A4 Sounds is tucked away in St. Joseph’s Parade, a little nook off Dorset Street where the budding Autumn sun creates a crisp line which rises up the bright blue wall as it sets.

This is where I meet photographer Vanessa Ifediora. She is sitting in her exhibition space between a table of prints and a table of Capri Suns, music playing softly in the background, and immediately jumps up to greet us. Hair tied back and wearing no make-up, she’s welcoming and full of manic energy, looking around constantly as if still in disbelief that this is real.

“I think it was just surreal because I was planning this at my desk one day in work,” she says, “contacting people on Twitter to see if they’d be interested in participating, and everyone said yes, so then I kind of had to do it. I was blown away. I never intended to do it as an exhibition, it felt just really cathartic to have this down, like this was something I’ve only ever had in my head and now it’s… out. It’s tangibly real. I think it was the third shoot we were doing and I was like ‘wouldn’t it be so funny if I did like a whole exhibition?’ and now I’m standing here… in my exhibition space …” The feeling is kind of relatable; it’s strange meeting the person who ran the Twitter @Ireland account for a week and used it to post videos of her dancing to Paramore in various locations throughout Dublin.

Ifediora was born and raised in Belfast, spending a few years in Japan — where she fell into acting and extras work — before moving to Dublin to go to acting school. This move is in the heart of Zone In. “In the run up to it I was like ‘oh girl, what have you done?’ It wasn’t panic but it was more just like, oh, I was only joking,” she laughs. “We set up on Wednesday and I was like, how did we get here? All of these people were complete strangers. The first time I met them was when I took their picture, but a lot of them have become my closest friends here in Dublin, so I think going through that journey with them has helped me be less nerve-wracked. I reckon it’ll be Monday morning when I’m at my desk again that I’ll be like… Whoa.” 

“In the run up to it I was like ‘oh girl, what have you done?’ It wasn’t panic but it was more just like, oh … I was only joking”

The intensely personal nature of the project, which she says she only began to “get it out”, may be what made it hard to envision as a real thing that people will see. It’s made up of triptychs, each one featuring a different person and inspired by what Ifediora visualises when she hears a certain song. The description of the exhibition states “10 songs, 9 strangers,” songs which she used to deal with her maladaptive daydreaming.

“Honestly, I felt really embarrassed explaining it to the people. Like ‘hey, so not to be weird but I kind of have this thing where …’ but everyone was super sound, there was no judgement. It was a lot of encouragement and a lot of positivity about it, and that’s why I thought it would be interesting to make it an exhibition. I was just thinking that I’m just gonna take these pictures and I’m gonna put it on my hard drive and forget about it, but it was only by talking to all of these people while I was shooting that I thought “maybe! Maybe I’ll put it out there and see if people make fun of me or not!”  

The daydreaming started “when I was around 7 or 8. Everyone daydreams, but this is daydreaming to the point where you’re completely unproductive. One of the biggest things for that was music, and I would have my headphones on all the time. Whether it was a happy song or a sad song, even just the tempo of the song would dictate whatever was happening in the daydreams. There would be songs I liked but I couldn’t use them for daydreaming, songs that I didn’t actually like that much and I would be like ‘this is the song for whenever I’m daydreaming about this particular thing’. So whenever I started getting help for my depression at the start of this year, it actually had the secondary effect of helping me control the daydreams. There would be some times, even in the run up to this, where…” she pauses, and the upbeat music echoes for a moment, “it wasn’t upsetting but I was talking so much at the Rape Crisis Centre about these kinds of things that I felt that draw to pull me back in again, but I was able to resist. It was very very new that I suddenly wasn’t daydreaming anymore, but I was still listening to these songs and I still have this really emotional connection to the song, and a visual connection because my mind goes somewhere. I can only think of horrible metaphors right now, like when you’re holding in a fart and you’ve gotta let it go. You can edit that out if you want.” She laughs.

