Photography: Yassin Yassin
Words: Rochelle Thomas
It’s 5:15pm and Caleb Femi still hasn’t eaten his lunch. After just about recovering from a bout of food poisoning, the poet hasn’t slept for the past three days and has spent today running around trying to get things organised for the opening of his first ever photography exhibition. This is a new feat for someone like Caleb, who is known mostly for his love of literature.
It’s this love of literature that led Caleb to being named the Young People’s Laureate in 2016. Laureate’s are typically honoured with an award for outstanding creative or intellectual achievement and the Young People’s Laureate initiative aims to inspire self-expression in young people. The laureate’s task is to increase literacy and communication Skills amongst young people and empower them with a sense of belonging. The initiative debuted in London just last year, with Caleb becoming the first Young People’s Laureate for London.
It is this that he’s best known for but Caleb assures me that he is “a poet, first and foremost”; although he does try to intertwine everything he does into one creative effort. Everything he does includes being a photographer, a videographer, and a filmmaker, and these professions often intertwine, especially when looking for a new way to engage certain audiences with his poetry work. The majority of Caleb’s poems are ‘in the academic realm”, thus, not something you stumble across if you’re not looking for it. For this reason, much of his work is available in video form and whilst it’s not Caleb’s preference when it comes to presenting poetry, he admits it is easier to engage with.
“Majority of people want to consume” and typically, people want to consume in a way that’s easily accessible, entertaining and engaging. “There are other ways of consuming poetry and I’m all about, apart from the page, how else can we present poetry”? Part of this type of rationing may be inspired by the laureates aim to bring together words and technology for the digital generation. It may also be cultivated from Caleb’s past as an English teacher.
A career chosen in sixth form, and acted upon straight after university, it’s somewhat surprising that this career was so short-lived. Caleb chose to leave the profession after three years due to “the government and the state of education in this country”. Teaching is still a passion of his but he feels as if “the younger generation is on a knife-edge. There’s so much information being fed to them that sometimes its difficult to find out who you want to be, what you want to do with yourself”.
Currently, the school system is “suffocating imagination and creativity in the classroom. It’s not about helping students think for themselves or learn stuff its more of trying to create robots”. When it comes to the next generation “they need someone who is not going to tell you who you should be but will encourage you to live and try different things, that’s essentially what I try to do”.
Caleb is no stranger to the stereotypical lifestyle that black boys in London, and other major cities in Western society, are subject to; he grew up on the same estate that Damiola Taylor was murdered on and has experienced the loss of friends due to gang ignorance. Through his work he tries to show others from similar backgrounds the “reality that there are other ways of living [and] other ways of existing” and essentially, he strives to give others an escape that he never had.
As the Young People’s Laurent, Caleb now finds himself in a position to “walk through certain doors, that I would never have been able to walk through” and bring about “a sense of visibility to younger people who may not be able to find themselves in certain high society places”. As well as bringing about a sense of visibility, it could be assumed that part of Caleb’s career is focused on bringing about a sense of representation to people like himself who are often misrepresented. For example, he recently held a weekend long photography exhibition – all photographs taken by him, all photographs “exploring different aspects of a type of the black working class experience”.
The exhibition is part in collaboration with an interior stylist, Lola, with the thought process of “how can we bring an element of the house into the gallery space” – the result being photo canvases draped in familiar fabrics from the home. Both Caleb and Lola are part of a collective named SXWKS, which includes “various walks of life” – musicians and actors, to poets and photographers whose focus is “collaborating and finding ways to create new things”.
This year has been a busy year for Caleb and with his position as the Young People’s Laurent drawing to an end this October, he says he “genuinely doesn’t know” what will happen next in his career. Though he does hope to release a poetry photography book within the next year, which we will be keeping an eye out for.
Granite As Heirloom: A Portrait.
Follow him on Instagram @caleb.femi