As a housing project came down, a photographer was born. Yasin Osman grew up in Regent Park, one of the most notorious social housing projects in Toronto for its problems with crime and gang violence. In 2006 the city kicked off an ambitious revitalization plan spanning 15 to 20 years aimed at transforming the troubled neighbourhood into a dynamic mixed-income, mixed-use district with condos, townhouses, parks, commercial spaces and community buildings.
“When the revitalization began, the apartment building in front of mine was getting smaller because of the demolition,” recalls Osman. “I decided to take my mom’s cellphone and document the changes that were going on.”
Though his mother encouraged his creative endeavour, Osman, then 13, suspected it would be the opposite of cool among his sports- loving peers. “I kept photography a secret from my friends… I was scared they wouldn’t like it. I didn’t want their opinion to have an effect on how I felt. It was too important,” says Osman, now age 25 years old and an up-and-coming documentary photographer to watch (his current clientele includes UNICEF Canada, Adidas, Indigo, VICE News and streetwear line OVO).
While Osman is an adept landscape photographer, his early career has been distinguished by his candid portraits. His best work captures intimate moments of trust between photographer and subject. Muslim pilgrims making Hajj in Mecca; Somali youth goofing around on a beach; tired shopkeepers in New York City… Osman encapsulates his subjects far beyond the staged, “you just found me in an Instagramable moment” aesthetic that’s so ubiquitous nowadays. Often, the person in the photo appears to be as curious about the person behind the lens as the photographer is about his subject.
These moments of engagement fit right into Osman’s larger agenda. “Photography is a vehicle for social change because it allows us to see the lives of different people and cultures,” he says. “It allows us to connect and sympathize with our brothers and sisters across the globe, meet people from places we’ve never been and see far away landscapes.” In an age of mistrust, getting to know someone is a political act.
For Osman, it’s also personal. “I wanted to help change the narrative of my home country. I witnessed my mom shaking her head anytime Somalia was mentioned on the news, either because of pirates, war lords or the famine. Somalis are one of the most beautiful and generous people I’ve ever come across and I wanted that to translate into the photos.” Osman’s heroes include crusading photojournalists Steve McCurry, Kevin Carter and Nick Ut, whom, he says “totally changed the way we think about our world through providing images that capture and communicate an emotion to the viewer.”
In 2015, he shot a controversial VICE photo essay on Limerick, Ireland — also known as Stab City, due to its high violent crime rate. Although his goal was to introduce the real people who lived there — stereotyped as potential criminals, much like Toronto’s Regent Park youth are — some readers felt it was sensationalist. However, the story put the 22-year-old on the map, literally. In the following years, Osman has taken a whirlwind journey, shooting in Mecca, Saudi Arabia; Ethiopia (a documentary campaign for Pious Projects); and Somalia (shooting the American Refugee Committee’s #LoveArmyForSomalia campaign).
It was in Mecca, where his mother, a devout Muslim, made pilgrimage, that Osman had an epiphany: “We all see the world differently, and the only way I can show you how I truly see something is not [by] explaining it to you, but [by] showing you a photo of it,” he says. More self-discovery followed, as Osman honed his focus on humanitarian photography. Documenting the work of aid organization Pious Projects, Osman went to Africa for the first time. “When I was in Ethiopia, my whole perspective changed. I feel like we’ve been brainwashed to think that these communities in Africa are depressed and sad when in actuality everyone I met was not only happy and thankful, but were willing to share with me the little that they had,” he says. Osman doesn’t deny the reality of poverty, but says it shouldn’t define a culture. He sought to share positive images of countries like Ethiopia and Somalia, even while getting a “reality check” in the material differences between the first and third worlds. “Before going to the motherland, I never thought about my privilege. I never thought about the value of a dollar. I never thought about donating to anyone or anything. It completely changed me and has made me realize that life is about helping one another,” he says.
While Osman’s documentary work is about sharing stories, he felt that there were still stories to share closer to home. And just like that, #Shootforpeace was launched.
“When I was younger, sports kept a lot of the youth from going down the wrong path. But, if you didn’t like sports, you didn’t have many options. The kids in my community carry so much on their backs. I wanted them to have an opportunity to express themselves,” says Osman.
What to call the program involved animated discussions between Osman and the kids, who’d complained that its initial name,
Photo Club, was boring. They eventually decided on “Shoot for Peace,” a play on words relevant to their common goal — combating gun violence — and exactly what the group wanted to achieve through the art of photography. Almost every Sunday, Osman takes a group of Regent Park youths on photo expeditions across Toronto to teach them about photo- editing techniques and software.
For the first year, the students shared smartphones and point-and-shoots, but after Osman secured a sponsorship from Canon, each student received their own digital SLR camera. The results have astounded even Osman. “I thought the kids would want to take photos of basketball and architecture, things they’d already expressed interest in. After a while, I found [them] taking photos of very intimate things, like their mother cooking or their dad hugging their sibling.”
Through #Shootforpeace, Regent Park youth are changing the narrative of their community, one image at a time. It’s a logical extension of Osman’s photographic mission Storytellling is at its heart. As his client Samantha Taylor, Senior VP of marketing at Indigo, notes, “Yasin is a master storyteller. He creates instant connections with people that shines through in his work.” Though early in his career, Osman’s legacy is already takeing root as new storytellers pick up their SLRs, ready to add their voices to the dialogue.
By Yuki Hayashi – *This article originally appeared in INSIGHT: The Art of Living | Winter 2017
Photos: Yasin Osman