Kwesi Abbensetts is sitting on a fold-out patio chair only an inch away from the edge of a four-story rooftop on the Lower East Side. “Don’t worry about it,” he says.
“I have a tenuous relationship with NY.” The Guyana-born, Brooklyn-based photographer laughs as he looks down onto the street and back up at the cityscape to his right.
An artist driven by physicality and freedom, creativity has been in his blood since birth. When his parents didn’t get him a toy he liked, he went home and made it himself. A few decades later and Abbensetts spends his time either working on moving images and photography exhibitions or dreaming about the house he owns on a hill in Jamaica.
After convincing him to come away from the edge, he asks about my camera. “I’ve always been shooting with a Pentax, it gives me a certain feeling I could never get with your Nikon or a Canon,” he said. Curious about what he meant, I inquired what that feeling was, as his work doesn’t follow any golden rules of photography.
“You spend some time getting to know the structure and ideas of the art, and after that you are allowed to bend it and make it your own. Knowing the substance allows you to build on it and create work that is solely your own,” he explained.
At this point Abbensetts notices an empty lot across the street and asks me if I found it as beautiful and interesting as he did. Puzzled, I attempted to assign some intrinsic value to a vacant plot of land.
Catching me still perplexed, he explained, “I grew up in Guyana and know that having a plot of land and a house—even a tiny house—makes you feel grounded. We live in cities here and we live in boxes, it’s efficient and it makes sense, but it just doesn’t make you feel grounded. So I try to make my work my ground, my plot of land. The photos I create are my seeds.”
With the sky and cityscape looming above us, we discussed his journey to photography and why it’s okay to be pushed around by New York City.
Where did your journey start? Where are you from?
I came from Guyana when I was 18 and all I knew was that I was going to come to college and study communications and something will happen. I worked at a local television station as a young teenager host at a TV show in Guyana. Those things spurred me into a creative and visual space, and after I came to America, I lived in NY for a quick moment but ended up by DC. I went to college there, at Montgomery College where I went from an advertising design major, where I realized I didn’t know how to draw, to a film-focused degree and ending up moving to Brooklyn College.
When I finished with school, I didn’t want to make films and around then, the digital camera was coming into vogue, that was around 2005 I would say, so I figured I’d get one and I would teach myself. It was a Fuji, my first digital camera. From there, I started playing with it and learning more and more and thats how it all started.
What were your parent’s expectations of you? Did you always want to be an artist?
I grew up with my mom in Guyana and lived in Trinidad and Barbados with her for a while too. When I came here, I was expected to go to college, do the traditional thing and get a traditional job, not within the arts. She would have liked something corporate.
I had to figure out what I really want for myself. Your parents’ expectations become a force that shape your own idea of who you are. But you also have to figure out what it is you want to do.
Your online portfolio and social media are associated with the name ‘Spaceship George’. What’s the story behind that name?
My first name is George, so my name is George Kwesi Abbensetts, however Spaceship George was a name that I figured would be remembered because it’s a name you don’t hear everyday. George is comical in its own way, and Spaceship infers a crazy scenario where you are like, ‘What is going on?’ It was the name I used for my first blog when I had a blogspot, which still exists actually. It’s one of those names that carries a memory and leaves memories in your head. My grandpa’s name is George so maybe I am paying homage to him subconsciously?
You are located in NYC now. How has that influenced you? What are your biggest influences in the city?
When I came here, I couldn’t figure it out. Why is it so fast? How do things multiply at such quick rates? The energy here was so strong, and my manner and energy is laid back and I hate forcing the pace, I take my time. NY is all about being pushed, you learn the rhythm with time. You learn it and then you begin to settle and get used to how the city pushes you around.
But now I’ve entered a stage where I am romancing NY, you grow up and you watch movies and read books about NY and we are living here, and we don’t realize that why we are here is because we were romanticized by those stories. But you forget that because everyone is hustling and trying to make it. But I’m starting to see the beauty again, even in the graffiti in the city. You see beauty in the little things.
I’m in love with the space and vibrations of NY. Eventually I want to break away from her, from all this concrete.
What’s next for you? Are you looking to experiment with any new formats?
I want to explore video and moving images a bit more in depth. Maybe make a movie? Developing my name and moving into a better commercial and fine arts space because I want to do work that has legacy aspects and yet shared among the masses. I’d love to see it all come together.
But—and I keep telling to this to everyone—I have this house on a hill in Jamaica and just being able to live there is a dream. I’ve done a ton of photography there and I explore many areas and it causes me to develop a fondness for the energy for the people and the land.