Exposure: Cian Oba-Smith

Art Director Gem Fletcher examines the world of photography, with a focus on new talent, photobooks and exhibitions from around the globe. In the latest instalment she looks at photographer Cian Oba-Smith.

Cian Oba-Smith is interested in photography as a tool for human connection. Through his work, he seeks to deepen our understanding of each other. Subverting stereotypes, challenging contemporary racism and advocating for the underrepresented.

“I want to make democratic work. I want to make work that everyone can appreciate. I’m tired of the one-dimensional middle class narrative. People on the fringes are represented as a collective mass, not as individuals. It’s time for change.”

Cian focuses on the fringes. He investigates little known or misrepresented communities and subcultures with a particular focus on the relationship between people and their environment.

I want to make democratic work. I want to make work that everyone can appreciate. I’m tired of the one-dimensional middle class narrative.

Fascinated by body language, Cian invites the viewer to gaze into the eyes of strangers. The subject stares straight back, confronting the viewer and establishing their presence in the world. Studies have shown that the direct gaze changes the social part of the brain, heightening our ability to empathise. This sustained gaze brings a transformative intensity to Cian’s quiet and candid photography.

London, and being a Londoner, has a huge impact on Cian’s work. Influenced by the city’s multiculturalism, creative community and the personal life events that have shaped who he is, the essence of the place echoes through his practise. After three years at university in Bristol, he returned to London keen to reconnect with his city. He spent days walking up and down Seven Sisters Road which connects Holloway, where he grew up and Tottenham. ‘Andover and Six Acres’ was the resulting work. It’s explores the shifting community and landscape of two estates that continue to be branded with negative stereotypes. The project is a microcosm for the deep, societal narratives affecting housing estates. The work is open, honest, and draws focus to the individual characters that make up the community.

A group of young men watch as their friend is searched by the police on the Andover Estate, North London, from the series ‘Andover & Six Acres’. Cian Oba-Smith.

‘Bikelife’ explores a fast-growing community of bikers who take-over industrial estates and push the boundaries of stunts and tricks. The community is predominantly male, ranging from teenagers to men in there thirties. This brotherhood is a form of escapism. The space provides an outlet of rebellion against the establishment. “If you’re at the bottom of a system that oppresses you, the number of ways to free yourself is limited. These men have chosen bikelife as their escape.”

A tree bursts into bloom on the Andover Estate, North London, from the series ‘Andover & Six Acres’. Cian Oba-Smith.

Another thread running through Cian’s work explores men and masculinity. With the majority of his subjects being male, the images expose and question male archetypes both past and present, and their impact on modern masculinity. Through the photographs, he reflects back a spectrum of emotions and characteristics that reframe the male gaze with a renewed depth and compassion.

When I think of black people in the media, it’s either something to do with music, sport or violence. Those are the stereotypical representations of black people

Kasaan takes Ruffian out of the paddock, North Philadelphia, from the series ‘Concrete Horsemen’. Cian Oba-Smith.

Cian’s most recent work “Concrete Horseman” follows the Fletcher Street stables on the rundown roads of Philadelphia. The stables continue a long tradition of black horsemanship in the United States. North Philadelphia has a 97% African American population where over 50% live in poverty. The Fletcher Street stables are a haven for urban horsemen, a community where boys and men come to bond over their love of horses. This complex work seduces the viewer with quiet, almost cinematic moments of affection and companionship, while defiantly challenging the stereotypes of race and class.

“When I think of black people in the media, it’s either something to do with music, sport or violence. Those are the stereotypical representations of black people. I’m mixed race myself, so, for me, it was about seeing what life there is really like. And part of the project was about reimagining an American icon, the cowboy.”

One Wheel Luke wheelies past a chain link fence, London, from the series ‘Bikelife’. Cian Oba-Smith.

Cian’s approach is unified by a drive to empower individuals, and challenge the stereotypes cast upon them. Many of his projects encapsulate the idea of safe havens. Spaces that provide refuge and escapism, spaces that set people free.


cianobasmith.co.uk, @cianobasmith

gemfletcher.com, @gemfletcher

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