Cian Oba-Smith is a London-based photography graduate (UWE). He has had his work featured on It's Nice That, Dazed & Confused, Paper Journal, The Guardian and Wonderland, as well as being shortlisted for many awards.
His images aim to interrogate stereotypes. He photographs people who are often overlooked or places that are too frequently misrepresented. Conscious that photography is heavily affected by the artist's subjectivity, he uses his images as a means to convey his own interpretation of an experience. The stunning results are that the viewer pauses to look at something they may have chosen to ignore. They then apprehend it in a different light. The use of a soft palette, Cian claims ‘helps purify the way we perceive the image’ and his images are alive with these light tones and blurred lines.
The images shown here, are taken from a variety of different projects. Within Cian's ‘Andover & Six Acres’ series, he explores an estate that had become notorious for its crime and drugs. When visiting it, he realised it had been wrongly exaggerated. Cian has an obsession with subcultures and images of isolation; this can be seen within his ‘Bikelife’ and ‘Iceland’ projects. He acknowledges that a person is inseparable from the landscape in which they grow up. However, this means they can also be unwittingly tied to surrounding prejudices. He claims,
‘It is also useful to take subjects from their groups and put them on their own- because people tend to alter their behaviour around others and when you remove them from the group, they show themselves in a more honest light.’
These photographs, with their unsettling, direct gazes, cut straight into our hearts. We cannot help but feel we’ve glanced directly into their souls.
Chroma talks to Cian Oba-Smith about Isolation, environment and Humanity.
Your photographs bring beauty to places people would view as the opposite. Do you believe that photography should reveal to people things they would not (or choose not to) usually see? What do your images aim to reveal?
I think photography can reveal to us things that we wouldn’t normally see, although I don’t believe that all photography does so, and I don’t think it all has to.
Personally, with my work, I feel it should challenge the norm and show subjects differently to how they would otherwise have been perceived. However, I would say that familiarity with the subject matter is important. For the viewer to connect with the image, there needs to be some sort of broader theme that people can relate to.
Similarly, why do you choose to juxtapose these harsh urban and natural landscapes with soft and white evening/morning light, or a mellowed palette?
In my opinion, it’s important to create a beautiful image if you want to draw in the viewer.
My aim is to get a person to engage with my work and spend as much time as possible analysing the image. I find that soft light and a mellowed palette helps to present the subject matter in a more positive way. In a sense, I find it has a purifying effect on the way we perceive the image.
It’s too easy to present a subject in a stereotypical way. I think it’s important to interrogate stereotypes, wherever we find them, and this need to do so presents a challenge I find stimulating as a photographer.
What is it that draws you to isolated subjects or places?
I think it’s interesting to study these subjects because they’re typically overlooked.
As a mixed race person, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider, as if I didn’t belong to any particular group. I think this has helped make me more fascinated by 'isolation' as a subject matter.
Do you agree that an urban space, building and landscape can be both political and social? Do you think this is because it is intrinsically tied up to the culture that surrounds it? Or do you believe that a building can objectively incite an emotion?
An urban space, building or landscape can be political and social. In my opinion, a building can both incite an emotion on a purely objective level and be intrinsically affected by the culture that surrounds it.
For instance- a prison would affect me in a negative sense because of the feeling of constraint I would get from the cells. But I would also be affected negatively by the feelings that would arise from the culture that surrounds it. In this way, we can see that all urban spaces have an emotional effect that derives from both culture and design. Design impacts us in a more shallow way and is fixed, unless it is changed physically, whereas culture shifts and is fluid. The meaning attached to a place changes as the culture surrounding it evolves.
Do you believe a person can ever be separated from the environment that surrounds them? How do you aim to convey this relationship within your photographs?
Both genetics and the environment shape humans. Genetics influence your intelligence level, gender, and race etc. This, in turn, affects how others perceive you within society. The environment affects your behaviour.
In my photographs, I find it important to place the subject within their environment- as a reminder of the intrinsic link between a person and a place.
Sometimes it can be important to remove the subject from their environment, so as to separate them from the prejudice that can surround the location in which they exist.
What scares you most- open or closed spaces? Why?
Neither scares me particularly. I lived in the countryside in Ireland for a short period of my childhood, and I’ve spent most of my life in London, so I’ve experienced life in both open and closed spaces.
