Project Z is a project to inspire and support the next generation of Leica photographers.
Cian Oba-Smith is an Irish-Nigerian photographer who was born and raised in London. His work focuses on communities and subcultures around the world with a particular interest in approaching subjects that are often misrepresented and presenting them in a different light.
This interview explores Cians’ relationship with his first Leica camera and the early days of his photographic process.
How did you come across your first Leica?
I got my M6 at the end of second year, I would have been 22, and I had heard of Leica of course. You think of Leica as a brand and photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and William Eggleston. When you’re learning about photography you learn about these photographers who have used Leica, so I’ve always associated the brand with good quality documentary photographers. It was the first proper camera I got. I did a project with my dad who had cancer at the time and all the film of the camera I had at the time came out blank. My dad really wanted me to have a camera that lasts a lifetime and I’ve always wanted to have the M6. I managed to purchase one second-hand, it belonged to a documentary photographer who had travelled around the world with it.
You have a Leica M6 and Summicron-M 35mm – how did the M6 help form your early photography viewpoint and how is the lens as a partner to it?
A lot of people have this debate between the 35mm and 50mm and which one represents the natural view of the human eye. For me the 35mm was how I saw the world. When I got the camera, I carried it everywhere with me and it helped my photography to improve a lot as I was always taking pictures. I started capturing photos of my friends and family and my surroundings. Whereas the work I was doing for my degree was all project based and shooting a very specific style. Shooting with the Leica allowed me to explore merging styles of the project with how I was taking images in my personal life. When I left university the style I developed with that camera blended together with what I was doing elsewhere and I changed the way I was approaching image making. For example, the way I was using light. If you look at my earlier projects, the images were flatter, whereas if you look at projects like ‘Andover & Six Acres’ and ‘Concrete Horsemen’, I’m using a lot of bright light. There is more contrast between them where I can’t line the person and the background and that is parallel to a lot of the work I was doing with the 35mm. I remember having a conversation with a well-known British documentary photographer and he said: “I really like what you’re doing with 35mm and I hate what you are doing with the project work”. He said, he felt the 35mm work I was shooting was a lot more genuine, it was coming from an honest place, where the other work felt like it was conforming to the style people expect of you at university which I found interesting.
Have you adapted your personal project style since?
I wouldn’t say I changed my style. I think it made me more open to experimenting to how I take images and not being concerned about creating a specific look; it freed me up and made the work more interesting. If you feel like you have to take photos in this formulaic way it is not as intuitive as it should be, I don’t think you react in the way you would naturally.
Throughout your imagery, a calming intimacy always feels present, how do you go about creating this relationship with the subject?
I approach photography in the same way I approach life. I’m not a hectic person, I’m quite laid back and that is why when I take images, they are calm. I don’t like to force too much and if you approach people in a way where you’re allowing them to put themselves across instead of controlling it too much, at least from my own perception that is a more genuine representation of what it is I’m trying to document. In general, photography is as much about the person making the images as it is about the subject. Even with photojournalism, you are never going to get an honest representation of the subject. Even when you’re doing documentary photography, how you frame the image, that is you putting your own opinion into it, there is no such thing as a true representation. Joel Sternfeld once said that you’re always influencing the images in some way shape or form so it is a reflection of me and that’s why it is calming. For me photography is a cathartic process, therapeutic and I find it brings out that calmer side of me.
You shoot primarily on analogue, could you tell us about your analogue process and how shooting analogue affects your work?
I shoot mainly on film; I use digital with certain types of jobs, shooting film would be a risk if it goes wrong. For my personal projects and almost all editorial work, I shoot film. The reason I shoot film for my personal work is partly for the aesthetic look but also because it slows me down. When you shoot digital, you get trigger happy because there are unlimited amounts of images you can take. I learnt on film cameras and when I did A level photography our teacher banned us from using digital for the first year and taught us how to use the black and white dark room, so we would process our own film. I think she did it so we were able to use the camera in manual mode properly and not rely on technology. I never felt the need for digital.
You’ve experimented with the Leica M10-D, how did that feel in comparison to your M6?
I really liked the M10-D; I thought it would be similar in terms of the process to using the M6 as it doesn’t have a screen so you can’t see what you’re getting as a user. That is what I like about film, the fact that you can’t see what you’re getting, you have to really think about the image. I was a bit more trigger happy than normal with the M10-D but I did enjoy not being able to see what I was doing. It feels like an M6 or a traditional rangefinder which is cool.
And finally, how do you go about finding the stories for your personal projects?
Most of the work I create has a personal link to me. For instance, I did a project called ‘Tory Island’. My Dad is Irish and I lived in Ireland for a couple of years when I was 8. I have an Irish passport, my dad is from Dublin and we lived in Meath, which is very rural. ‘Andover & Six Acres’ is an estate right next to where I grew up and where I’ve lived my whole life in London. When I did ‘Bikelife’ the person who introduced me to the community was a friend of mine who was involved in it. If you’re going to spend a year making a project, you’re really going to want to do it, you have to be really invested in it so I’m always looking and whatever holds my attention on more than just a superficial level and something that I really want to explore that is what I focus on.
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