Listen, Consider, Evolve

Allan Jones and Elijah Heyward III

“We are all makers, constantly using tangible and intangible tools to craft our reality.”

We are all makers, constantly using tangible and intangible tools to craft our reality. There is an intentionality around the life that Allan Jones has crafted for himself. The photographer, design enthusiast, and recreational beekeeper has an intimate relationship to his environment and activates the power of creativity to advance matters of justice. His work focuses on the Bahamas as a topological wonder while also documenting the complexity of the people who make his home a special place. Ritual-making and reclamation fuel Jones’s work and being. These deeply bound values connect, inspire, and challenge viewers to reconsider the past even as his work encourages a journey toward the possibilities for our future. This is a future profoundly rooted in the interconnectedness of the African diaspora—one that resonates with me as a Gullah Geechee native who, like Allan, grew up near water in a community sustained by ritual and tradition. Our conversation explores Jones’s passion for photography and science, and, most fascinating to me, the points of connection between two men raised proximate to islands and landscapes that continue to inspire us.

Headfirst, unknown street photography subjects, Harbor Island Eleuthera, Bahamas, 2019.

Elijah Heyward III: How do you understand your work as it relates to craft?

Allan Jones: The ways I practice the very separate disciplines of photography, design, and even apiology allow me to explore what I consider to be very different approaches to the idea of crafting and making.

So much of the creative process for my photography is a collaboration between the subject and me. I’ve found that this creative interface yields truly beautiful, spontaneous, and fleeting moments of connection and humanity. I understand my role in making photographs as cocrafting the conditions that can result in images that have a strong sense of authenticity. 

When I design, I try to focus on the problem I’m trying to solve. It becomes a process that allows me to critique my own interpretation and perspective on a particular quandary. In that way, I embrace the opportunity to craft a refined understanding of the problem to increase the likelihood of designing effective solutions.

My dive into apiology started off as a strong interest in the ecology of bees and, quite frankly, as a way to get honey. It has evolved into a way to understand how the natural environment can inform the built environment. Appreciating what can be learned, and how that can be applied with sustainability and food security in mind. Beekeeping continues to offer lessons that allow me to craft ideas around eco-friendly design.

EH: Do you mind sharing a bit about your life growing up? What inspired you when you were younger, and how did early influences impact where you currently find yourself on your creative journey?

AJ: Like a lot of people in the Caribbean, I grew up in a Christian household. But now as I reflect and compare my experience with friends, I can say that my parents were more progressive than most. I can now appreciate how much of a positive impact their temperament has had on me. 

Group Dynamics, unknown street photography subjects, Harbor Island Eleuthera, Bahamas, 2019.

Being born in the ’90s and living in the Bahamas, Western media had a significant influence on some of the visual themes and references I gravitated to artistically. Influences like Saturday morning cartoons and Japanese anime, and American music and movies, are visual resources that have all strongly shaped me and my photography. I’ve since grown as an artist and began exploring other mediums for my artistic expression. I started learning about industrial design and architectural design later in life. It’s exciting to find ways to combine these core interests for new and upcoming projects.

EH: Photography is such a dynamic medium. I personally appreciate the ability to document a moment in time, with hope that, ideally, it will challenge notions of impermanence. What do you consider to be the power of photography, and what compelled you to commit to the practice? Do you enjoy any other forms of creative expression?

AJ: For me, the power of photography lies in its ability to communicate various feelings and emotions using the physical world. In most cases, this affords the viewer the ability to instantly digest, process, and connect with abstract ideas.

Photography has shaped me in so many fundamental ways, it’s hard to imagine myself without a camera in my hand. Watching a scene play out until I see and feel the perfect moment to push the shutter; prompting, eliciting, and working in concert with my subjects for specific looks or gestures we want to capture—these are some of my favorite moments as a photographer. Watching light and its seemingly limitless forms and qualities is such a strong part of how I see, interpret, and respond to the world around me.

One of my favorite images is from a series called MaSc OFF, a play on the words mask and masculinity. The title is We Out Here, and it depicts two men in nature (reminiscent of Rococo-style painting) sitting on arching tree branches above a still body of water. My aim when cocreating this image was to inspire conversations around masculinity and sexual identity. The rigid and often complicated reality of being a Black man in the Bahamas, regardless of your sexual identity, is absent in the image. It seeks to show Black men liberated and out of the cage of societal expectations. There is a defiant look on one of the model’s faces. It is strong and unflinching as he peers out of the image directly at the viewer.

I also like to paint. It relaxes me in a way photography can’t. I am fascinated by industrial product and systems design and sustainable architectural design. Not only for the aesthetic approach to designing attractive objects, spaces, and efficient processes but also for the deliberate and inclusive approach to designing human-centered experiences with consideration for the natural environment.

Untitled, South Eleuthera, Bahamas, 2020.

EH: I identify as Gullah/Geechee, and a great deal of my upbringing in Beaufort, South Carolina, was informed by my cultural identity. For one, there was a special approach to family, rituals that connected us to the greater diaspora (including the Bahamas), and language and foodways. Do you mind taking a moment to reflect on your cultural heritage in any manner that you wish?

