Documentary photographer Stephen Obisanya wants to bring stories to light. So the Nigeria-born Staten Islander has recently added podcast host to his resume—another way for him to explore concepts of artistic creativity, human connection and community. Obisanya is also a contributor to Public Art Fund’s Art on the Grid exhibition (through September 20), a group show of emerging artists whose work is displayed on bus shelters and LinkNYC kiosks citywide, produced in response to the converging crises of the pandemic and systemic racism in our country. Obisanya took time to answer a few questions about what shaped him as an artist, his interest in both visual and audio documentary work and the inspiration he takes from his home borough.
Can you describe how you created work during the shutdown? Did anything change for you? If so, how?
Stephen Obisanya: My focus has pivoted from visual documentary work to audio documentary work, a premeditated shift since late 2019. For several years, I’d been deeply fascinated by the works of artists and creatives across a variety of fields, the spaces within which they worked and the process behind their works. Although the original concept was to visit these “studio” spaces to capture portraits of the artist and their workspace, the onset of the Covid-19 crisis and the ensuing shutdown accelerated my plan to capture the essence of these noteworthy individuals in an interview-based podcast format. The result is Artisans & Trade.
How has New York City informed your work? Has that changed in recent months?
SO: My work in many ways has been molded and shaped by New York City. It is where I, a Nigerian immigrant, first experienced what it meant to be an American. When I picked up photography, I was deeply influenced by renowned photographers and contemporaries who captured the life and rhythm of the City in a way that seemed entirely magical. It made me believe early on that I, too, could one day follow in those giant footsteps. As a documentary photographer, I continue to be moved to bring focus to the many stories and life experiences that exist within NYC.
What has given you hope and sustained you over the last few months?
SO: The ability to develop and create new ideas has primarily been my saving grace. Additionally, intentional conversations with family, friends and strangers have also been a fruitful practice that has allowed for meaningful connection, especially during a period defined by isolation.
What positive qualities do you hope will come out of the pandemic—for yourself personally or for the City?
SO: Personally, the positive qualities that I hope for in the aftermath are reflected in the succinct quote of the English poet John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Which is to say that friends, family, partners and strangers bring immeasurable value to our lives when we open up our worlds to the possibility of establishing a deep-seated and meaningful connection. That is what I am practicing—more openness, more connection and more alignment with my purpose. For the City, my hope (without reaching too far for unattainable ideals) is that workers and businesses who were deemed “essential” during the pandemic continue to maintain that status in the aftermath, for the critical role they play in holding the fabric of society together.
Does your artwork relate to a neighborhood in New York City? Is there a neighborhood in New York that inspires you and your practice?
SO: In the six years that I’ve been a photographer, my work has mostly been focused on the borough of Staten Island. It is my home away from home—Nigeria. It is where I spent my formative years and where I have discovered who I am as an artist. The sheer breadth of people, experiences and cultures continues to inspire me and fuel my curiosity, and constantly makes me revisit the question I once posed to myself in frustration when I was first starting out: What is there to say or photograph here? Today, I have that answer: a lot!
For more information about the artist, visit stephenobisanya.com.