If I were to pick one, I would say closed spaces scare me more. Being trapped in a small area for the rest of your life would not have a positive impact on you as a human being.
When did you last feel alone?
I felt alone in November when I was working on a project in the US. I was travelling alone and didn’t know anyone there. About five days into my trip I injured my toe and couldn’t walk properly.
The day after it happened I was feeling pretty low- it was getting in the way of me being able to function and not having anyone there to help, brought out a sense of loneliness.
Your photographs have an anthropological focus, what aspect of humanity fascinates you most?
I’m interested in the tribal nature of humanity- the way that individuals are brought together by the characteristics they attach to themselves, whether or not it is out of choice.
I'm interested in the way that we interact with different tribes and the relationships that develop between individuals from diverse backgrounds.
Ultimately, what fascinates me is the cyclical way in which humans repeat the same behaviours and characteristics over time.
In her book, ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag talks about photography being an act of violence. How do you feel about this definition? Do you ever feel as though you are taking something from someone when you take their photograph?
Photography can be an act of violence, and I’ve seen plenty of work that conforms to that way of thinking. I feel that the journalistic work in war-torn countries can sometimes border on exploitative.
However, I would say that photography is a reflection of humanity and to classify all photography as being an act of violence would be the same as classifying the whole of humankind as violent. I would disagree with this. Photography follows a spectrum of emotions because of the diversity of human beings.
When I first started making photographs, I was doing a lot of street photography. With hindsight, I feel like I was taking from my subjects because I was shooting without their permission. Whereas now I feel like it’s more of a negotiation between the subject and me.
What differences do you find in shooting strangers as opposed to people you know and who trust you?
In some ways when you photograph someone who’s close to you, you get a less genuine image. This is because your intimate relationship with that person has an effect on the way the image turns out.
When I photograph a stranger I have almost no relationship with them, so there’s nothing to taint it. The best portraits are the ones where you manage to get the subject to drop their guard enough for it to become something more intimate. How you approach this depends on the person you’re photographing and who you are as a person.
Have you ever told a stranger a secret?
I don’t have secrets. I’m quite an open person, so I tend to share personal experiences with people if it’s relevant to what they’re going through or have been through. I’ve told the strangers I’ve photographed about some of the intimate moments I've had in my life, but I’ve found that many of them have also done the same with me.
As humans, I feel we have a lot more in common than we realise and conversations like these help to open bridges.
I feel your photographs aim to convey a truth. Do you think this is possible in photography, or do you feel the photographers subjectivity gets in the way? Does this bother you?
I think there is no such thing as Truth within photography in the dictionary sense. However, I do believe that photographers can present their truth on a subject matter.
Photography is subjective and thus will always be affected by the artist's experience of the subject, so it’s impossible to convey a pure truth.
This doesn’t bother me because I’m very aware of my own influence on the image. I think it’s important to use your experiences as an individual to inform your work.
Photography- especially documentary photography- succeeds in capturing a moment. What are you most scared of forgetting?
Family and friends, memories, the people who have shaped me into who I am today and how I perceive the world. To me, these things are the most important.
How do you feel film affects your photography?
Film slows me down when I photograph. In part, this is because of the camera I use, but it’s also because I can only take a limited amount of photos.
I also find that there is a ‘look’ to film that you don’t get with digital, even though this can be recreated in Photoshop with plugins etc. I prefer to do the work beforehand- when I take the picture, rather than do everything in post, and I find film lends itself to this way of working.
Also, in this digital age we live in, photographs have become more disposable. Everyone expects to see things straight away. I find that film is counterintuitive to this way of thinking because you are forced to wait to see the images. To me, this adds value to the photograph.
And finally- what about God scares you the most?
I don’t believe in God in the traditional sense of a single omnipotent being. If there is a God, I think it’s more likely to be some sort of energy that runs through everything in the universe.
If God is a single omnipotent being that will judge me on my death, I think that it will be understanding and compassionate. No loving God would create humans with free will and then judge us for using what has been given to us.
A God that wanted to punish me for being human, would not be a God that I would want approval from- for that reason nothing about God scares me.
words: Emma Phillips and Shannon Powell