All Great Art is Personal — A Conversation with Cheryl Faux on her first NFT Photography Collection
All great art is personal. Through whatever medium an artist uses to communicate, they give up a piece of themselves for public viewing, which is no easy feat. Cheryl Faux, in her first NFT collection, (8.4872–13.2356), pulls this off effortlessly, giving the viewer access to her homeland of Sierra Leone with the unique perspective of both a native and a visitor. In this interview we spoke about the bravery it takes to make art, art’s ability to correct misconceptions, and why storytellers are important. With thoughtful responses to every question, Cheryl proves her roles as both a thinker and storyteller.
– interview by hole.nyc
This project that you’re releasing, (8.4872, -13.2356), seems very personal. With pictures of your family and home, was there any hesitation on your part in making them public?
Hell yeah! There was a lot of hesitation, as well as imposter syndrome happening in the background. It takes a lot of bravery to be an artist and I’ve always applauded creators for doing so — but I’m glad that I’m now being the brave one.
Even outside of Web3, I’ve never really embraced the photographer label. In an age of Instagram, there are all these preconceived expectations of what a photographer looks like, what they shoot, what their set-up should be in order to be considered a “photographer.” That paired with my own anxiety made it really hard for me to share my art on Instagram — let alone sell it.
On top of that, I’m not used to being so vulnerable. I think a lot of children of immigrants would agree that you don’t learn how to express your emotions from your parents — a lot of times they just tell you to keep it together. It’s been a lifelong journey for me to be intentionally expressive with my feelings and my thoughts, and this project is a big step for me towards that.
What has really inspired and pushed me positively is HOLE and the awesome artists we’ve featured. The first Twitter space HOLE hosted was for Karsen Daily and her poetic genesis drop. She mentions that we, the creators, are the ones who are bringing humanity to the blockchain. Even if you never fully understand the tech that powers the blockchain, our one obligation is to bring authenticity and bring our essence to the space so it can be cemented on ETH or Poly or Ⱥlgorand forever.
It’s truly serendipitous that I was visiting family in Freetown when this Twitter space was happening — something came over me while I was up at 4 a.m. listening in, and in that moment I knew that I wanted the beauty, the wonder, the richness, the rawness of Freetown to forever be locked in my heart, people’s wallets, and the chain forever.
So yeah, this project hits on a lot of firsts for me: First time I’m charging anyone for my photos; first time I’m sharing my thoughts on what it’s like being a first-generation American; first time I’ve expressed in words what it’s like straddling these two worlds. And perhaps most importantly, it’s my first time being super honest and vulnerable with the world.
How many photographs did you have altogether and what was your process for choosing which ones went into this project?
I got really into film photography and capturing little moments of time around the second time I went to Freetown, in 2018. I remember going to the photo shop in Berkeley and buying tons of Kodak Portra and Fujifilm for the trip. Probably brought twelve rolls of film with me and ended up with 375 photos.
When it came to curating the collection, I had a few filters in mind:
First, how personal is this image to my family member? Would they be upset if I told them I’m selling a straight-on portrait of their face to someone they don’t know? While there are some shots of faces in this collection, any NFT featuring an elder has them in the shadows or shows them at an angle where you can’t really identify them.
Then I asked: Does it make you lean in? I’m a slut for street photography. To me, nothing beats showing life as it is, especially if it’s busy and there’s a ton of energy coming from the people I photograph. I consider myself an observer, someone who is just taking it all in and capturing it. Daniel Arnold is a huge inspiration to me because he takes a similar approach: We’re not altering or enhancing what we see, it simply is. And when you’re just capturing something as is, there’s a lot in the background you can get lost in, rather than just focusing on the person in the forefront.
My third consideration was, what parts of Freetown and Salone am I featuring? I’ve only been to Sierra Leone three times, so even though I do feel super connected to the country, I’m still exploring the peninsula with fresh eyes, and I wanted the collection to have that same feel. Salone is beautiful from all angles, doesn’t matter if you’re in the countryside or right in downtown Freetown. It’s not just the beach, it’s not just the village, it’s not just people living in poverty — it’s everything all in one place.
You’ll definitely see these filters come to life as you go through the collection when it launches on March 11, 2022 — 230 years after Freetown was cemented as the birthplace of my lineage and many others. I designed my rarity guide to center the different components that make up Salone — the people, the transportation, the location, etc. I even have a fun one called “I Spy” which is meant to get viewers to really examine the photo and see what they can find in it. You’ll even see this with my descriptions for the NFTs — for some of them I give a little backstory, but sometimes I just flat out ask the viewer, what do you see?