AJ: I feel that the cultural heritage of the Bahamas has suffered from its geographical proximity to the US. I see traditional Bahamian foods and Bahamian dialect being used less in society, and in some cases being thought of as “less than” in comparison to other dialects and foods. In my opinion, the global view of what defines a first-world country, and what is development, has had a harsh impact on the cultures of persons of color and of African descent, with traditional and heritage trades, dialects, and social and religious events. I have seen that, in most cases, persons who want to benefit from the trappings of first-world notions of success, like a Western education and economic mobility, must often disassociate deep parts of their cultural identity and start to erase practices and traditions that tie them to their heritage.

EH: You have said, “Trying to create images that can spark positive change in the world, to me, is the single greatest assignment to work toward.” Do you mind expounding on this idea?

AJ: If I could describe what I’d like for my life’s work to add up to, I would say that I hope that my works, projects, and collaborations were able to highlight important issues in the Bahamas, like LGBTQ+ representation and the need for more safe spaces for personal freedom and expression. The importance of sustainability and ways that thinking creatively can benefit the Bahamas, from food security to resource and waste management. Lastly, I hope my work challenges the concepts of what is the native culture in the modern Bahamas, with our British colonial past still represented in both public monuments and laws that govern us, a country where more the 90 percent of the population is of African descent.

We Out Here, Chairo and Owen, Nassau, Bahamas, 2018.

EH: A Gull’s Eye View is a fantastic series. What inspired the series, and what were you hoping to capture about the Bahamas?

AJ: The inspiration for the series came from flying between the different islands and looking down from the window seat I’d occasionally get. As a Bahamian, I’ve always known that the Bahamas was beautiful. But being introduced to the different facets of its natural beauty from so high up gave me a feeling of unforgettable astonishment. I was hoping to capture and share the feeling I had of seeing the Bahamas from that view. The feeling of my sense of sight being inundated by the raw and perfect natural forms of sand undulating between the waves. The confounding feeling of seeing the water and of visually interpreting it, whilst feeling unsatisfied with the tool of speech to express the indescribable blues.

Flower Boy, Owen, Nassau, Bahamas, 2018.

EH: How does your identity as an environmentalist surface for you both in your work and daily life?

AJ: In A Gull’s Eye View, I showcased the natural beauty of the environment as something that should be marveled and respected. My most recent installation at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas focuses on sustainable design and how being flexible toward what we consider waste and resources can help us tackle the challenges we have with our waste systems. In my daily life, I regularly recycle and seek ways to divert my waste from entering landfills and dumpsites.

EH: What is the significance of water both to you as a native and to your practice?

AJ: Growing up in the Bahamas, the water had huge importance. It was a recreational space for me and my family. My father, my brother, and I loved to go fishing on the bay, and my family would go swimming on the beach at least three times a month. I feel like most families in the Bahamas have that in common with each other. Now, the water is often a space for meditation, whether I’m swimming in it or sitting close enough to hear the waves lap across the shore. Artistically, the water constantly inspires me.

EH: I wanted to be an architect when I was a kid, so I am particularly fascinated by your background but also your interest in science. Do you mind taking a moment to reflect on both?

AJ: One of the driving forces that led me toward digital photography as an artistic medium is its unique relationship with physics, computer science, and art history. I think that understanding the ways that natural and artificial light hits a subject, and the ways that you can modify the effects that these lights will have on the image while utilizing techniques and concepts like bounce flash, front and rear curtain sync, and the relationship between the subject that you’re photographing and the shutter speed of your camera becomes easier when you have some grasp of certain fundamentals of physics and computer science.

Ruben and the Bees, Rock Sound, Eleuthera, Bahamas, 2021.

EH: You did a series with beekeepers that looks really interesting. How did this come about?

AJ: Recently I’ve been interested in sustainably sourcing honey. This led me to learn more about bees, and I gained a greater appreciation for them and how impactful they are for ecosystems. A few friends and I completed an apiology certification, and we are currently housing a colony of bees in my backyard.

So much of apiology and beekeeping resonates with me and my approach to photography and industrial and architectural design. For instance, bees and their ecology aren’t just an example of circular systems working in harmony in nature. They can also be a lesson on how organisms can use the natural environment and boost the existing ecosystems—in a sense, being a positive presence and not just a passive presence. Similarly, art, and by extension photography, can not only articulate ideas and help to color and relay experiences but also can inspire and change points of view. In the same way, intentional industrial design and architecture can be more than just habitable spaces with small environmental footprints. They can have regenerative effects on the natural environment.

EH: What is the most important thing for readers to know about you and your practice?

AJ: My photography practice puts a heavy emphasis on making images with very limited to zero digital alterations. I have a huge appreciation for achieving 89 to 99 percent of the desired look for an image in-camera as opposed to relying on various software and digital tools. This also extends to my overall approach to being creative. For sure, there is often a meditative element once I get into the rhythm of making a physical object. Usually, a draft design or semifleshed out maquette serves as a way for me to explore concepts that previously only existed in my imagination.

This essay was first published in the Crafted issue (vol. 28, no. 1: Spring 2022).

Allan Jones is a portrait and documentary photographer and industrial designer with more than ten years of photographic and visual arts experience. He strives to create art that can elicit positive change in the world, that asks difficult and engaging questions about the subtextual, socioculturally, and ephemeral actions, interactions, and reactions in the Bahamas.
Elijah Heyward III, PhD is a native of Beaufort, South Carolina, which fuels his scholarship on contemporary Gullah Geechee Culture. A graduate of the University of North Carolina’s American Studies program, his research explores the complexity of the African American experience in the South through the arts, spirituality, and familial ties.
Header image: Untitled, unnamed cay in the Bahamas, 2015.