‘You never stop learning, you just become wiser’ – a photo essay on black fatherhood

'This photo project is something I’m really drawn to because of my relationship with my dad,” says Nigerian-British photographer and director Renee Osubu. Her father passed away in 2018, while she was shooting her debut film Dear Philadelphia. “This is my most vulnerable project because it’s specifically about a relationship and a person I miss. It felt like an honour to be able to spend time with all these different dads.” Though documenting children and other sensitive social groups is nothing new to Osubu, Fathers & Figures is her most honest series to date.

“Kadeem and I went to school together as kids and hadn’t seen each other for a while. It was so special to sit in his home chatting, and meeting his beautiful daughter for the first time.”

“Kadeem told me: ‘Fatherhood has given me a different perspective on life. A new purpose. Having a daughter has given me so much more to think about when I’m living my everyday life.’”

“Before work, Kyron took his son Malakai to see a film and then to the park. They sat in the grass together, ran around and played by the swings. Their relationship exudes trust and comfort, and you can truly see Malakai looks up to his dad.”

“Jordan is a boxer – he is grateful for the father figure his trainer Bevis has been over the years, and I had the opportunity to be welcomed into his home and meet his daughter. The sun was sweltering, and Callie and Jordan had been spending time in the shade with her toys.”

“When I first went to visit Selby boxing club, I thought I would just go once or twice. It ended up being somewhere I visited on multiple occasions. The relationships there are intergenerational, and they share a sincere brotherhood. Paulo, the head coach, has built a culture of building up the young men who walk through his doors. Allowing them to truly believe in themselves through discipline, encouragement and support.

“I was introduced to Paulo by Bevis. Bevis trains professional boxers Jordan and Jeff. He describes his relationships with the guys as like father and son: ‘Not only do I train them everyday, but we talk about their future, gesinne, relationships and all aspects of their lives. It’s not just the boxing.’ Bevis may not be their dad, but Jordan describes fatherhood to him to mean ‘being able to not just be a dad but to be a role model, a pillar of love and support at all times and memories to last a lifetime.’ And that is something you see throughout Selby.”

“Jordan and Callie’s bond is truly something special. When reflecting on his experience of fatherhood, Jordan said: ‘I’m learning how to have more empathy and understanding of how a child’s mind can think. I never think you stop learning as a father, you just become wiser.’ Jordan and Callie have a very unique bond, one of patience and filled with love.”

Alongside paternal relationships, Father & Figures gave Osubu the opportunity to explore another interest of hers: boxing. At a time when media depictions of Black male Londoners routinely focus on knife crime and violence, Fathers & Figures works to undo some of these stereotypes. “I’ve always loved watching boxing growing up so it’s interesting spending time with these guys. To see him also in the context of a boxing coach and having the discipline to know when to use strength, but not in a violent way. It’s a huge brotherhood, they are all so close.”

“Chen and my sister Jemima got married in 2017 and are now expecting their first baby – a boy. This image really means a lot to me. I already know Chen will be an incredible father to their baby. In this image, he was sitting down at home, looking at their baby scan reflecting on what is to come.”

To find her subjects, Osubu explored the streets of London as well as putting out an open call on social media. “A big part of my work is just meeting people in the moment: walking through Dalston market and meeting a granddad with 11 kids and speaking to him about his experience of being a dad,” she says of her spontaneous street photography. By contrast, her open call was designed to entice fathers closer to home to feature in the project: “I really wanted to photograph fathers in my life as well. So putting out that open call was about reaching people that I know who are dads or becoming dads.”

“As I was leaving Dalston market, I stumbled across Alfonso: stood strong and so picture-perfect in front of the shop. He saw my camera and asked if I wanted to photograph him. It was like he read my mind.”

“As I told him about my project on fatherhood he asked if ‘being a grandfather of 18 makes the cut?’ We laughed, and I proceeded to capture these images and talk with him about his children.”

“Douglas and I have been close friends for many years. That day myself and Tony (or as I liked to call him, uncle Tony) spent time sitting around the dinner table talking about family, loss and the importance of togetherness.”

“Douglas, his eldest of four, who also works with his dad, will soon be leaving the country and it was special to capture these moments of them together and their bond.”

“I met Deon in Dalston market, we were chatting and he was telling me about his clothing stall. His son Wahjahka then came and joined us. Without either of them saying so it was obvious they were father and son. Wahjahka often joins his dad at the market.”

The series was shot for Witnesses of: The Everyday, a commission by 1854 and Leica

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