Freetown and Sierra Leone have such a rich history, yet all people tend to talk about is conflict and blood diamonds. Could you describe these places for someone who has never been?
Sierra Leone is perfectly nestled between the ocean, the jungle mountains and trees, and a busy capital city that develops a little bit more each year.
In my opinion, the biggest thing to know about Freetown is that it’s a beach town. I think when some people hear “Africa,” they envision desert, the safari, or the Savanna wetlands — which definitely speaks to other parts of the continent — but Freetown is surrounded by ocean views, beautiful beaches, and tons of palm trees. I hope everyone who has visited a beach town or lives on the West Coast, can now understand the personality and overall tone of the city — it’s super laid-back and calming (except around the markets!) and the people are kind and welcoming.
One of the best ways to spend your evening is to eat dinner by the beach and watch the sunset with the stray dogs and the kids playing futbol on the sand. Then once you’re nice and full, you can walk up the road and eat some delicious ice cream.
The point being that Freetown is like any other city where all you want to do is eat, shop, and read by the beach. But like all cities, there are really rich people but also a lot of people who live in poverty. So driving around, you’ll see huge compounds with tall gates with barbed wire up on top, but you’ll also see families and children living in shacks that are stacked on top of one another. You’ll see people walking miles just to get to school, but you’ll also see someone who has shipped a 2022 Bentley over so they can drive it around. While tourism in Sierra Leone still needs to be revamped, there are also a lot of ex-pats from China, Lebanon, and America moving in, and there’s a lot of development happening to support them — casinos, Chinese grocery stores, new beachfront bars, rooftop hotels.
Bottom line is it’s a gorgeous country with genuine people, that is dealing with its own issues of corruption and poverty — but what country doesn’t have to deal with those things?
Dropping a collection of 107 photographs on its own is a feat, but you have put together a full NFT project behind it. Could you talk a bit about what comes with the photographs and what was the motivating factor behind choosing these items?
Thank you! Yeah, as much as it would have been really simple for me to just sell my images as NFTs and be done with it, I really wanted to take this collection a step further and give each holder a piece of Freetown beyond the visual.
So once you’re an official holder of Homecoming or (8.4872, -13.2356), you can fill out an intake form, which will be available on my site, and every quarter I’ll pick a winner of a giveaway.
As of right now, all holders will have four opportunities a year to win a physical prize:
· A print of their NFT, pretty typical.
· Leones, which is the official currency in the country. I picked Leones because money is such a big deal in Freetown. Very few people have and use a debit card, so cash is king. The conversion rate is crazy, so $100 is 1,000,000 Leones. Imagine going to dinner and having to count out 3,500,000 Leones. It’s wild. I figured it’d be cool to share that and what it looks like with my holders.
· A tailored piece of clothing. One of the best things about visiting Freetown is coming back with a bunch of fire outfits. The tailors in Salone go crazy. All you need to do is buy the fabric from the market, show them a photo of the design you’d like, have them take your measurements and boom — your own couture is ready for you. Would love to be able to share that excitement with my holders.
· (EVENTUALLY) A variety of tchotchkes. Depending on the success of this project and how much is left after I donate it and pay myself, I want to be able to get in the practice of buying little trinkets that are made in Salone and surprising my holders with them. Whether it’s a wood carving, a sculpture, or even a homemade dish from my grandma that I freeze and mail to their house. People from Salone are extremely giving and I want to embody that with this collection.
Speaking of NFTs, how did you get involved in the Web3 space?
Mel — one of HOLE’s founders and the HBIC (even if she doesn’t want to be called that). We worked at the same LA agency together years ago and had immediately bonded over food, weed, and her dog Mona. That’s why we kept in touch even after Mel moved back to NYC and launched HOLE. By the end of January 2022, beginning of February, she told me HOLE was moving into Web3 and trying to build a new agency model where the community is prioritized and not just the clients.
Not gonna lie — even after I joined HOLE’s Discord, went to a few meetings, and even got my friend Brendan to join us, I was still confused on what Web3 was and why anyone would want to invest so much money into it. This was right around the same time that PFPs were becoming mainstream and selling for over 100K, and when Ye was in the news saying he wanted no part in NFTs because they didn’t “impact the real world” — so there was a huge knowledge gap on top of a media dumpster fire saying Web3 was pointless.
It wasn’t until I read a LinkedIn post (yes, I’m still on there!) from Simone Banna, creator of Friendly Black Hotties. She was explaining their mission of onboarding Black women to become Web3 thought leaders, and it finally clicked: Web3 is home to a plethora of communities building their own utopias. People are taking their frustrations from the Web2 world and attempting to reverse them in Web3. Black women are often left out of the tech world — enter Friendly Black Hotties. Agencies typically undervalue artists and their skills — enter HOLE. Obviously Web3 is so much more, but understanding it in those terms not only helped me get a baseline understanding for the space, but also made me super passionate about discovering more projects and learning about the worlds that they’re determined to build.
