Empowering diversity in photography with UK Black Female Photographers founder Jemella Ukaegbu

February 8th, 2024
UKBFTOG Living the Dream Exhibit

We recently sat down with Jemella Ukaegbu, London-based portrait and wedding photographer and founder of the UK Black Female Photographers Community, UKBFTOG. She shared about the experiences that led to the creation of the UKBFTOG community six years ago, how they worked together to create their first group photography exhibition, what they learned, and how they turned that opportunity into a collaboration with Fujifilm. 

How UKBFTOG began.

I would always go to photography conventions and always be the only black person in the room or the only black female; sometimes even the only female in the room, quite frankly. This experience is what inspired me to create the community.

So to start the group in 2018, I literally just did a call out on social media “I know there’s other black female photographers out there, and creatives; Where are you guys?” I was on Twitter first and everyone was like, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and I thought “Oh, this is amazing.”

It’s grown ever since then, our private Facebook group has over five hundred members. We have a yearly studio meetup. We’ve done co working days where we’d go to a cafe, Starbucks or whatever. We’ll meet up and just sit with each other and do work. It was like being part of a company even though we’re all self employed as photographers. We can support each other like a team; if you’ve got a client email, you can ask someone else “How is this, does my tone sound okay?”

All those little things where if you’re by yourself, you don’t have anyone to bounce them off. I was able to create that.

UKBFTOG We are here walsall exhibition book
Photo credit: UKBFTOG Community

Building the “We Are Here, Walsall” exhibition.

Leonda, my TOG sister, came on right at the beginning to help me get things rolling. We always planned out the whole year. We decided that in 2020, we were going to have an exhibition. Then we were in lockdown, and thought all our plans were finished.

Then one of the members, Lensi Photography, called me, and she said “I have this space in Walsall. I think it would be really cool to do a black female photographers exhibition.” 

I think sometimes we can plan everything down to the T, how we’re going to do things, and sometimes there’s no perfect time and we just have to grab this opportunity. So we said “Let’s go for it,” and literally we just started planning–it was every single day. We were on a zoom for  four or five hours each day. The exhibition was actually put on in just under eight weeks, during lockdown.

We thought, “This is crazy. How are we going to do this? How are we going to put this on?” We decided to do a call out on social media, only within our Facebook group for the community at first, about the exhibition. I was thinking, maybe we’ll only get about… Five people that apply. But in the end we had about 20 applications and we realized how interested our community was. 

Everybody who was chosen had to be able to come down to Walsall for the whole weekend. We needed full teamwork for this first exhibition–everyone had to put up their own work, we had to print our work ourselves, hang our work ourselves. 

Rather than a specific theme, the idea was, “We Are Here“–we’re going to show up as black female photographers, show who we are and our work in a space where we’re not seen in the photography industry. There’s no space at the table, we’re going to make our own table. And we just went forth.

One of our Tog friends said “Oh, have you got a media pack and a sponsorship pack?” And we thought, “No, never heard of that before. Okay, great. We’re going to make one.” So then we learned how and made one. 

Sometimes we feel like we need to know everything before starting it.  I feel there is a benefit to the learning curve. Sometimes you’re not going to know everything, but you can learn while doing it–and it’s better that you just do it. 

Not everything will be perfect, you’re going to make mistakes, there are going to be things you should have said yes to that you said no to, or the other way around. But you’re never going to know what will work. You literally just have to try and use that as a learning step for the next time you want to do something.

Afterward, you can sit down and make a list: What did I learn from this? How am I going to improve? What am I going to do better next time? 

Our Tog sister, Dominique Nok, was actually studying curation at the time. She stepped in and helped us curate the exhibition–that was amazing. When the show opened, everyone responded really well. They loved it. People were saying “We’ve never seen this kind of work,” and it’s just seeing it from our eyes as black female photographers. 

Often our stories are being told by other photographers who are not from our community, so for it to now be from our perspective and our eyes, it needed to be seen. The name, We Are Here, will travel with us forever.

UKBFTOG Living the dream Exhibition member headshot wall
Photo credit: UKBFTOG Community

Collaborating to create the “Living the Dream” exhibition.

So basically, I got an award, the Hero of Photography award from AP Magazine in 2022 for actually starting the community. So that put us in a room with the photography industry and companies, like camera companies and stuff. When I got that award, obviously, I was able to speak to so many different people. 

And Fuji was like, “We have this with this space, it’d be great if you guys had an exhibition there. Let’s have a meeting and see how we can work it, and what we can do together to support each other and support you guys.” 

And we had that meeting, and we just put that date in. It came to life. They supported us and they made everything happen; they gave us their space. We were able to connect to Digi Lab because all of the paper was printed on the Fuji film paper as well.

So, they gave us that space and they really made it possible. People sent in the images and we would go through them all together. And the theme for that exhibition was called “Living The Dream.” As black female photographers now, we’re living the dream of our ancestors, in the positions that we are now in. Over fifty people applied for this exhibition.

