Flo Ngala’s personality matches her photography—she’s elegant, refined, urbane, but not inaccessible. Her willowy frame ensconced in a vintage pink Ralph Lauren pantsuit, she’s undeniably fly, but her fashionista exterior belies a squishy, uproarious joy, always lurking around the corner and ready to burst out like her broad, cheeky smile.
I first met Ngala when she twirled on the ice as a young girl in Riverbank State Park during the early 2000s. “Flo Jo,” as she was then known, and my daughter went twice a week to Figure Skating in Harlem (FSH), an academic and leadership enrichment program that teaches brown girls how to skate.
So perhaps it was inevitable, if not ironic, that at the top of this year, Ngala shot FSH in a photo essay for the venerable New York Times, landing the front page. Imagine that: little girls from Harlem at the literal center of the media universe, not singing some familiar sad song, but one of their own making.
Ngala’s trained eye captured the beauty of little girls and young women from Harlem, lit perfectly to enrich their myriad skin tones. Girls in glasses and grown-ness, sharing secrets and crinkly eyes, serious in headscarves or graceful with hands raised to skies; Ngala took them as they were, laughing, smirking, dabbing, posing, not paying attention. It was a powerful nod to that tribe of black girls who manage to carve space into hard rocks of invisibility. It was the quintessential “I see you” moment—to Ngala’s community, her humanity, her very self.
That honor was just one of the pinch-me moments in Ngala’s last few years. The 23-year-old Nigerian-Cameroonian-American-Harlemite has already reached feats photographers twice her age aspire to. Her work runs the gamut: from editorial to street photography, to behind-the-scenes flicks of some of the hottest rappers on the scene today—including one Belcalis Almánzar Cephus, aka Cardi B.
In fact, Flo and Cardi are sharing similar trajectories, in that their success has come in rolling waves, one more heady than the next, including Flo’s most recent Behind the Scenes shots from Cardi and Bruno Mars’ video, “Tease Me.” Just weeks before that, Ngala was tapped to shoot part of a Nike campaign, “Until We All Win,” for Black History Month; then she took a quick jaunt to Atlanta during Super Bowl weekend to shoot owners’ parties and Cardi’s performances. Her Times piece even led to an interview on the Today show with Al Roker.
“It was obviously full circle being that I was a member of Figure Skating in Harlem and then, also seeing the power of the right people seeing your work and the right people believing in your work,” says Ngala.
One of those people, Eve Lyons, a photo editor at the Times, says she was immediately impressed by the intimate moments Ngala captured.
“The thing that I’m mostly drawn to with Flo is the authentic emotion that she captures with people,” said Lyons. “Also, she has a really amazing way of interacting with people where they are able to be themselves, which is really special.”
Like many artists of her generation, Ngala, who most consistently uses a Canon 5D Mark III (along with her iPhone, of course), is also an expert in self-portraits (“selfies” is too trite a term for what she does), which she shares regularly on social media and her website. She began studying photography when she was about 13, while traveling from Harlem to her tony private school in the Bronx, about an hour’s commute each way.
“I would shoot people I would see in Harlem, on the subway. It just kind of started off as a fascination with people,” she explains. “And then as that progressed, when I started to use digital, the kind of instant nature of it kind of made me experiment in the ways in which I could use my camera, but also ways in which I could be creative.”
She says she still sees the world in terms of lighting, which is essential to capturing the glow of dark skin. “For me, lighting is where it starts,” she explains. “I think that lighting can really make or break an image.”
Ngala got her professional career rolling by taking pictures on the video set of “All The Way Up,” by Fat Joe and Remy Ma, where she was cast as an extra. She said she sent her work to everybody—the director, the producer, the make-up artist—and impressed more than a few, including an exec at Atlantic Records.
“I was like, I love these pictures, I want you all to see them,” she recalls. “And then the producer ended up really liking them, and he connected me with one of the Sr. Vice Presidents at Atlantic, who has gone on to be a total mentor and big sister. She invited me to come and shoot Gucci Mane when he came out of jail.”
That was in 2016, and through that connection, a year later, Ngala shot Cardi B at the BET Hip Hop Awards in Miami. Ngala’s worked almost exclusively for the label shooting Cardi since then, capturing coveted behind-the-scenes shots as the star appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, as well as her “Bartier Cardi,” and “Be Careful” videos. Ngala also documented Cardi for Vogue, while she was pregnant and getting ready for her first Met Gala in 2018.
“I really love those images because she’s a huge celebrity and she’s signed to a huge label and her budgets are really high and the production is amazing,” Ngala gushes. “So I’m able to take advantage of really great lighting, and costuming, and outfits, and stuff. And I get to fly different places and do what I love.”
Some years ago, she eschewed the title of “artist,” but says she’s come around some.
“I was like, ‘a picture taker,’ ‘a photographer,’” Ngala explains. “I captured things that exist. I remember the first time someone called me an artist. It was my next door neighbor, who worked for the New York Foundation for the Arts, and I would babysit her kids and it made me feel kind of weird. So it took me a long time to kind of come into that, even when I was doing my self-portraits. And I think that was maybe my youth, a little bit of like, “Wha?” Like, no.”
If Ngala is not an artist, she’s definitely in the building. She recounts the time that she reached out to BFA, “a really popping agency.” What makes that especially fulfilling was that in 2016, she had contacted them to shoot the esteemed MET Gala.
“I had DMed the head of their agency, and said, ‘Hi, My name is Flo and I want to shoot the Met Gala for you.’” Ngala says she was rejected at that time, but two years later, that’s exactly where she wound up, shooting a pregnant Cardi for the fashion bible. And guess who reached out?
“On Instagram, I literally showed the picture of me in the [BFA] office, and I put the response from last year of him telling me I can’t shoot it. So it was very nice, like I really manifested that, a huge moment for me,” she says.
One of the jobs Ngala says she one day aspires to is perhaps creative director at an ad agency. She knows there currently aren’t many black women in these positions—but when has that stopped her before?
“There’s just a lack of access and a lack of knowledge for people of color about advertising, and about that world,” says Ngala. “But people have great ideas, all the time, every day. So it’s always baffling that a lot of creative departments have creative directors who are respected and who have just white guys. I’m sure they’re super creative but there needs to be a push (for more people) on a serious level.”
In fact, this Harlem hustler knows the sky is the limit.
“I’m like, what do I NOT wanna do? I wanna land a cover. I want to travel more. I want to go to different countries to shoot. I want to do that more,” she says, smiling. “I want to [be] creative [and] direct more of my work. Not just a hired photographer, but a more creative person in general who can bring an idea to the table and then see it through.”