Cian Oba-Smith is a photography graduate (UWE) from London capturing people and places in a manner that is at once strikingly realist and also dreamily romantic. Oba-Smith’s photography is often concerned with the fringes of society and has a particular interest in the relationship between people and their environments. He investigates little known communities and subcultures around the world, from the “Bikelife” project – which captures the urban bikers who ride around the industrial estates of London and is currently being made into a book – to “Tory Island” which explores the tiny island off of the coast of Donegal (Ireland) with a population of just 96. Oba-Smith tends to approach misrepresented subjects so as to re-present them in a different light. His newest and on-going series “Andover & Six Acres Estates” focuses on these two estates in the Seven Sisters area of North London. The project is all about uncovering the ‘truth’ behind the estates, which became infamous in the 80’s and 90’s due to a proliferation of drugs and violence, to see if those negative stereotypes hold true today.
LENS ON: CIAN OBA-SMITH
Oba-Smith’s representation of the estates is a far cry from the hysterical picture that was previously painted by the media; his images feel candid and authentic. There’s a clarity and brutal honesty to his photography that, at times, makes some of the portraits almost uncomfortable to look at. You feel as though you’re literally locking eyes with the subjects. Oba-Smith’s photos show the residents in their own surroundings, from corridors to stairwells, going about their daily lives. As well as the portraits, there are many beautiful architectural shots, which give a real sense of the landscapes of the two estates. These images and have a romantic quality to them, despite the prevalence of security cameras, barred windows and the drabness of some of the spaces. Anyone interested in urban life will want to check out this insightful series, the photos really are gorge.
We caught up with Oba-Smith to talk “Andover & Six Acres”, his work as an assistant to the prominent photographer Zed Nelson and what the art of photography means to him.
Let’s talk about your “Andover & Six Acres Estates” series, in which you explore the ‘truth’ behind the estates. What prompted you to do this project and what does it mean to you?
I had just finished studying for a photography degree at UWE in Bristol and after moving back to London I felt like my relationship to the city had changed, it was almost as if I had lost touch with it. Being in Bristol had changed how I perceived London and as any graduate will tell you I was also feeling confused about the direction I was headed. My life was in a state of flux and I was looking to reconnect with the London that I’d left behind when I went to university.
“Bikelife” was a project I had wanted to do for a few years so when I finished my degree that was the first project I focused on. “Andover & Six Acres” grew more organically out of that necessity to reconnect with London. I was looking for somewhere that encapsulated my perception of London, initially it began as a project about Seven Sisters Road, I grew up in Holloway and it runs from there to Tottenham. I spent the first few days walking about 3 miles from one end to the other just photographing anything of interest but I constantly found myself drawn to the Andover & Six Acres Estates and eventually the project morphed into a story about them.
The estates are fascinating both architecturally and socially, it has a community made up of a variety of cultural backgrounds and the landscape of the estate is ever changing. After spending some time on the estates I realised that the negative stereotypes surrounding the area were exaggerated. Obviously crime is a problem sometimes but the vast majority of people who live on the estate are just normal people trying to live their lives. Essentially that’s what the project’s about, it’s a reflection of London as a whole, the story is told by focusing on a small part of the city but it says something much bigger about our society.
Have you got a favourite shot from the series?
I like a lot of the images for different reasons so its hard to pick a favourite but the one that had the most impact on me is of the possessions left on a crime scene by a stabbing victim. Its one of those photos which at first glance doesn’t look like much is going on but as you study it you notice different elements that tell the story. The blood spatter in the foreground along with the blood soaked clothes and the paramedics bag tell us about what has happened and the late evening light filtering through the tree gives the impression that it was a summer evening being enjoyed by a group of friends cut short. The Ribena bottle standing up half full is what I find most chilling. Its something that I associate with being a kid and I’m sure a lot of young people in the UK will associate it with their childhood too. It makes you confront the fact that the victim was just a kid and the perpetrator was most likely one too.
Both “Andover & Six Acres” and your project “Bikelife” centre on communities in London, and you’re also a Londoner. How important is the city to you creatively?
London is massively important to me creatively, it’s the single biggest influence on my work for a number of reasons. In my opinion photography is a reflection of self and who I am as a person has been influenced by London as a city. The multiculturalism, the variety of social and class backgrounds as well as the life events that have shaped me into who I am today have all come from London. It’s one of the biggest creative hubs in Europe and as a result of that there’s always lots to see as well as being home to a supportive network of like-minded people.
How did you get into photography in the first place? Is there an overarching ‘mission’ or something in particular that you’re trying to achieve with your photos?
