I think it matters because it connects us to our humanity. It serves to show us who we are, in different contexts. Like, if you consider everything that’s constantly happening in the world and remove art, who are we?
Where do you think humanity would be right now, considering everything that's happened with COVID, if we didn't have art in any form?
I think people are already really struggling with mental health, especially from being isolated. TV shows and movies, for example, are art forms that take us to another place--and with so many different kinds of people!
I have a lot of friends back home [in Toronto] still in lockdown. A lot of them have been like, “Please keep posting photos of you going hiking because it's helping me get excited about what I’ll do when I can travel.” And that’s just photos posted to the Internet!
So I think art serves to inspire others, transport them to other places, and connect them with their humanity. That might be the most important thing right now, to be honest.
Absolutely. Where do you feel the most creative? Could be a particular place, with a specific person, or doing a particular thing...
I got a huge burst of energy in 2017 when I visited Burkina Faso. I actually met a lot of my family for the first time ever. I brought my camera and just roamed the streets, shooting anything and everything.
I got back to Toronto and felt so inspired just from seeing what else was out there. Ever since, I've been on a new wave of creativity. So I guess I feel most inspired when I'm learning more about other people.
Sandrine by @patryderr
Learning seems like a big thing for you. I like it. Have you always been that way?
Yeah, for sure. I think it's because I was an only child. I always read a lot and I learned so much from the Internet. I have a very traditional African mother. She's a lot more chill now, but [when I was a kid], I would have to go to Reddit, because my mom, due to her...eh...cultural limitations, couldn't really give me context for life in a Western environment, if that makes sense?
I also like to read scientific studies. Even though they're written in a really clinical way, sometimes they're interesting because they still tell a story about human behavior or how we think. With the advent of the Internet it's like, you don't have an excuse to not learn more about other people.
Who are three creatives you admire?
Hmmm. So many of them. This is going to be really difficult.
The first is Sory Sanle, who’s from the town in Africa where my dad lives now; I met him in January 2020. He was a really prominent photographer in the seventies and captured a lot of nightlife in Burkina Faso. He’s so inspirational in the way he approaches things. He basically no longer actively works because he did strictly black and white photography. When color photography became a thing, he lost clients because [black and white] was no longer the style they wanted.
He fully accepted that but stayed true to himself. He told me, “I don't regret anything. I'm not working now, but I'm proud of the work I’ve done. I know [my work] was intentional--filled with meaning and love for people.” He's on a slower pace now--he likes to create things slowly--which is something that really stuck with me. I try to infuse that into everything that I do.
The other person I have in mind isn't necessarily creative in the classic “artist” way, but Katherine Johnson--who was a mathematician--is super inspiring to me. Have you seen the movie Hidden Figures?
I haven't seen it, no! But I know of it.
OK, so that’s her story. She essentially wrote a lot of the math that was critical to the first space flights. She was at NASA and dealt with a lot of very blatant racism. That movie really just makes you want to cry. The things she accomplished and the way her mind worked with math is so amazing. She's extremely inspiring to me.
The last person, who’s honestly my biggest inspiration in a lot of things, is Nikola Tesla. He foresaw many of the things we're dealing with now as a modern society. He tried to make [solutions] free and accessible for everyone, but because of capitalism, much of his work was stopped.
He's always been a really interesting figure to me because, like, he died alone, in poverty, in a random hotel room, yet ultimately he contributed so much to our modern way of life. It’s so crazy. All of us are out to, you know, make an impact. We want to be remembered. That man had a legacy--and he died poor, in a hotel room.
[Sighs] One would hope better for someone like that, huh? Let’s lighten things up: what's your favorite thing you've ever created?
I don't really sell my photography. I don't even put myself out there as a photographer that much. But last summer I did a “sale” where people could “purchase” prints from a series I did in Burkina by donating a certain amount to an organization of their choice, so long as they sent me the receipt as proof of their donation. Then my company offered to match each donation.
It was really cool to see so many people buying them. I was honestly kind of shocked. I did not expect it, but it was beautiful to make something that meant so much to me, and have it also mean something to others; and to have [the proceeds] going to a good cause on top of it? That was definitely my favorite thing I’ve created.
Prints of Sandrine's photo series
That’s awesome. Do you have any advice specifically for young Black creators--in any industry?
Ah...do not silence yourself. I think we walk into all manner of spaces already often feeling “lesser than,” or that you don't have the right to say what you want to say. But you do. If you believe in what you're saying, you have a right to say it.
It doesn't matter who's in the room or who they think they are--stick by what you know is right, in your heart.
Mm, yeah. "Or who they think they are," feels like a very key part of that. I love that. Alright, last question. Do you like tacos?
[laughs] I do, I do. Mexican food is like, top three for me. 100%.
Excellent. So what's your favorite taco filling?
Oh, carnitas for sure. Pineapple adds a nice touch to anything too.
Mad love to Sandrine for her time. 🖤 Don't forget to check out the rest of our Conversations series here.