Meet Flo Ngala, the Harlem Photographer Transforming Ordinary Moments Into Powerful Images
The young creative made her breakthrough after capturing Cardi B in some of her most iconic looks.
In a generation where photography becomes more accessible than ever thanks to social media, photographer Flo Ngala continues to make waves in media by delivering impactful images largely influenced by her surroundings. Despite being only in her early 20s, the creative has already worked with celebrities like Cardi B and Gucci Mane and has scored projects with well-established brands and publications like Nike and Vogue. Having made her breakthrough in 2017 after shooting the “Bodak Yellow” singer at the BET Hip Hop Awards, the creative’s work eventually landed on The New York Times cover, with a photo that features black figure skaters from her hometown.
We spoke with the Harlem native about how she jump-started her career in photography, as well as some of her favorite works so far. Read our interview with the photographer below to learn more about her inspiration, how her upbringing influences her work and her future project plans.
How did your interest in photography blossom? When did you realize that this is what you want to do for your career?
My photography interest blossomed thanks to the Internet — I was a full-on Tumblr addict by 15 who had her intro to photography around 13 to 14. The interest budded from being immersed in great imagery and content, and I was obsessed with infinite scrolling. My mom used to take my siblings and me to Barnes & Noble, and I’d look through the quarterly or semi-annual magazines faithfully. I knew that creative work and creative careers moved me early on, but it wasn’t until the end of college that photography felt like a career possibility. I went to school for advertising and thought I’d go into creative directing at an agency, but passion has a way of outweighing practicality.
How would you describe your photography style?
I try to be really clean about my work. I try to extract the best parts of an image when directing or framing a moment. At times when I’m working with more fleeting moments like photojournalism, my style is more raw and about composition. I focus on lighting a lot as well, which really makes the difference between a good photo and a great one to me.
How do your background and upbringing influence your work?
There’s a lot I think of when one says “background,” but most importantly what comes to mind is an upbringing in sport. Being an athlete for almost half of my life taught me work ethic and perseverance. So when it comes to my work, it means getting the shot by any means or perfecting an image when editing it until it’s just right.
Where do you tend to look for inspiration?
For inspiration these days, the first place I’ll go to is my Saved Folders on Instagram. It’s the place I can most easily and passively save images and things I love in all types of categories. For instance, I have folders called Revisit, Photo, Things to Watch and so on. There are maybe 20 but it helps me frame and categorize all of my inspo. Like what I mentioned with Tumblr earlier, the immersion in so much imagery and content makes me feel like I’m not just looking for inspiration — inspiration is also finding me.
When taking a photo, how do you try to capture the overall emotion, mood and tone all in a still frame?
The goal for me is that those three are synced — when correctly taking a photo, it shouldn’t feel like multiple objectives. I think an image is good when it feels cohesive and succinct. It’s where technical skill meets a photographer’s style, and the emotion, mood or tone of a subject or moment can then be seen even clearer. When I’m taking a photo, I’m grabbing what I see in regards to moments and light, and then in the post-editing process, the emotion and tone can be pushed with the right editing.
Who have been some of your favorite subjects to capture and why?
Anytime I’ve worked with people is my favorite subject; any opportunity to catch someone in their element is my favorite. I enjoy being able to be a fly on the wall and working with the elements around me especially. In November, I went on a three-city, 10-day job with a client and I remember being in Kansas City for the first time. Being around such interesting walks of life with different stories always touches me the most. I really value the power of human connection, so you’ll see I rarely am capturing anything but people.
What messages do you hope to deliver through your photography?
Just that life is stunning, and that it’s this constant thing that we know so much and nothing about at the same time. Your commute to work, your walk to the store, who you meet day to day is never the same. The fact that photos can immortalize life’s moments and memories is so powerful, and I wish more people would pick up a camera and capture the world through their lens.
One breakthrough moment for you as a photographer was when you first shot Cardi B at the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards in Miami. What was that experience like and how do you believe you’ve grown as a photographer since then?
Wow, that feels like forever ago but it was great. It was my first experience like that and it was surreal and new. As a photographer, I’ve gained more confidence when working with talent and my skill has improved through shooting more over the past three years since then.
Last year, you photographed Figure Skating in Harlem for The New York Times. Can you tell us why this project is special for you?
This project was special for me because I went through the program as a skater for more than 10 years (ages 6-18). It was great to be able to give the skaters a spotlight they so truly deserved. It was also super full-circle and a blessing for me as a Harlem native, former skater and photographer. Purely a dream project for a dream platform. I’ll never forget that experience.
What are some projects or shoots you’d like to do in the future?
I want to do more projects and work internationally, and more photojournalism and storytelling as well. As my work continues to gather eyes, having assignments where I get to travel and also work with movers and shakers in different industries is really exciting. At the end of January, I was following Grammy-nominated artist Burna Boy around for a few days and then got to work with politician Stacey Abrams for a shoot. Both are so different, but creating portraits of them based off of my perspective is going to be the best part of my future.