Meet Ruth Ossai, London’s newest fashion photographer set to take over

Rachael Dove
Ruth Ossai: Kezia Quarcoo

Raised between Nigeria and Yorkshire, Ossai started taking portraits of her grandmother and cousins.

Now she shoots for Rihanna, Kenzo and Nike. Her hyper-stylised aesthetic — think vibrant backdrops and motorbikes — is influenced by Nollywood films and the Nigerian community, and is original in its entirety.

Which film most inspires what you do?

1980s and 1990s Nollywood. Growing up, we always watched it in the house and I’d recreate some of the scenes in the garden and film stuff on my dad’s Blackberry. I loved the typography, I loved the green screen.

How did you become a photographer?

I always used to shoot my family in Nigeria and Yorkshire, but I was quite private with my photographs and my friends and family would put them up inside their house. The project that gave me a different audience was a Kenzo shoot I collaborated on with Akinola Davies Jr and Ibrahim Kamara, it launched me into a different platform. The industry is so hard, you need to have 7,000 jobs to be able to afford the things you need to do the job.

My visuals are quite set heavy and there are props so I need money to build those sets and to pay the people I work with well. I work with brands in positive collaborations, not only for me and my work, but for my community. It’s fortunate I’ve been able to work [in a positive way] with brands not just in Nigeria but everywhere.

What has been your pinch me moment?

Exhibiting my work at Red Hook Labs in New York, and shooting for Rihanna for the launch of Fenty in Paris, and again for the jewellery section of the brand. I thought it was a once in a lifetime thing so when they came back again to collaborate I was like, ‘wow’. She came to Paris and she wanted to be photographed, she was incredible and really fun. I’ve met a lot of people that are very on their attitudes, she was very humble. The industry is very male dominated and the majority of people she works with are women.

Describe what you are wearing today.

Church attire made by a tailor from Anambra State, Nigeria. It’s a jacket and trousers tailored to fit - I’ve probably had it for eight years. I don’t have many clothes, I like to keep it minimal.

Which song would you take to the grave with you?

Tell Him by Lauryn Hill. This song is emotional, for all aspects of life.

Where do you go out in London?

I prefer seeing and doing activities because I don’t drink. London can be quite alcohol orientated. I’d rather save up to go travelling somewhere, a road trip to Ghana or a drive up to the North.

How could you be better supported as an artist?

There needs to be other opportunities and platforms for youth that want to do photography, music, whatever, outside of London and feel like they can succeed. If you want to get into the industry and learn you have to be in London. It’s difficult. There needs to be that spread over the country.

How did it feel being recognised by the British Fashion Council for their New Wave list?

I never thought the BFC would know who I was. I said to my assistant, ‘who even knows me?’

That these people actually know who I am and my name. You don’t realise the reach you actually have in the world until you are [recognised] in something like this. I used to take photos of my Grandma, and think, ‘this isn’t going anywhere.’ Something so intimate and personal can actually reach a lot of people.

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