Ruby Okoro on how he uses photography to help him process complex and challenging emotions
Being “born into art”, the photographer's work grapples with mental health, the pressures of the pandemic and familial relationships.
- Olivia Hingley
- 3 March 2022
“My art grew from a dark hole where I turned negative energy into something”, explains the Lagos-based photographer Ruby Okoro. His works, imbued with subtle messages of hope, self-exploration and transformation, and featuring powerful, meditative imagery, certainly appear to have come from a place of emotional complexity. And whilst the photographer does impress that he can still create for “fun”, he tells us that primarily, “creating is a way for me to process the things I don't feel up to talking about”.
There are certain motifs that reoccur in Ruby’s work that give it its recognisable and distinctive edge, one of which is his persistent use of the colour red. A subject’s back-facing body, entirely submerged in a red hue, creeping lesions taking over a body, or a deep red light enveloping his scene; Ruby’s use of red is intentional and considered. “I like how colours can transform what we know into something extraordinary and otherworldly even,” the photographer tells us, “red can totally transform a scene and bring it alive, and I love the intense energy it lends to the images. As an artist who applies elements of surrealism, colours definitely help in bringing my visions to life.”
Ruby’s exposure to art and design began from an early age. So much so, he tells us, that he was pretty much “born into art”. Having an architect as a father, Ruby explains that “home was like a living art piece, down to the customised wooden furniture”. His typical “art dad”, also introduced him to music and painting, raising him to have an inquisitive personality and versatile taste. Being partially raised in Rome – the city he now describes as his “favourite” place – Ruby also sees as also influencing his creative side. With the period exposing him to a love of literature and symbolic phrases, he professes admiration for “how expressive the Italians are”.
A project Ruby describes as “truly divine” is his two-part series Days Before Ascension / Days After Ascension. Devised as a way to grapple with the first lockdown of 2020, Days Before Ascension deals with themes of fear and anxiety. Achieved with a closed off, fisheye lens and a deep red saturation in amongst an all-enveloping darkness, the series perfectly encapsulates the sense of claustrophobia caused by the lockdowns. Despite having no plan to make a continuation of the project, when the photographer was in the early stages of devising Days After Ascension, he quickly realised how its subject matter and stylistic choices complemented the ongoing narrative of the series. Exploring “the changes that occurred in the individual after going through a transformation” Days After Ascension has an unearthly, deeply spiritual essence, and features bright, sparkling light and effects – a direct counterpoint to its predecessor.
But, when viewing Ruby’s body of work, it becomes clear that he isn’t afraid of working outside of his stylistic comfort zone. Teaming up with stylists Cosmas and Nez for the project Father and Son – which sensitively depicts the relationship between a father and his two young sons – Ruby found himself enjoying the whole process for how “organic” it felt. “There’s no cooked-up story or hired models. The people are real, that is their house, those are their animals. That is the true bond they share.” Moving away from his usual editing and bold use of colour, the shoot was much more natural, and the only visual component Ruby had control over was their poses; feeling it to be one area he could “express what [he] felt about the story”. Artfully conveying the unyielding power of father-son relationships, the project, whilst deviating from his typical style, represents Ruby’s ability to powerfully capture strong feelings, complex emotions and the ability to overcome.
Ruby Okoro: Agu Na Echemba (Copyright © Ruby Okoro, 2020)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.