“Whether you’ve got six minutes or six days, it’s about lending yourself to those moments so that you can make people feel comfortable,” says the British-Nigerian photographer, recently commissioned by Leica and 1854 to capture ‘the everyday’
It’s just an average summer’s day in London. Jordan and his six-year-old daughter, Callie, are blowing giant bubbles in their back garden, casting soapy spells into the air. In this moment, captured by photographer Renee Osubu, everything beyond the garden fence is left behind; here, it’s only Jordan, Callie and the inextricable bond between them.
After a year of social restrictions, the fact that Osubu was able to capture the father and daughter duo in their own home for her series Fathers & Figures feels almost extraordinary. The project, shot over several weeks in June 2021, is the British-Nigerian photographer’s response to the Witnesses of: The Everyday commission from 1854 and Leica. Tasked with creating a unique body of work around themes of ‘the everyday’, Osubu sought to celebrate the many facets of Black fatherhood, from the traditional sense of the word to the more abstract — such as men who guide, coach or inspire younger generations. “Ideally, fatherhood, for everybody, would be a dad who is there for you all the time,” muses Osubu. “But that’s not always how life goes. And to see the different forms of fatherhood is really beautiful.”
The project coincided with the lifting of Covid restrictions, allowing the photographer to gain access into intimate settings, such as Jordan’s back garden. But more than physical access, it is Osubu’s inimitably sensitive approach to photographing minority communities that has allowed her to capture her subjects’ personal settings so impactfully. “Whether you’ve got six minutes or six days,” she says, “it’s really about lending yourself to those moments so that you can make those people feel comfortable.” When photographing Jordan and Callie, for instance, she “spent more time blowing bubbles and running around the garden” than actually taking the images. Above anything, “the relational aspect” is vital for Osubu to foster a reciprocal dynamic and gain her subjects’ trust.
Fathers & Figures celebrates a range of Black men, both young and old. In the hope of finding diverse subjects, Osubu turned to the streets of London with her Leica SL2-S and Leica M7 film camera. “A big part of my work,” she explains, “is just meeting people in the moment: walking through Dalston Market and meeting a grandad with 11 kids, and speaking to him about his experience of being a dad.” She also put out an open call on social media in a bid to entice fathers in her own life to get involved in the project too.
In keeping with the core of the commission brief, Osubu’s primary aim for the project was to convey the “natural”, everyday reality of Black Londoners. She was provided with Leica equipment to use throughout the duration of shooting, and she chose to shoot in both digital and film interchangeably. “I thought the project could work seamlessly [this way],” she states about her camera choice. “Most of the time I took both cameras. Leica has designed their cameras so they’re not far off from one another; the images naturally look really beautiful on the digital camera as well as the film.”
Documenting children and other sensitive social groups is nothing new to Osubu. In 2016, she foundedCapturing Miracles, a program designed to inspire disadvantaged children in Philadelphia through photography. Since then, she has expanded her focus to children and their guardians, keeping her sensitive approach intact. “It’s about being as reassuring and transparent as you can,” she highlights. “I’m always aware that the minute you pick up a camera and put it in front of somebody, you are creating a small barrier.”
But of all her work, Osubu considers Father’s & Figures her most “vulnerable” series to date — because it’s “specifically about a relationship and a person who I miss.” Following the loss of her own father while she was shooting her debut film, Dear Philadelphia, in2020, Osubu found herself instinctively drawn to the subject matter. “It felt like an honour to be able to spend time with all these different dads or men who are like father figures,” she says. “I really appreciate them allowing me to be in these intimate moments with them.”
Alongside paternal relationships, Fathers & Figures gave Osubu the opportunity to explore another interest of hers: boxing. Having loved boxing growing up, she shot several images at Selby Boxing Club in Tottenham, where there is a “huge brotherhood” of generations of Black men. Through Osubu’s lens, the ring setting proves to be a microcosmic melting pot as boys and men exercise healthy aggression, stamina and strength. Elsewhere, there are moments of calm, connection and collective unity, reflecting the photographer’s touching observations that younger children looked up to their coach as a kind of father figure. “Seeing dads who feel comfortable for their kids to see Paulo [the coach] as another father figure is beautiful,” she recalls.
The boxing ring, with its connotations of violence and aggression, serves to juxtapose the peaceful, hopeful portraits that make up Osubu’s project. In its entirety – at a time when media depictions of Black men in London routinely centre on knife crime and violence – Fathers & Figures goes a long way in undoing some of these negative stereotypes.
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.