Artist of The Week: Cian Oba-Smith
Born and raised in North London, Cian Oba-Smith has been studying photography since his A-levels. When his teacher banned the class from using digital in the first year of the course, he experimented with film and developing in the darkroom, which has, since then, allowed him to push past the technical side of making photos and focus on the emotional act of engaging with his subjects. His clients include Nike, Google, Facebook, and The New Yorker, to name a few. We spoke to Oba-Smith, the artist behind the lens (a Mamiya RZ67 or Leica M6, to be exact), about technical hurdles he has faced, his tips for shooting on film, and what he likes to order at Zen Washoku at Nag’s Head Market in London. Read below for the full interview accompanied by photos from British photographer Lauren Maccabee.
When you first got into photography, what would you say were the biggest technical hurdles you encountered?
I got into photography during my A-Levels and in the first year of the course our teacher banned us from using digital so we were forced to shoot film and to process and make our own prints in the darkroom which was a big learning curve. The biggest technical hurdle I encountered was when I started to experiment with medium format during my a-levels, I was learning to use a Hasselblad and every roll I shot was coming out blank and it was so frustrating. That’s part of magic of shooting film though, you never quite know what you’re going to get, sometimes it can be a happy accident, other times not so much!
Your first camera was a Pentax ME Super – what’s your camera of choice now?
When I was at uni I experimented with a lot of different camera and formats. At the moment I’m shooting projects/jobs on a Mamiya RZ67 and day to day personal pictures of my family and friends with a Leica M6. I’ve just bought a 5×4 view camera so that’s the direction I’m heading in for my personal projects. All that being said, I think the most important thing with photography is your own voice, letting yourself speak through your work and the equipment you have can’t do that for you. The right camera is the one that works for you personally and allows that voice to resonate.
What are your top three tips for shooting on film?
Experiment with different types of film, find out what works for you and what doesn’t. Practice, take lots of pictures until the technical aspects are no longer barriers and you’re able to focus on the emotional side of making photos. Most importantly, have fun!
What is your work a reflection of?
My work is very much a reflection of me. Although my projects are about the subject I am photographing, I am also documenting myself and my perspective on the subject matter. As time has passed and I’ve reflected on older work I’ve made, I’ve been able to draw parallels between the work I was making at the time and what was going on emotionally for me at the time. My direction is constantly shifting because I’m constantly growing and developing as a person.
What kind of photographer do you see yourself as?
In terms of genres within photography, I try to stay as versatile as possible with my work, I’m wary of being pigeonholed and being thought of as the photographer who does one specific thing. I try to approach photography with a sensitive attitude, sometimes that can be a sensitive approach to my environment, being as aware as possible about my surroundings, other times that can be engaging with the person I’m photographing in a sensitive manner.
After university, you spent time assisting photographers on set – what were the most memorable things you learned?
Assisting taught me a lot of the things that university can’t teach you. Uni is great for learning the background of photography and experimenting and developing your own work but it’s not that great at teaching you the business of making a living from taking pictures. The most important things I learned were to do with how to behave as a professional photographer, things like working on commissions, pitching stories, marketing yourself, emailing clients, working on set to a tight deadline.
What’s the best habit you can have as a photographer?
Personally, I think the most important habit you can have as a photographer is to engage with the subject you’re photographing on an in-depth level. Read around your subject, give it time, if you’re photographing people talk to them and really listen to their perspective. If you haven’t given your subject the time it deserves it will come across in the pictures and the project won’t be as resonant as it could have been.
If you had unlimited resources and a plane ticket to a destination of your choosing, what project would be the outcome?
I used to be obsessed with the idea of traveling to exotic locations and doing huge projects and but recently I’ve become more focused on the emotional aspect of making pictures. Why are we drawn to certain subjects over others and what motivates us to spend time working on these subjects? I’m more interested in making work that I can relate to on a personal level, I think the strongest work is normally made by people who have a deep understanding or a personal connection to the subject they’re photographing so I’m trying to realign myself with that side of my work. If I had unlimited resources, I would use them to allow myself the freedom to spend longer periods of time in the place I make work and to shoot a larger quantity of pictures.
Let’s get to know ya better! FAVORITES OF THE MOMENT:
- Favorite line on the tube/or stop: I was born and raised in North London and my nearest tube station is on the Northern Line, so it’s got to be that.
- Local restaurant: Zen Washoku
- What’s your order: Avocado Maki, Chicken Katsu Curry, Spinach Goma, Gobo Kinpira, Genmai Tea
- Song that you listen to while traveling: Bob Dylan – Shelter from the Storm
- Song that you listen to before going out: J Hus – Sweet Cheeks or Sister Sledge – Thinking of You (Dimitri From Paris Remix). Depends on what mood I’m in.
- Media outlet you consume the most: Instagram
- Netflix show: Samurai Champloo
- Candy / sweets: Crispy M&M’s
- Painting: Kehinde Wiley – Mugshot Study
- Photographer: Gordon Parks
- Dream car / or mode of transportation: VW Bay Window Camper Van
- Upcoming London artist: Jack Orton
- Philosophical or Scientific concept: Many Worlds Interpretation
Images courtesy of Lauren Maccabee; work samples provided by Cian Oba-Smith
Stay tuned to Milk for more artists we love.