Our curator Dominique was like, “Look, everybody’s gotta be a part of this. This is your art at the end of the day, and we wanna show everybody. Being within the Fujifilm space, we could show your work to someone who might have never even seen it before.” 

We had a day where only our members, those who were exhibited, came; a private day for them and a press day, and they just couldn’t believe seeing their work. We actually had a UKBFTOG headshot day where we invited all of our members down, and we had the use of the Fujifilm House of Photography, where they have a studio downstairs. We did everybody’s head shots, and we exhibited all of our head shots on the wall. So even if you weren’t in the exhibition, you ended up being part of it just by being a member and taking part in a community. Your picture was now out in that headshot area for people to come and see what we look like, not just see our work. 

Lucky for us this time, we didn’t have we didn’t have to man this exhibition, like we did for “Here We Are, Walsall.” But when we were bringing our family down on Friday, it was like you’re sitting there and watching people’s reaction: that was really beautiful. Watching them be like, “Oh, this is amazing,” and “Oh, this is my favorite picture.” I would ask how they found out, and they’d say “I saw it on TikTok.” There were all these random ways that people were finding out about the exhibition as well, which was really, really cool. 

UKBFTOG Living the dream artist panel
Photo credit: UKBFTOG Community

Creating an exhibition checklist: 

One thing we learned is that you have to be open to change. Sometimes we’re so stuck on our plan, about how it’s going to be, that you block yourself off from the opportunity. We can learn, rather than miss an opportunity for a conversation with a friend or colleague that could lead into something else even more amazing. 

Planning the exhibit details: 

  • Collect artist statements and submissions for group shows at least six weeks before the opening. 
  • For a solo show, begin curating your work and writing your artist statement 4-6 weeks before the opening.
  • Finalize image selections at least three weeks before the opening to allow for printing.
  • Printing and framing/matting artwork at least two weeks before the opening, in case of print issues. 
  • Create a media pack / press kit with images, logos, and a brief description of the exhibit. 
  • Send off a press release 1-2 weeks in advance to get media coverage or possible features in publications.
  • Finalize pricing for the artwork, and what will be available for sale.

Questions to ask yourself when arranging an exhibit: 

  • How big is this wall?
  • What’s the space between each image?
  • How many pictures do we need to fit?
  • What’s the hanging line we need to measure?

Some of the women from the UKBFTOG Living The Dream Workshop
Photo credit: UKBFTOG Community

Creating and sustaining a community. 

That’s another thing you learn running a community–everybody’s at different levels. So in that community space, you learn all the different levels everybody’s at. You have to really be understanding and patient with everybody, and you can’t do everything yourself.

It’s basically so amazing that you have to collaborate. We all have different experiences; ego has to go out the window and teamwork has to be on full swing.

We want to help our members grow within their photography career. So for us, that means creating more membership based workshops, to help those who want to reach a more professional level and really develop their skills. And then we also have our more community based events, like us all going out and having fun–everybody’s welcome.

I didn’t start this for any formal accolades. My idea was small; It’s done more than I could ever have imagined. It’s impacted so many people. It’s given people so many experiences and helped within their photography career. Some people have even found friendship. Technically, a sisterhood has been created and I might have started it, but there’s no community without everybody taking part. We’ve got ambassadors within the Facebook group that help out.

It’s opened a lot of doors for people to get out there. It’s given people opportunities to work with other brands. It’s amazing to be able to see all of the steps that everyone’s taken–they’re being a part of more exhibitions and taking their next steps into their careers.

Everyone’s just flying, they take all these opportunities and go with it and see what more doors can fly open. There’s so much space for all of us. You know what I mean? We all see things differently, and we don’t have to compete against each other. If we actually work together, do you know what magic we can create?

YouTube video

Photographer Bio: Jemella Ukaegbu

Jemella Ukaegbu has been a photographer for more than a decade running her business Mellz Photography LTD and is the founder of the UK Black Female Photographers Community (UKBFTOG) which is a group dedicated to black female photographers to help them have a safe space to connect, learn photography tips and grow as a photographer in an industry dominated by men. Jemella holds a First class degree in Photography and her work has been published in magazines and articles such as Ap Magazine, The Evening Standard, The Huffington Post, and also featured on ITV.

Jemella (Mellz Photography LTD) Headshot


  • Amanda W

    Amanda is the Content Marketing Specialist at Zenfolio and the Owner/Photographer of Wild Orchard Studios photography. A BFA graduate from Maine College of Art and Design and professional Portrait, Family, and Branding photographer for nearly 20 years, she thoroughly enjoys drawing from her experiences to guide new photographers as they are starting out. Amanda lives in the wilds of Maine with her husband and two imaginative daughters. If there’s such a thing as too much dark chocolate, she hasn’t heard about it.

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