There are certain aspects of an artist's chosen medium that continues to draw them in. For Renee Maria Osubu, it is perspective that initially got her hooked, and allows her to maintain her enthusiasm behind the camera.
“It’s the thing that excited me most about the medium of photography, literally everyone is a photographer these days, but perspective is something unique to each person,” she tells It’s Nice That. “I began to get a thrill from having the same moment as someone else, and then showing them a picture and them being stunned by what I saw and photographed.”
Her latest series, Dear Philadelphia, examines the North American city through her lens. Shot entirely in black and white, the series is heavily focused on people, and predominantly people enjoying themselves. From smiling children playing in the street to urban horse riding, it is a welcome antidote to the many series that focus on the negativity and difficulties surrounding inner-city life.
Being Nigerian and raised in London, Renee actually has no direct link to Philadelphia, however, after a few visits she felt a strong affinity with the city – and her photographs pay testament to that.
“Dear Philadelphia started after volunteering at a summer camp back in 2015 in Pennsylvania, where I got the opportunity to mentor a girl from north Philadelphia for the week,” she explains. “The programme, which was supported by my church, matched up university students and inner-city kids. The week wasn’t an easy one, but what stood out to me was the importance of relationships and consistency.”
This trip was the beginning of her love affair with the city, and was the spark for further visits that eventually grew into Dear Philadelphia. “The following month I applied for funding to start a photography programme at the same summer camp to work with a hundred inner-city kids over three months. The project was called Capturing Miracles and it was awarded a Davis Peace Project Award,” says Renee.
“After being in Philadelphia for a few months I built a huge bond with the amazing kids there. What was once a photography project for them became a project for me. I started to visit Philadelphia regularly, to photograph members of the community and keep up the friendships I had made with the kids.”
Having begun the project that summer, changes in Renee’s personal life added a poignancy to the project and added motivation to see it through to the end. “During this time my father was diagnosed with cancer. This increased my desire to archive people and communities through photography heavily,” she explains. “Not many Nigerian children are encouraged or supported by their parents to pursue the arts. My dad did, and I wanted to continue what he loved to see me do.”
Her dad’s illness not only inspired Renee to continue the project, but it also informed her style and what she wanted the images to convey. “My dad had a brain tumour and this affected his ability to talk and communicate. Communication became a huge topic within my work,” says Renee. “The name Dear Philadelphia stemmed from the idea of letter writing; wanting to express the necessity of sharing thoughts with those around you. Most of my work from Philadelphia is always presented in black and white. Philly is so colourful and vibrant, every street is covered in incredible artwork and every corner is different. However, I made the decision that I wanted the images to be presented in black and white.”
It is noticeable in the images that Renee has avoided cliches, which can be difficult in a large and much-photographed city like Philadelphia. As well as making a conscious effort to avoid going down this route, she also built up local knowledge and a number of friends in the community, allowing her to get close with her photographs.
“Something that is really important to me when presenting a community to a completely different one, is highlighting the similarities,” she says. “Getting rid of focusing on the differences and drawing attention to the person at the centre and the fact that, first, they are a person before their environment, just like you.”
The stories that Renee heard and the people that she met inspired her to eventually go one step further and turn the series into a documentary. “To me, the film was a love letter to the city that gave me a place to create, grow, process, mourn, celebrate and love. The film shows the beauty, strength and resilience of a city that is often looked down upon,” she says. “A story of the people of Philadelphia, shared by the people of Philadelphia, reminding them exactly what they are – a city of brotherly love.”
GalleryRenee Maria Osubu: Dear Philadelphia
Renee Maria Osubu: Dear Philadelphia
About the Author
Charlie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in December 2019. He has previously worked at Monocle 24, and The Times following an MA in International Journalism at City University. If you have any ideas for stories and work to be featured then get in touch.