Images that capture the intimacy of black British fatherhood

A young man wears a simple white shirt, rolls of dark denim gather just above his knees. He is at peace, sitting on a velvet sofa with a small child on his lap. In this candid photograph, we see Kadeem kissing his daughter La’nyah-Rose on her forehead at his north London home, an intimate moment bathed in warm light that will be shown on digital screens across the UK throughout of January for British Journal of Photography Portrait of Britain Award. This image is part of a series by 25-year-old British-Nigerian photographer and filmmaker Renee Maria Osubu, titled ‘Fathers and Figures’, which celebrates black fatherhood through everyday experiences.

Renee body of work often showcases the beauty of relationships between men by focusing on the simple moments in life. His photograph ‘Dealing with Distance’, which also won a Portrait of Britain Award in 2019, shows teenage twins Nicholas and Michael in a sweet embrace as they embark on separate journeys. “They experienced distance for the first time as one attends university in London while the other pursues a career in the capital. Meeting the brothers opened my mind to the importance of company between men,” Renee told the British Journal of Photography at the time.

Just before the series ‘Des Pères et des Figures’, she also directed the documentary Dear Philadelphia in 2019 and 2020, which won a spot at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The black and white film follows three fathers in North Philadelphia, a part of the United States that has gained a bad reputation due to drug-related crimes. Through these men, Renee shows the heartwarming side of an often demonized neighborhood as they navigate family, friendship, and faith.

‘Chen&Ultrasound’, photography by Renee Maria Osubu

Like many photographers of Renee’s genre, her work is influenced by photographers such as Gordon Parks, who is best known for his images of everyday life for black Americans in Harlem between the 1940s and 1970s.” His photographs of the community are beautiful,” Renee gal-dem said over the phone on a Wednesday afternoon. “The feeling of freedom, dignity and unity is a constant theme in his work.”

But for Renee, music also plays an important role. “A song or an album can stay with me for a long time and influence how I interpret a moment or how I choose to have scenes in my movie play out,” she says, referring to the album. 1988. The bad education of Lauryn Hill. “I’ve always loved the consideration of music and interludes of kids speaking in class.”

“I lost my own father almost five years ago. You are forced to think about their entire journey as a person before they even exist

In 2017, Renee suffered a loss which motivated her to focus on black British fatherhood for her follow-up project for Dear Philadelphia. “It’s particularly important to me [to chronicle it] because I lost my own father almost five years ago,” says the London-born photographer. “I’ve always cared about the intimacy and vulnerability of becoming a father that isn’t often shown.” His father’s death also heightened his interest in what it means to be human. “When a person dies, you see them outside [your singular relationship to them]. You see what their whole life was like,” she says. “You’re forced to think about their whole journey as a person before they even exist.”

A father holds his two children outdoors with a white background behind them
Photograph by Renee Maria Osubu

“Fathers and Figures” follows both the people in Renee’s life and the people she met for the project. Kadeem, who was 25 when the photos were taken, was an old friend from primary school. “We were childhood friends, but being so young, we ended up breaking up,” she says of them breaking up. She ran into him during the pandemic and having heard about his new baby, asked to go to his house to take photos which rekindled their friendship. “It reintroduced us to each other. To be able to see him in this new stage of his life was really special.

Renee isn’t sure exactly why this specific photograph was chosen for the award, but regardless, she thinks it shows the times we are in right now. “What it means to be British is changing,” she says. “There is an acceptance and awareness of the black British experience.”

For Renee, documenting everyday experiences has political power. To some, his work appears simply as images of father figures, but they go further, transforming stereotypes surrounding black men. I think about what it feels like for them to be recognized as righteous in their day-to-day existence,” says Renee. “Discussions surrounding black men tend to be done through a white gaze. Most of the time it’s about criminal activity, violence or not being good enough. »

In the UK, black fathers are often vilified by politicians and the media. In 2008, David Cameron called for a “revolution” asking “absent black fathers” to “take responsibility”. In 2019, journalist Rod Liddle wrote an unsavory piece for The temperature on a 14-year-old’s stabbing titled “Half of all black kids don’t live with their dads – and we wonder why they’re dying.” Afua Hirsh vehemently disagreed with the article. “There are many more relevant predictors of violent behavior than ‘absent fathers’,” she added. wrote in reply at the time listing education, mental health, poverty and social issues. Any talk like this erases the many black men who navigate one of life’s most difficult tasks: parenthood.

So Renee scoured the streets of London for inspiration by meeting fathers and their children, chatting and spending time with them as she created the show during the pandemic. In one photograph, a man poses outside a shop full of fabrics in east London, holding groceries in one hand and holding a pole in the other. His long gray hair is tied back, he has an almost full beard, and he looks delighted to be photographed. “Alfonso was so strong and so perfect,” she says. He actually approached Renee after seeing that she was holding a camera. “It was like he was reading my mind. I told him about my project and he asked me if ‘being an 18-year-old grandfather was enough?’

“Discussions surrounding black men tend to be done through a white gaze. Most of the time it’s about criminal activity, violence or not being good enough

Paternal relationships go beyond the biological ties of fathers, or grandfathers in this case. Sport can foster a similar dynamic. “My dad and I used to watch boxing together. It’s something we really loved when I was little. Bevis, who is in some of the footage, we go to the same church and he’s a boxing trainer,” she explains. He teaches at Selby Boxing Club, a fitness space and non-profit organization in Tottenham, North London. He was training two professional boxers at the time the photographs were taken, Jordan and Jeff. “Bevis sees some of these guys as his own sons. They work out, but he also talks to them about their well-being, their families, their relationships, or if they need help understanding their lives and finances. Jordan, who is also pictured with his daughter Callie on the show, said he was grateful for the role Bevis played in his life.

Stereotypes never paint the whole picture and, in the case of black fathers, present a community of parents in a degrading and dehumanizing way, which Renee’s project actively works against. “There is a tenderness that accompanies becoming a father. Not all men are good fathers, but there are a lot of men who give their best,” Renee adds. Celebrating the men who find their feet in one of life’s most titanic tasks allows him to process and honor his late father who continues to inspire him. “With all his imperfections, he was someone who cared so deeply.”

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