She takes me around the exhibition, and the candour and passion with which she discusses organising the shoots as well as her gratefulness to her subjects’ generosity is real and refreshing. At one point she recounts the process of shooting a moody forest scene inspired by Florence and the Machine’s ‘Never Let Me Go’. “I asked ‘can you lie down in these leaves?’ and she said ‘yeah, for sure!’ She’s lying down and when she got up I noticed that her skin was red. She was like ‘they were nettles, but it’s fine!’ The guilt of me. Honestly she could turn to me in five years and say ‘I need a kidney’ and I’d have to give it to her because I owe her so badly.” She recounts getting kicked out of the Jervis Shopping Centre car park after “ten seconds” during her muted shoot with Dublin rapper Mango, who she says “mams everywhere would love […] if his music wasn’t so scary.”

“The candour and passion with which she discusses organising the shoots as well as her gratefulness to her subjects’ generosity is real and refreshing”

Everyone who follows Ifediora on social media knows she’s funny. She constantly tweets irreverent clap-backs and roasts herself, and it’s no shock that she’s just as funny in person. At one point she stops talking suddenly to point out to the dictaphone that she’s doing “amazing hand gestures”, describes the slow choreo in a k-pop video as resembling “sexual Tai Chi”, and is constantly in disbelief about how beautiful her subjects are, gushing about one girl’s “gorgeously thick brows”, exclaiming “here I am trying to draw mine on… the struggle is too real.”

As for the actual exhibition, every photo and triptych is gorgeous. Each subject is completely different and keenly-observed in a way that captures their distinct individuality, while expressing Ifediora’s vision in a way that feels almost like a dream manifested in reality. A highlight is the triptych, inspired by the song ‘Penkele’ by Moelogo, which features a dark-skinned man in a bright orange hoodie wearing an ivory mask on Dublin Bus. “I stole this mask from my dad’s house. I love this song because it’s a kind of fusion between that London grime and Afrobeat. I’m still of Nigerian heritage, but I always considered myself as just this Belfast girl. From being tiny, people were like ‘okay but where’re you from? Where’re you actually from? When are you going home?’ Sometimes just out of curiosity and sometimes out of pure malice, and I kind of had this feeling of ‘you’re not even really trying to get to know me at all’. I would be at the bus stop and people would be all like: ‘When’s the number 7 coming? Where are you from?’ Like, are you serious?”

“I would be at the bus stop and people would be all like ‘when’s the number 7 coming? Where are you from?’ Like, are you serious?”

She speaks with a humour and levity that belies the weight of the topic, maybe because it served as such flammable creative fuel. “It just felt really alienating or something, so I kind of wanted to do this thing where you have this really distinctive Dublin Bus, and this guy Sam is a Dublin City kid. Sometimes I feel like people don’t really see you, they just see something foreign. That’s what I wanted to do with him having this mask over his face. The thing is though, the mask is beautiful! And there’s nothing wrong with the mask, and you can ask me any questions you want to ask about my heritage or whatever, as long as you’re still seeing me for the person that I am.” She gets more animated as she describes the progression from wearing the mask to being free of it in the third picture, and especially when she talks about the use of bright colours. “This is where I had fun. In terms of it just being personally me, but also in terms of my style of photography, I’m like ‘aw yeah’.”

Funnelling pain and boundless imagination into vibrance, vitality and healing, with the help of real people to draw out previously hidden ambitions, imbues this collection of photos with a confident vulnerability. True catharsis through art. Ifediora speaks with regret about the Black Lives Matter marches happening while she was in Japan, while her own anxiety was so high that she “couldn’t even leave the house, and it was so upsetting for black people everywhere to see that this was happening, but I felt like I couldn’t even use my own voice or anything or stand up and be counted because I was just confined to my home.” This muted sadness permeates the triptych inspired by Sampha’s song ‘Blood On Me’ of a sad-eyed Brazilian model, who caught her attention because he had “such a softness to him and such a genuine warmth”.

Soon the exhibition closes its third day and the sun has risen all the way up the wall. Having seen everything, we go out to the whimsical courtyard to take some pictures and no direction is needed; Ifediora snaps into poses with poise and fluidity, less pure model than someone who can envision the best poses through a lens and inhabit them with ease. One second she’s playing with a couple of dogs, grinning widely, the next she’s expertly vamping. This captures the duality of a vibrant young creative, as does her assertion that what’s next for her is more shoots, after which she’ll be searching for “a distant rich uncle to buy me a house probably.” Being zoned in doesn’t mean your focus can’t encompass a whole lot.

Zone In ran from September 27th-30th in A4 Sounds, St. Joseph’s Parade.