So now, I spend most of my time jumping around Twitter Spaces trying to absorb as much knowledge from other folks and learn about the new worlds they’re trying to build on the blockchain.
How do you think the tools that make up Web3 will help artists?
This question has so many layers, but I’ll touch on the layer that most resonates with me, which is community. In Web2, tools are products, but in Web3 your most important product is your community. The people who RT you, the people who gas you up, the people you can go to with stupid questions without judgment, the people who’ll go to a metaverse concert with you, the list goes on and on.
There’s an unspoken truth for adults that everyone feels and doesn’t really talk about, but it’s really fucking difficult to make friends outside of college and work. Most of my good friends are advertising friends, which is fine, but Web3 is magical in the sense that it opens up your aperture in life, so you can have friends for every passion in your life. Want to talk about cannabis and the future of growing? There’s a space for that. Have questions on Polygon vs ETH? There’s a space for that. Are you only trying to stake crypto and flip as much as possible? — there’s a space for that too.
As artists make the transition from Web2 to Web3, it’s going to be the welcoming communities, not the PFPs, that reel them in and make them stay for the long-term. You can’t ask a PFP for advice on your music project, can you?
Do you see yourself doing more NFTs in the future?
100 percent. As I mentioned previously, I was just in Freetown in February and I definitely see myself doing another collection around Freetown. My goal is to get enough funds where I’ll be able to offer my holders the opportunity to physically fly to Freetown and experience it themselves.
I know the more that I strengthen my knowledge around the full power of the blockchain, the more unique and innovative my drops will become. I was in a space and @PeteTheEth was talking about music NFTs and how all musicians and managers should know how to read and write their own smart contracts. I never thought I’d want to dive that deep into the blockchain, but he’s right! Smart contracts are the Web3 equivalent of the terms and conditions that companies make you sign, but that no one ever reads. Why are we limiting ourselves by not fully understanding the technology that fuels our projects? Why are we okay with not having full control over our smart contracts?
I have no idea how long it’ll take for me, but once more people get on that wave, there will be a lot more projects coming out with even more interesting perks, as well as long-term benefits to the creators themselves.
You’ve described yourself as a thinker and a storyteller, which are essential people to have in society. What, if any, responsibility do you think those titles hold?
I’ve never really thought about the responsibility of upholding those titles because it’s always been very natural for me. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how powerful it is to be able to codify your skills so that one, I can hold myself accountable and ensure I’m living up to the things I’ve set out for myself, and two, I can share it with others and encourage them to develop their own version of these skills.
As a thinker, you have to constantly take in information from an array of sources and determine, is this useful, is this meaningful, will this be needed in the future? The biggest thing to note is that you’re not just taking in this information for yourself and your own mental safe keeping — it’s really so you can relay new forms of thinking or new ideas to others. Good thinkers are great lone wolves — they’re super smart and craft beautiful think pieces or creative projects by themselves. The best thinkers love to be in a community setting and use their never-resting brain to inspire others to dream big, or simply to consider all the pros and cons of a situation. To build on that, sometimes being a thinker is helping others analyze their own thoughts, helping them filter through the trash and pushing them towards their goals.
Being a thinker and a storyteller often go hand in hand. As you’re coming across these new ideas, how are you expressing it to people in a way that they’d find engaging, but also in a way that’s action-oriented? How can you spur a chain reaction (even if that action is more thinking and more analyzing) from the story you’re telling? Personally, I feel like I’m on a lifelong journey to find my favorite form of storytelling. When I was younger I used to make infographics about my favorite shows and movies. I made one featuring the entire Bluth Family from Arrested Development. I even made an infographic that broke down the different vampire universes and what being a vampire meant in True Blood vs Twilight vs Vampire Diaries (LOL). Now I’m really loving film photography. Typically I talk a lot and ramble my ideas, but with photography, you literally can’t do that. You can only present the image, and it’s up to the viewer to examine what they see, how they feel, what this image may be about. It’s strangely freeing.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
It’s okay to stay in your own little universe, but don’t be afraid to come out and interact with people outside of it. It’s scary, but that’s where you’ll meet people who’ll accept you, push you to be better, and will make you feel like you belong.
Cheryl Faux is a strategist + film photographer based in LA. After attending advertising school in Chicago, Cheryl has worked at agencies in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. She’s passionate about “the people” having the power to craft, mold, and transform the culture that brands try to profit on. She’s dedicated to bringing realness to content.