Friday Art Crush is an interview series highlighting the work of Photography students in their thesis year at OCAD U. We grab a coffee and chat about what they have been exploring, and they share great advice for working on a year-long project. The series was created and led by Morgan Sears-Williams; this year, it has been taken over by Ana Luisa Bernárdez.
This week, Ana chatted with Bidemi Oloyede, a Photo major in his fourth year.
What have you been exploring in your studies at OCAD?
I have explored a lot of things since my first year: sculpture, 3D, design, illustration, animation. I’ve tried pretty much everything, but since majoring in Photography, I’ve found more interest in the documentary aspect of it. I started to experimenting with film, and made the decision of working with it primarily because I appreciate the process of the medium. I have explored different forms of documentary, but I focused mostly on street photography and works reminiscent of old school reportage: candid, not staged, in-the-moment, all shot on traditional black and white film. I process and print everything in the darkroom most of the time.
Has the focus on documentary photography continued in terms of your thesis project?
Recently, I have been doing a lot of research on the problem of race and racism, which for a long time I distanced myself from, because I didn’t want my work to be political. This led me into being very interested in the history of photography, and how it has played a huge role when it comes to representation, more specifically in the representation of black bodies. Historically, photography has been used as sort of a weapon against my race, and other minorities. My research focuses on the black race and how representation through photography has evolved, changed and impacted the black race in our society over the years. I’m exploring some of these methods, such as making tintypes, one of the first ways of making images from the eighteen fifties. Daguerreotypes (which are similar to Tintypes) were used at a point in time to photograph a lot of enslaved people in the area around Columbia, and aimed to diminish black bodies. The use of these images was to make blacks look inferior to any other race, so part of my thesis is using that method now to photograph contemporary black people, and giving them the power to represent themselves in the way that they want to be represented. I am using the medium to create a counter narrative around the associations with slavery that are usually made when one encounters forms of imagery like a tintype, of a black person.
I have seen you do solely street photography for a long time. I’m interested in this turn that your work took and how you got there.
I like challenges and, as opposed to doing something that I am very familiar with and have been exploring for a while, I decided I was going to go the opposite direction and explore something different. I still see it as documentary of some sort, but I was used to just taking the photographs on the street, without consent or anything, and then I took this complete U turn: having to ask and work with people to create these photographs that represent them, rather than just portraying a moment I saw or felt a connection to on the street. I wanted to get out of my box.
Sounds very interesting, how was your progress throughout last semester and how do you see the project evolving from there?
Last semester was the research aspect of the project. I was doing a lot of research on portraiture, because it is very new to me – investigated its power, and how it has impacted society in terms of representation of both power figures and regular folks. I looked a lot of the greats who worked primarily in portraiture: what they did, how they representedother people through their lens, and using that to inform myself of the basic workings of portraiture behind the lens. I am constantly figuring out my own methods of working with the subject to come to represent them how they want to be. I started photographing people with a large format camera, and I also started to play around with making the actual tintypes (it’s definitely a never-ending learning process). Going forward, I’m looking at other forms of representation outside of the studio setting, and this semester I’m doing a lot of environmental portraits: photographing people within the context of their homes, and seeing how their space could inform their personalities, who they are, and how they want to be seen. I’m also trying to push the tintypes forward, because the project for me is not about mimicking history, but simply referencing it. I’m not going to dress people in victorian clothes or something, but rather represent them in a contemporary context – if they have hoodie on from school and an iPhone in their hands, I’ll include that in the tintype. Fashion plays a very big role in that as well. That is one of the ways of defeating the associations of tintypes with historical narratives and slavery.
Have you included yourself in this counter-narrative project through self-portraiture?
The self-portraits were very brief explorations, they’re not necessarily part of the thesis. The only way of starting to learn about portraiture was to start out with myself as the subject. The only “proper” photograph I have of myself is a tintype, and it’s an interesting feeling. One idea that I’m trying to to tackle with the tintypes is that of permanence – tintypes can outlast the subject themselves and most of the generations to come if preserved properly. Having this permanent rendition of oneself is something I feel we should all be striving for. A big part of the project is reinforcing current histories that are being made, as opposed to having something more malleable or easily erased. I’m striving for a more permanent record or archive of black people living in this time, and how they come to represent themselves in ways that they want to be represented. I think it is important.
How do you approach your shoots in a way that is collaborative and that allows your subjects to choose how they’ll be represented?
I’m a very structured person, as you know, but I try to leave that part out of it. I’m trying not to let myself and my internal dialogue influence how the representation is going to be. Usually when you photograph someone, especially they don’t know you, the first thing they say is “Okay, tell me what to do”. I try to avoid that. If I reach out to someone via social media and if they’re down to shoot together, I tell them to wear anything they want to, to just come and present themselves how they would want to be photographed. It’s different for everyone, some people come very casual, others in suits … however they want to be seen is what I work off of. If the shoot is in the studio, I try to start with regular conversations and getting everyone relaxed, trying not to make it a daunting thing where they would feel like they have to act. I do test shots, they enjoy seeing themselves on the plates, and we work off that to get photographs in which they feel most comfortable.
If you have one, what’s your vision for the project’s final form?
For now, the final form should come off to the viewers as this document of contemporary black representation. For the tintypes, I want to present perhaps a grid of all sorts of people: different skin tones, hair types, body types, genders, ages, sexual orientations – I want everyone. I want to have as much inclusivity as possible, because back in the day you wouldn’t see that. This is also a project that I would be continuing beyond thesis.
Sounds like you have been working very hard this year. What have been some difficulties in your process and what has helped in overcoming them?
Most of the difficulties, for me, have been working with people and their time. It’s hard to arrange times; sometimes things happen in life and people can’t show up to shoots… everyone has a job, a lot of people have kids. I’d suggest booking more people to shoot in a day, just in case of a flop. Also, trying to gain the trust of people to let me into their homes to photograph them. The other difficulty is the tintypes themselves: so many things could go wrong, and sometimes you don’t know what the cause of the problem is, but I’ve been learning a lot through my research. Then, there are the permits for doing tintypes in an institution, there are a lot of protocols to follow because of the risks involved with the process of making tintypes.
What would be a piece of advise that you would’ve liked to know before you started thesis?
I felt thesis already suited my mode of working: I do a lot of research and experimentation, and I take a lot of risks. Those are some things people don’t usually consider outside of class. It helped knowing that I wanted to make a project for myself and my community, as opposed as doing something only for school or to impress professors, because this way you are able to push yourself, instead of waiting on a professor to prompt you to do so. I know where I want to push the project to and ,based on that, I move on and keep pushing it in that direction.
What are some profs that you recommend because they have had a positive impact in your studies?
Peter Sramek. Peter is the best, he has seen so much and been everywhere, and knows a lot about anything photography. I’d definitely recommend him for any class, but especially speaking to him outside of class can be beneficial in terms of feedback and sources to sort after. He is also good at actually listening to what you have to say and responds in accordance to that. Simon Glass as well gives amazing criticisms; depending on your topic, it might not be what you’re looking for or sorting after, but it is certainly constructive and very informative.