With over 27 thousand followers on Instagram, Samoan-born photographer Apela Bell has wowed the New Zealand fashion industry with his creative eye. At only 21 years of age he’s shot lookbooks for New Zealand designers, editorials for magazines and most recently collaborated with Parris Goebel for her music debut. Talanoa intern Falen Tuuga Stevenson sits down with Apela to talanoa and find out more of who he is, what motivates him and how he feels as a Pacific person in mainstream photography.

I was born in Samoa but was raised in Auckland, New Zealand. Last year I graduated from Auckland University of Technology (AUT) with a Bachelors in Communication Studies majoring in Digital Media. I recently completed the Kingsize Scholarship School as well in Ponsonby, which was an amazing learning experience. I grew up surrounded with artists, which explains why I have always consciously been inclined towards Art and Music as it dominated my household. It wasn’t until my second year of University that I took Photography as an elective paper at the Art and Design School at AUT, and quickly discovered my passion for it.

Do you remember your first photography gig – what has motivated you to continue to take photos?mary1609

My first photography gig was set up by my tutor Meighan Ellis and the project was to shoot a lookbook for AUT. At the time I had no clue how to shoot on location with natural light, so I kind of fluked the whole shoot. I was shooting on AUTO and had my images set to JPEGS not RAW which limited the editing I could do with the photos, but I still liked the outcome of it. That motivated me to continue because I needed to learn so much more, which I have since. The best thing I have learnt about photography is that it doesn’t feel like work for me, I’ve got a lot more to learn but I could not see myself doing anything else.

Would you say there is an element of storytelling to your work?

Definitely. With photography especially, I always try to convey a story through different compositions and portray mood through my lighting and posing. Some fashion photographers always go for the high energy shots, contorting their models in crazy poses, but I like to stay minimal as possible. I always tell my models “angst” is the mood. Still being a young adult the expression is still something I’m familiar with and that a lot of other people can engage and be compelled by.

How does it feel being one of the few Pacific mainstream photographers?

Being in an industry where you see few Pacific faces can be disheartening. I’ve had encounters with clients surprised I was even Samoan. But the support from the Pacific people has been amazing -all the continuous support throughout my photography journey. I hope in the future, I see more Pacific photographers shooting editorials and lookbooks. Don’t let the perception that we don’t fit in get to you!

paris_talanoaWhat have been the biggest highlights of your career so far?

Working alongside Parris Goebel for the release of her PARRI$ PROJECT single cover Friday. Just going onto Spotify and seeing the single cover is huge.

Are there any photographers that influence you?

I’m influenced by Charlotte Wales, Alasdair McLellan, Wolfgang Tillmans, Harley Weir, Mert and Marcus.

Where to from here?

I have worked on the official photos for The Baby Mama’s Club. The whole cast is brown, and working alongside them has been great. Being able to tell their story through photography was an amazing opportunity. On the side, I will keep shooting, doing personal work and hopefully travelling more.

Quick fire talanoa
Nationality (villages/iwi): Samoan and my village is Fusi, Safata.
Favourite island food: Oh this is a hard one, it’s a toss-up between sua fa’i (banana soup) or Oka (raw fish, vegetables and coconut cream).
Current TV obsession: I’m just starting Stranger Things on Netflix, I’m loving the aesthetic of the show with the whole 80’s throwback vibe.
Who inspires you: My mum does, she’s sacrificed a lot for me to have a better life and has never stopped smiling. So she definitely inspires me!
If you weren’t a photographer, you would be… a Creative Director, doing some Social Media Marketing, Working in a showroom, modelling booker etc. Anything that falls under my Communications degree.
Describe yourself in three words: carefree, loving and persistent.
Where in the world would you want to be right now… Salar de Uyuni would be pretty cool.

We’d like to thank Apela for sharing his story. All photos in this interview are credited to him, and if you’d like to see more of his work, head to his website and Instagram