Renee Osubu: Chronicler of Black fatherhood

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“For me, it’s about allowing Black men to show a vulnerability that they’re not normally allowed to share”

There are 2 weeks left to apply for the final instalment of the 1854 x Leica commission series – Witnesses of: Individuality. Apply now.

Renee Osubu’s photography is imbued with her innate sense of compassion for her subjects. The London-based photographer has made it her mission to have a reciprocal relationship with those she photographs, creating a radical recentring of the sitter/shooter dynamic. This is why her portfolio has a certain familiarity about it: it’s clear to see that she spends time getting to know her subjects, paying acute attention to the honest and affectionate ways in which she wants to represent them. Over the next few weeks, her candid eye will be used to shoot her upcoming series Fathers and Figures, a project commissioned by Leica and 1854.

Between July and September 2016, while in her second year of studying photography at the University of the Arts London, Osubu launched Capturing Miracles, a project for disadvantaged children in Schwenksville, Philadelphia. Designed to empower through photography, Capturing Miracles gave children and young adults a space to explore their talent in a supportive community. Over 100 individuals were given photographic equipment, education and guidance to take photos throughout their summer. 

© Renee Osubu.

Osubu was an outsider in the neighbourhood, but her realisation of the “importance of consistency with young kids” soon changed that, forming the beginnings of a long-term fascination with the youth and community there. “I started to keep going back to the city and over the years I’d spend a month or two each time. I’d go on walks, be bold and meet strangers, go into the bookshops, introduce myself to people, start conversations and build relationships,” she remembers.

The project also marked the beginning of her commitment to providing “a platform for people to share their experiences and stories amongst their own people.” It was here that she understood how “smaller things can be elements of social justice that people deserve to have,” such as allowing a space to be vulnerable and open. “I learned so much about love, perseverance and forgiveness,” she explains. 

© Renee Osubu.

Attention to the unique specificity of an individual’s own lived experience is a driving force in Osubu’s work. A poignant example of this compelling approach can be seen in her portrait ‘Dealing with Distance’, which was a winning image of 1854 and BJP’s Portrait of Britain award in 2019. In the seemingly simple gesture of photographing identical twins in a cradling embrace, the photographer helps make small, human moments feel extraordinary in and of themselves. Her work is about the subtleties of life, like the companionship displayed between the two brothers. Above all, it is the very ordinariness of the images – their sensitivity and easy self-confidence – that makes her photography so special.

In the six years since her first visit to Philadelphia, Osubu became interested in a different kind of marginalised, misunderstood group: Black fathers. She began work on a long term photo project which eventually expanded into her debut short film Dear Philadelphia, which follows three African American fathers who, with the help of their family, friends and faith, unravel the incomparable partnership of forgiveness and community. The documentary went on to earn a place in the official international selection of the Shorts Program at the Sundance Film Festival 2021, proving to be a pivotal moment in Osubu’s career.

“I wanted to create a body of work that really showed the joy, the mundane, the everyday of black living. Not being from there, you notice things that to somebody else could be their ordinary but to you it’s extraordinary.”

© Renee Osubu.
© Renee Osubu.

Shot in black-and-white – a choice the photographer made to remove any clutter and intensify the focus – the photographs and accompanying film are a celebration of Black joy and an exploration into what it means to be part of a brotherhood in the North American city. “For me, it’s about allowing Black men to show a vulnerability that they’re not normally allowed to share,” she says. “I wanted to create a body of work that really showed the joy, the mundane, the everyday of  Black living. Not being from there, you notice things that ,to somebody else, could be their ordinary. But to you it’s extraordinary.”

Osubu’s interest in the everyday will form the basis of her commission for Witnesses of: The Everyday, a collaboration between the historic camera brand Leica and 1854. Tasked with developing a unique body of work centred around the theme of the everyday, Osubu will use the £5,000 commission fee to capture small, happenstance moments such as fathers getting their children ready for school, families eating breakfast or father figures in the playground with young children.

© Renee Osubu.

She will also be granted a place on the new acclaimed Leica Lab course, regarded as one of the industry’s most respected online educational courses for developing photographic artists. With the equipment provided by Leica, Osubu hopes to shoot Fathers & Figures, a continuation of her portrayal of the nuances and intimacies of Black fatherhood. Speaking of her motivations behind the commission, Osubu is resilient: “I had a dad who could be vulnerable, who could express his feelings even when it wasn’t easy and I am so grateful to the other men who are also able to do that and are willing to share it with a much wider audience.” 

Alice Finney

Alice Finney is an arts and culture Editor and Writer, based in Berlin. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.