“I find it interesting how people can find community either through a shared interest or sometimes a shared trauma … how people from different backgrounds can come together collectively and build their own community.” – Cian Oba-Smith
Rising British photographer, Cian Oba-Smith, creates sensitive and thoroughly engaging work that poetically explores themes of identity, fraternity and belonging, and challenges media misrepresentation and pervasive narratives surrounding particular groups and communities.
His interest in photography first peaked while studying art during his late teenage years. His A-Level teacher at the time was a keen advocate of the analog format, and, as Oba-Smith himself asserts, detracted from traditional norms by inviting professional practitioners to speak to students about their careers, whilst also, during the initial year, banning any form of digital photography. Instead, students were taught how to operate manual cameras, along with darkroom printing, a process with which Oba-Smith quickly became impassioned.
“I found it interesting, the way you would go and take pictures and wouldn’t see them straight away, you would have to go through the process and see them appear in the darkroom. It’s quite a magical experience, seeing the image appear on the paper.”
In contrast to the style for which he is known today, during the formative years of his practice, Oba-Smith’s predominant interest was candid ‘Street’ photography, initially inspired by Matt Stuart, whose work he describes as having ‘real personality’.
Though during this period he also briefly experimented with digital, he later returned to analog, a format he continues to use today, in part owing to the aesthetic quality it brings, though largely due to his love of the process, which remains central to his approach.
“The thing with shooting on film is you value it more (than digital), it costs money, it’s expensive and you have a limited amount, so you’re not just snapping away, you have to be more conscious, more present, in the process. With digital, you do a lot of the work after you take the image as, in my opinion, it never comes out how you want it to look. With film, for me personally, I just do a bit of color balancing & dust spotting and then it looks how I want it to look.”
Underpinned by a deep interest in how eclectic individuals often form alliances through mutual passions, or at times, shared trauma, (as well as the feeling of being somewhat of an outsider himself), his work invariably focuses on groups who have historically been misrepresented, in an attempt to portray them in a more forthright and nuanced manner.
“Obviously sometimes people have had a similar upbringing but for example, in Bikelife people come together from different communities, or in Concrete Horsemen, although they’re not blood-related, they are like a family who look out for each other. They’re living in quite a dangerous place and they’ve found a way of keeping kids off the streets and creating brotherhood.”
It is the award-winning ‘Concrete Horseman’, one of his own personal favorites, which perhaps best exemplifies his style. Depicting a small community of urban horsemen in one of Philadelphia’s most deprived neighborhoods, Oba-Smith’s imagery beautifully imparts the deep bond that the men share, whilst simultaneously challenging pervading stereotypes surrounding African American masculinity.
His trip to Philadelphia was his first visit to the US, and though as an outsider he initially felt slightly intimidated navigating one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, mutual trust and friendship quickly developed with those he photographed.
“I’m Nigerian and Irish, I consider myself black, but I’m very light-skinned black, though going to America, there, if you’re black at all, you’re just black. I think for people it’s easier to trust someone when you feel you have something in common, obviously, I was raised in the UK not the US, but I have experienced racism, so there’s common ground which helps people have more trust.
… I also think you can tell when you meet people, you have a sixth sense about them.”
From Iceland to Ireland’s most remote isle, or a pair of housing estates a few miles from where he grew up in North London, he invariably finds commonality with the communities that he photographs, approaching them with a combination of honesty, respect, and genuine interest. It is this veracity, combined with a rare dexterity and artistry, (most notably his masterful apperception of light) that has engendered a wealth of truly compelling and beautiful work, and which will continue to inform the foundations for his practice henceforth.
“I did a project on redlining which hasn’t come out yet, looking at how segregation policies affected particular communities, and I’m working on a broader project about segregation in America. Obviously, society, in general, has become aware of these issues, racism, some of the things I was looking at, but when I did the redlining project, most people had never heard of it as a policy … I felt it was important to be discussed publicly, so I made it because I wanted to try and contribute to the dialogue in some way.”
All images © Cian Oba-Smith