SHIFTER editor Kevin Bourne, aka KB The Boss, talks with Toronto-based photographer, director and creative director, O’shane Howard, about his recent photo series YAAD, being a photographer in Toronto, and much more.
Kevin Bourne: We’re going to get into YAAD, but first, take us back to the beginning? What first attracted you to photography? Was there a particular moment when you fell in love with taking pictures?
O’shane Howard: I did not intend to become a photographer, much less see myself in the creative industry. In high school, I took a media class, and I dreaded it. I was always into fashion, which led me to take a fashion arts program in college for a year, then I didn’t go back to finish it.
Two years after doing some self-development, I went back to college, but this time for media and one of the prerequisites was that you needed to own a camera. I did not know anything about cameras, so I bought anything I could afford then.
This program covered so many areas of media, such as photography, public relations, video, marketing and creative writing. I was leaning towards video editing and not so much photography, but I told myself I might as well use this camera and see where this leads me.
I would practice with a friend who was also into photography, and I remember this one particular shoot. I was testing numerous angles and knew I was onto something at that moment. This moment is when I knew my eye was developing, and I have never stopped shooting since then.
KB: You live and work in Toronto. What has your experience been like as a Black commercial photographer in Toronto? Some local Black creatives complain about the lack of opportunities for Black creative professionals in the city. How has your experience been? Is that something you can relate to?
OH: In any business you are in, closed mouths don’t get fed. You can get so frustrated that you don’t do anything to change your situation, or you can get so upset that you channel that anger to change your life for the better.
It’s all about your mindset and how you approach things. You can be a phenomenal artist, but it only translates to opportunities if you know how to operate and market your business. It’s beyond just the work that gets you through the door.
- Do people like working with you?
- Are you pitching your work to clients you want to work with?
- Are you getting feedback from qualified people in the industry?
- Are you networking and building new relationships with people?
- Are you adding value to these relationships?
- Do you have people that are advocating for you in rooms that you aren’t in?
- Are you shooting creative projects?
- Do you have an attractive client list?
- What are you doing to make yourself stand out from everyone else?
- Does your portfolio speak to the market and the area you reside in?
These are some questions artists should ask themselves that aspire to be commercial photographers. I can understand it can be frustrating when you may feel like you are being overlooked and not given a shot, but having patience has gotten me through all those emotions.
Applying all the steps that will draw you closer to your goals will compound, and eventually, it will all come together. Attaining your dreams is a slow burn many people aren’t willing to burn through.
KB: Let’s get into YAAD. You recently released the photo series depicting Jamaican culture (plastic covered chair and all). How did the idea for the project come about?
OH: I always felt like I was seeing the same types of imagery whenever Jamaican culture was being highlighted, and I wanted to change that by adding my sauce and commercial approach. I love photographing different people and their cultures, but I’ve always wanted to do the same for my heritage.
KB: Was there a key message you were trying to convey?
OH: I didn’t approach this series with having a message, but more so approaching it by giving people a feeling of home in Jamaica or even in Canada. I wanted people to have a deep emotional bond that draws you back to the island, no matter where they may be—a feeling of pride, identity, and a deep love for our culture and heritage.
This series went viral, and just off the messages I got from so many people worldwide, each person had a different interpretation of YAAD based on their own experiences. It took people down memory lane, and for some, it sparked curiosity and led them to want to know more about Jamaican culture.
I enjoy using my lens to educate and spark conversations around culture. It’s just something I’ll never get tired of doing because it’s engraved in me.
KB: In the past, Jamaicans have been stereotyped negatively at times. Do you still think Jamaicans get a bad rap or have perceptions changed at all?
OH: Jamaicans are known for being influential, highly educated and hard-working, with an entrepreneurial spirit. They may be likkle bit, but they are Tallawah, meaning they may be a small island but strong, mighty, and can do anything. It has positively influenced the whole world and continues to do so.
Everyone loves and embraces the culture, and you’ll hear people say they wish they were born in Jamaica or speak the language—some media outlets like to control the narrative and shape certain groups of people in a negative light. But if people take the time to seek things for themselves, the truth will always unravel itself for them.
KB: Looking at YAAD, it’s screaming “movie” to me. As someone who is also a director, any chance of YAAD evolving into a film project? Or any plans to explore Jamaican culture in film?
OH: It was initially supposed to be released as that. However, more groundwork must be done once you enter the film territory. It’s on my passion project list to check off.
KB: What’s next for you? Anything else you have coming that you can tell us about? Any dream projects?
OH: My work with Sunday School is currently being exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, presented in collaboration with Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. The exhibition is called “Feels Like Home” showcasing some of our most substantial work to date, reflecting themes of lifestyle, sport, heritage, beauty, and, most importantly, belonging. Emilie Croning curated it and will be at the AGO from May 6th, 2023, to May 31st, 2024.
Also, I am planning to shoot another series highlighting the Jamaican diaspora, which I am excited about. YAAD is the first of many ongoing series highlighting the island!
KB: Before we go, here are some rapid fire questions:
Favourite Jamaican saying?
KB: Favourite Jamaican recording artist?
OH: The Grace Thrillers
KB: Best patti spot in Toronto?
OH: Patty King
KB: Favourite Jamaican food spot in Toronto?
OH: Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen
KB: Place people have to visit when they go to Jamaica?
OH: Gloria’s Seafood City