Photographer Ruth Ossai grew up in Eastern Nigeria, but for now, she’s based in West Yorkshire, where she identifies as an “Igbo/Yorkshire warrior”.
“An Igbo/Yorkshire warrior refers to my dual heritage,” Ruth tells us. “Igbo is my tribe in Nigeria. It’s the first thing I always get asked whatever country I am in or online, as people can’t really work out where I am from. The warrior refers to who I am as a person. A warrior to me is someone who is fearless, has great strength and willpower. There is an Igbo proverb my father always said to me growing up ‘If life dey show u pepper, my daughter make pepper soup from am.’ To me, that is what a warrior represents.”
That head-on warrior quality bursts out of Ruth’s work, which looks to “celebrate, to question the standard of beauty, empower and represent Nigeria and Nigerians, Africa and Africans in and away from home.” Her images present a heady blend of the many faces and styles bubbling through the vast continent, whether swaggering men in cowboy hats, women in full traditional Igbo attire or wearing nothing but a chainmail bodysuit and a pair of red patent boots.
“I’m really infatuated by the way in which photography can tell stories, capture and empower black identity and culture,” Ruth explains. “Especially Nigerian identity, which is so beautiful, effortless and powerful. This is something I have been surrounded by and capturing all my life. My photography is not a response to anything particular but I am a strong advocate of photographers who are embedded in the context in which ideas are produced, participating in the contextualising of their images. It becomes very problematic when Nigerians — and other Africans — cannot tell their own stories: it becomes too often incomplete, inaccurate and stereotyped. This narrative has needed changing for too long now. My work is also honestly partly a reflection of myself; I love and never stop thinking about West Africa, whether I’m home or away.”
Ruth still considers herself a freelance, part-time photographer, balancing her career with youth development work in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Yorkshire. “I am traveling back to Nigeria next week with an amazing team to shoot more of my own work but also something magical that will utilise and benefit my community too, which is really important to me when shooting a large collaborative project in Nigeria. I am also returning to Kenya, where I lived in 2014, later this year to shoot an ongoing series. I have a photo book coming out next year and shooting the context for this at the moment. Which I love shooting the context for, as there is no pressure; I don’t have to compromise my art, my values or myself.”