Growing up in downtown Lancaster, Osmyn Oree struggled with his identity as a member of the black community. It’s common to hear stories about racism between differing cultures, however Osmyn faced it from not only other cultures, but also his own. He was the only black member of his soccer team. He liked to skateboard, but “I couldn’t find other black kids to skate with,” he says. He wore his hair in a mohawk and listened to heavy metal music, “and people from my culture would be like, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t listen to that music. That’s not black people music. That’s white people music,’” he continues. The worst of the “internal stereotypes” he experienced was other black students making fun of him for getting good grades and doing well in school. “It blows my mind that people would be like that,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘I’m just trying to get out of high school. I don’t want to be stuck here!’”
Osmyn managed to surround himself with supportive friends and family, and learned to both ignore and sometimes argue and enlighten people who questioned his authenticity as a black man. As a junior in high school, he discovered the photography department at McCaskey, and a love of the genre was born, again trending away from cultural stereotypes. After graduation, he went on to earn a degree from Pennsylvania College of Art and Design.
To Osmyn, photography was a way to reflect on his own thoughts and insecurities and search for his identity. His first project, titled “Honesty,” focused on female nudity. “I started noticing a certain way women were being portrayed, and I didn’t like how they were being shown,” he explains. “I felt that if I were to use my friends instead of models, the pictures would come across as more real and less sexualized and objectified.”
His next project, titled “Exposed,” also dealt with nudity, but from a different perspective: “There is this whole masculine stereotype of how the media portrays men—how they’re supposed to be. And I wanted to challenge that,” says Osmyn. He photographed nude males in a similar vein as his female subjects—in their own homes, in unstylized positions, without filters, looking raw and real. To Osmyn, the photographs show that, as a male, “We can be different, vulnerable and show ourselves,” he says.
His current project, however, is his deepest search into his own identity. Titled “I’m Still Black,” the project began as a way to explore his own blackness and sense of belonging in his culture. Through the photos in his series, Osmyn seeks to celebrate the many different ways that African-Americans express themselves. At first he started walking around Lancaster with friends and family, catching photographs with a 35-millimeter camera and writing down their thoughts about being black.
“But then,” he laughs, “I ditched the whole journalism-type aspect of it because I wanted to make the pictures speak for themselves. I ended up using a large format camera.” Osmyn explains, “I limit myself to eight pictures per subject. So the biggest thing is that I have to think about every single aspect of the photograph when I shoot. It helps me create the photographs I want. The composition, the lighting … I have to think about every little part, every little detail.” The portraits are also in black and white, because, “internally it’s like a black and white issue with me,” Osmyn admits. “Like on a whole different scale coming from high school all the way up until now, I still deal with that stuff.”
As for his subjects, the only direction Osmyn gives them is to be “unapologetically black.” Many of the pictures, which he prints on large 4 x 4.5 foot canvases, face the viewer directly. I like to focus on the people, and that’s why a lot of eye contact is a huge part of my portraits. I definitely want the people in the photos to confront whoever’s looking at them.”
Osmyn loves the positive reactions he gets when displaying his larger-than-life portraits at shows and galleries, and plans to continue building the project. “As long as people are willing and people understand what I’m trying to do, I’m going to keep doing it.” And his advice for people of any race trying to figure out where they belong, he adds, is, “Just be you, honestly. Don’t let anyone else tell you how you should be, and live your best life.”
View Osmyn’s work online at osmynjoree.com.