I had an amazing teacher during my a-levels and she really helped me to build up my confidence and pushed me to believe in myself as a photographer. I was very lazy when I first got into photography, I enjoyed it but I wasn’t incredibly passionate about it. She showed me the work of street photography collective ‘in-public’, specifically photographer Matt Stuart and it opened my eyes up to new ways of photographing, suddenly I realised that photography was this voice that could express so many different emotions, I was fascinated by how all the photographers had such different voices and their work was so intrinsically linked to that identity. I think that’s why a lot of photographers work changes as they get older, that identity changes and so does how they see the world which in turn affects their work. I was motivated by the idea that a good photograph can show people something that they have never seen before or at least make the viewer see something in a new light.
I took the streets and just photographed, I guess with a more developed perspective I can see that I was interested in the way that people carry themselves within their environment and their body language. I’m still interested in this idea but instead of photographing people candidly I interact with them to try and reveal a bit more than what’s on the surface. I’ve found from my own experiences and those of others around me that there’s often a lot more going on deep down than what meets the eye, things aren’t as simple as they seem and sometimes you have to scratch beneath the surface to find the whole picture. For instance whilst making this project I met a man who was heartbroken because his partner had just been sectioned and another who was turning his life around but had to live with the fact that he would never see his child again because he had been adopted while he was in prison. People have demons that they are constantly wrestling with. I guess my ‘mission’ is to make people more conscious of each other, the difficult part is visually expressing the internal story that triggers that emotional response from the viewer.
You’re currently the assistant to world-renowned documentary photographer Zed Nelson. Could you tell us a bit about this?
I was speaking to Emma Bowkett at my graduate show and she asked me what I was doing next, I told her I didn’t want to assist unless it was a photographer who’s work I really respected and Zed was one of the names I mentioned, she happened to be friends with him so she put a good word in for me and a few weeks later I was assisting him. I owe a lot to Emma, she’s been really supportive of me and helped to open a lot of doors, so big up Emma.
I have a lot of respect for Zed, he’s a very down to earth person and working for him I’ve learnt a lot about the business of photography. Specifically how to conduct yourself as a photographer and work with people on shoots, negotiate fees, things like that. Zed works incredibly hard and does a huge amount of research before carrying out a project so I’m learning to put as much time in as he does before commencing a project. He’s an amazing photographer as well, which makes it an honour to work with him.
What does your ultimate photography kit consist of and what does your creative process tend to look like?
I’m currently shooting on a Mamiya RZ67 ideally I’d like to add a few more lenses to my kit and maybe a better light meter. An Imacon scanner along with a room full of Kodak Portra wouldn’t go a miss either.
My creative process tends to differ depending on the project. I’m a bit of a wanderer and with “Andover & Six Acres” I definitely spent my time exploring the estate, sometimes letting the photos come to me and other times searching for them myself. I think this way of working is true of the way I make portraits, I try to reflect the person I’m photographing so that the portrait isn’t too heavily influenced by me, although I think there is always a part of the photographer in the photograph. I shoot almost exclusively on film so that also effects my process, not being able to look at the photos straight away allows me to meditate on why I’m focusing on certain subjects within a project and forces me to be more selective in what I choose to photograph.
Who or what are your greatest influences?
I’m mainly influenced by experiences and childhood memories, mostly these come from those close to me. In terms of photography I’m inspired by friends of mine who are passionate about photography and are making great work as a result of it. People like William Spooner, Lewis Khan, Jasper Fry, Tom Johnson, Jack Latham and Theo Cottle. Contemporaries like Rinko Kawauchi, Zed Nelson, Alec Soth, Jamie Hawkesworth and Dana Lixenberg. ‘Old school’ photographers such as Malick Sidibe, Seydou Keita, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore also influence me. I’ve got a soft spot for hip-hop as well so I really enjoy the work of Eddie Otchere and Chi Modu. I’ll stop there cause the list could go on!
If you could shoot anyone or anything in the world tomorrow, what would it be?
If I could shoot anywhere it would be the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, it looks like something out of a dystopian future or another universe, like a set from Bladerunner. I came across it and I thought it was fascinating, the idea of that many people in such close proximity it was like the residents lives had merged into one single unit as though you could see the cities beating heart. If I could photograph anyone it would be J Dilla, purely because he’s a hero of mine and he’s made my favourite music, I’d like to meet the man behind that. Unfortunately he passed away in 2006 and Kowloon was demolished in 1994 so I won’t be able to photograph either. I have lots of other people and places that I’d love to photograph but I’m keeping those to myself, you’ll have to keep checking out my work to find out!
Other than adding to the “Andover & Six Acres” series, what are your plans for the future?
I’ve just finished a book of “Bikelife” with graphic designer Will Richardson so I’ll be looking to do a more extended print run in the near future. I’m shooting a commission about Woolwich for Now Gallery which will be part of an exhibition towards the end of September so keep your eyes peeled for that. Hopefully I’ll be going away in November to shoot a project in the US but that’s all hush hush at the moment so you’ll have to wait and see when it’s finished!