Interview: LOU MENSAH

I have listened to Shade Podcast religiously since writer and photographer Lou Mensah launched it in the summer of 2019.

I find Lou’s transparent, no nonsense attitude and genuine curiosity in learning and engaging with her guests refreshing. The range of pro-active, inspiring guests combined with a familial generosity, clarity of ambition and desire to pass the baton and tool-up the next generation makes it a compelling listen.

I love that Lou’s own creative career and experience feeds into her way of seeing, hearing, and feeling her way through conversations. She is authentic and passionate about creating intimate conversations on challenging and crucial issues.

She launched the show at the same time I was knee deep in the delivery of the exhibition Get Up Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers (12 Jun – 15 Sep 2019) that I programmed and worked on with Zak Ové at Somerset House. Lou interviewed participating artist Richard Rawlins in Shade Podcast episode S3 E7 (18 June 2020), who participated in Get Up Stand Up Now with the powerful work The True Crown from the series I AM SUGAR, 2018.

I am excited to see Lou and Shade go from strength to strength and look forward to seeing the continued impact of these conversations informing all our work and positive change.

Lou Mensah founded Shade Podcast to create a safe space for anti-racism conversations through the lens of creativity & activism.

Lou started out studying PR at The University of The Arts in London. She began her career at Lynne Franks PR, before going onto work under the leadership of Anita Roddick in The Body Shop International Press Office. Having worked in fashion and beauty PR for 10 years, Lou became interested in visual communications. She went on to work on various jobs as a photographer - stills for Directors Antony Minghella, Sundance winner Marc Silver and Mike Figgis, gaining awards for her work from Nick Knight, Alexander McQueen.

What are you doing, reading, watching, or listening to now, that is helping you to stay positive?

The simple things, being grateful for home, for being healthy and safe; retreating inwards, whilst working on plans. Listening to podcasts have become more thrilling, the intimacy of listening to other people’s experiences right now. I share my favourite cultural insights regularly on Shade’s Instagram.

How have recent world events affected your ideas, processes, habits, ambition, or methodologies?

I’ve felt more comfortable retreating. As an introvert, isolation has been a treat away from the unnecessary noise that I find draining and distracting. Leaning into a smaller group of people. I’ve acknowledged what matters in terms of connections, and the stories I am telling. Saying no to opportunities which I may have previously jumped at, has been vital for focus. The biggest takeaway has been taking time for myself, so that I can continue the work for our community, now and for the coming generation. I’m engaging with how my work encompasses the stories and experiences of my ancestors

What will you do more of?


What will you do less of?

Be distracted by what I ‘should’ do and do more of what I know is right for the work.

What do you care about?

Artists and activists getting their voices heard.

Richard Rawlins, The True Crown, from the series I AM SUGAR 2018, Copyright-of-the-artist

What recurring questions do you return to in your work?

How will these stories I’m helping to tell affect others positively, how I can enrich the conversations around the intersection of anti-racism work and creativity. What do I bring to the table? How will I share stories in the most respectful way? How will I enrich the conversations, rather than add to the noise, the clickbait culture that can often drive digital interviews.

What risks have you taken in your work that paid off?

Reaching out to complete strangers who are more experienced, for advice. Saying no to opportunities that others have said would benefit the development of my work - but to me they didn’t feel right. Better opportunities always come along. Ignoring my total lack of technical experience, learning on the job, keeping all the mistakes in my work, and keeping on going. Seeing the wealth of talent out there, the huge network backed shows, the shows hosted by digital heavyweights, but carrying on anyway when I had zero experience in broadcasting.

What risks have you taken that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

Nothing major but loads of technical risks with my recording and editing. I’ve never spent the time getting to know how to get the best sound, because my other responsibilities mean that I do not have the time. I’ve literally pulled out wires during a recording as I couldn’t hear my guests. I’m working with a producer moving forward and will spin less plates myself.

How would you like your work to lift others up?

By telling the story of other creatives and activists, we learn that we’re not alone. I want my work to comfort when spirits are low, inspire when you’re ready to focus.

Lou Mensah, Untitled I, from The Blonde series, 2005, Copyright of the artist 

Could you tell us about at a time when you felt stuck and what you did to help yourself out of it?

Throughout my 20’s and early 30’s I was managing a chronic physical illness, which rendered me unable to function on a basic level. I had to leave my full-time job, which of course affected practical things like my housing and basic needs. I was on benefits and had years of medical appointments, which left little or no energy for anything else. My social life vanished overnight. But this is when I was first given a camera, to inspire me to get out when I had the energy to do so. I used a 35mm SLR and had no idea how to work it. I brought those old photographic manuals from the charity shop and taught myself. And asked for help. I asked for discounts at the photo processing labs and spent my energy on pouring over others work in bookshops. Claire de Rouen and the Soho Bookshop was my social life. Just me and the books. There were very basic internet platforms, so nothing useful in terms of resources. After a short time, I approached agencies and asked to shoot model headshots, which then led to doing the fine artwork that defined that time for me. I was picked as a winner by Nick Knight and Lee McQueen in a photo competition. After that, being ill, poor and with nothing to lose, I spent my time shooting friends, some book covers, some commercial work. But no one knew that in-between meetings and shoots, that I was bed bound. And although I was in physical pain, it didn’t matter because my creativity felt freeing. I was stuck in the physical sense, I couldn’t take the opportunities offered to me, the agents asking to work with me, the big jobs as I was too ill. Being stuck taught me so much about my strengths, and resilience, and those lessons have served me well to this day.

Which creatives do you feel your work is in conversation with?

Creative change-makers whose focus is on building community through art activism. Those committed to learning about how they can contribute to moving conversations and work practices forward.

How do you make money?

Still working on it. Anyone that wants to sponsor the podcast please holla!

What compromises have you made to sustain your practice?

Free time. Accepting that the quality of my work isn’t where I’d like it to be because of financial and time restrictions.

What advice would you give your past self?

Value the moments of recognition, whether that be self-recognition or from others. Forget what’s acceptable to others, do what is right for yourself. Other’s don’t know shit in terms of what’s right for you unless they understand who you are. So, tell them.

What career hacks or useful nuggets would you give to aspiring creatives?

Reach higher than you think you’re capable of. You’ll be surprised at how so many people are willing to support your journey. Listen to your gut, if someone or something doesn’t feel right, move away sooner rather than later. But check if that is your ego or heart talking. Value doing nothing, as much as doing something. Nothing always amounts to something, you just don’t know it yet.

Can you recommend a book film or podcast that you have been inspired by that transformed your thinking?

Each Shade Podcast guest has inspired me immensely. The trust and openness in which they share their beliefs, experiences and research has been personally enriching. Photography is my biggest source of inspo, so head over to Shade where I highlight the work of those I admire. In terms of film or literature, there are too many to mention. But Ava DuVernay’s 13th should be watched by everyone, Zadie Smith - but really only Changing My Mind resonated, Shaka dub, for that spiritual high - always, Kwame Nkrumah, Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter; How I Became a Woman by Marzieh Meshkini, the list goes on…

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