“Ma People, Ma People”
Known for her vibrant use of colour, costume and backdrops, Ruth Ossai is the British-Nigerian photographer whose breathtaking images have seen her fast become one of the industry’s most exciting image makers. Joining forces with stylist Ola Ebiti, the two depict the Homecoming edit through their characteristically creative lens, celebrating these African designers and their influence on the global fashion industry. Read on to discover the shoot and learn more about Ossai’s inimitable image-making style...
TOP IMAGE: Left: Blazer by MUGLER, jumper by Y/PROJECT, skirt by PRADA, Centre: Top by CLAN, skirt by CLAN, earring by ANNI LU, Right: Dress by CLAN, trousers by BALENCIAGA, shoes by MANOLO BLAHNIK, earrings by LAURA LOMBARDI
Left: Shirt by ORANGE CULTURE, t-shirt by POST IMPERIAL, trousers by JIL SANDER, shoes by ADIEU PARIS, Centre: Shirt by ORANGE CULTURE, t-shirt by MOTHERLAN, trousers by TOM FORD, shoes by PRADA, Right: Shirt by ORANGE CULTURE, t-shirt by POST IMPERIAL, trousers by A-COLD-WALL*, shoes by BOTTEGA VENETA
Hi Ruth! Can you tell us a little about how you concepted the Homecoming shoot? What were your goals and what was the story behind it?
Myself and Ola Ebiti wanted to blend our own individual styles into one perfect harmony! My own aesthetic - where some of my inspiration comes from everyday life featuring people in the south/east of Nigeria, my childhood memories watching older traditional Igbo music videos and finally Nollywood (Igbo and Yoruba) films. This blended with Ola Ebiti’s styling, in which he has taken inspiration from the over dramatic aspects of his home in Lagos as an artistic prism to reflect this Browns and Homecoming collaboration.
Ola Ebiti: I was inspired by the dramatic and sometimes chaotic way of life you witness on the streets of Lagos. In Lagos, there is always something going on; you come across so many people and see the way that people interact with certain things. There were also certain looks that reminded me of my childhood, like the Masquerade look, which reminded me of going to my granddad’s house to watch the Eyo festival parade.
Who did the casting for this project?
The talented Jon Johnson - he cast mostly West Africans for the shoot.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I am Nigerian British with my family being from Enugu state (my father’s and forefathers’ land). I lived in Anambra State with my family before moving to Yorkshire for school.
How did you get your start in photography?
As a teenager, my mother gave me a point and shoot camera. Before that I used to snap on my father’s Blackberry, before I had my own camera phone. I wanted to photograph my childhood in Nigeria to show my other family in Yorkshire, so I would make these photo albums, sketch books and collages. I was always obsessed with the art of photos visually, before learning the technical side.
You’ve spoken before about the influence of Nollywood in your work. Can you tell us more about this?
When I collaborate with a creative team, I always use Nigeria (and West Africa at large) as inspiration and an artistic prism, as that’s what inspires my work and life. My inspiration comes from everyday life and people in the south/east of Nigeria; older or traditional Igbo music videos; Nigerian homemade DVDs (weddings, burials, ceremonies etc.) and Nollywood (Mostly Igbo and Yoruba) films. When I use my backdrops, it’s a play on the amazing special effects from different scenes in Nollywood and the 90s Igbo gospel music videos I used to watch as a child.
I love storytelling through imagery and having fun with the images and styling. Bringing that element of fun that West African studio/portrait photographers like J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Samuel Fosso, Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keïta (and so many more) captured. The photographers are free from tricks, not glossy, just raw. None of their work is elite-centric, and they don’t care about upper class sensibilities.
What do you value in photography?
As a photographer, I have always loved photographers that assume a social function, particularly in everyday, real life experiences. Photographs that hold a memory of a loved one (family members) or that transport some memory across distance or time (that’s where my backdrops and personal props come to play). My photographs are like sayings or words which represent the people I am documenting - like a line from a Nollywood film.
Can you talk a little about your creative community and how important it is to you and your work?
My own community has always been very important to my work and is even more so today. When it comes to working in the creative industry I ask myself: are they being supportive of my culture and community and not just there to reap the economic benefits from Black bodies, friendships and/or culture whilst doing the bare minimum? Is the furthest they’ll go for us simply posting a black square on their socials without making the cultural changes within their businesses behind closed doors? You have to always think: how is it building, supporting the community(ies) I am part of? In this industry, we must also advocate and we ourselves (who can), have to continue to create opportunities for people within our communities to shine; investing time, energy and resources.
The theme of this year’s Homecoming is cultural exchange with a focus on global African influence. What do you see as your role within this?
Many of us hold influence in our different industries and within my role as a photographer cultural exchange has to be fair and transparent. It has to be an equal playing field where all parties reap the benefits of their labours. We must ensure the exchange is just and equal by holding our industries and ourselves accountable too! We all have a role to play in advocating for a positive cultural exchange on a grassroots local and global level, instead of trying to build a top-down model of what a culture should be. Because in the end someone else will take what we have and our communities will start to lose the power, agency and autonomy before you know it.
Who are some talented diaspora voices that you’re really excited about?
Omowunmi Ogundipe, Joy Labinjo, Adamu Bulus, Kadara Enyeasi, Sharmaarke Ali Adan, Sola Olulode, Chef Binta @ Fulani Kitchen, Ian Mwesiga, Feben Vemmenby, Peter Uka, Kay Kwabia, Makere Cross Thekiso, Matty Biayenda, Chukwuka Nwobi, Chigozie Obi, Baingor Joiner, Favour Jonathan, Fadekemi, Yasmina Atta, Adama Jalloh, Tunji Adeniyi-Jone and Ekene Emeka-Maduka.
Who do you look up to? Is there anyone’s career path or influence you’d hope to emulate?
My father, who is far from my field of work but who continues to teach me life lessons of purpose and intention over popularity.
You’ve worked on so many amazing projects for brands such as Fenty, Kenzo and Miu Miu – what would be your dream project?
The dream would be to continue snapping my family, friends and community for my book, and complete ongoing personal projects and community projects within my village in Nsukka and Yorkshire.
Lastly, what makes an image a “Ruth Ossai” image?
My favourite work is my 100% personal work, so I would say when it’s not by force! Allowing my subjects to appear as they naturally are within their own lives, their own personal styles, with their individualistic personalities and their own dynamism. It’s extremely important for me to capture each subject comfortably - whether it's showing their sense of humour or their own assertiveness - by giving them freedom to express their own identity through my creative lens.
I want my subjects to have total control over how they portray themselves - whether it be through choices in backdrops, poses, or their own personal style. I wish my images to fill my subjects with power and agency, so they can be free and allow their true selves to shine through.
Photographer: Ruth Ossai
Stylist: Ola Ebiti
Casting Director: Jonathan Johnson
Models: Eman Deng, Enoch Oyileki, Akinbolaji Osunsina, Ramel Lafitte, Elizabeth Ojambo
Creative Producer: Dominique Eva Taylor
Hair Stylist: Isaac V Poleon
Make-Up Artist: Grace Sinnott
Manicurist: Sylvie Macmillan
Fashion Assistant: Sally Bottomley
Styling Assistants: Leonor Carvalho, Cynthia Igbokwe
Photographer Assistants: Ryan Coleman Connoly, Jermaine Ampomah, Luke Ossai
Interview: Georgia Graham