Spotlight: Othello Grey Wields His Camera With a Gentle Tenderness
Issue 5 | An Ethos of Caring
Othello Grey is methodical and pensive, his contemplative self-reflection is his secret weapon. A photographer known for teetering on the line between editorial, commercial and artistic photography, he has a style all his own. His portraits dissolve barriers between photographer and subject, like you’re being let in on a secret about the person in front of the camera. It’s almost like he’s always shooting his friends, regardless of whether he knows his subjects or not.
His uncanny ability to highlight the uniqueness, the beauty and the vulnerabilities in people is a testament to the empathy that permeates throughout his work. Put simply, he cares. He cares about other human beings, he cares about filling spaces with the right energy and he cares about constantly bettering himself, and consequently, his craft.
Wielding his camera with a gentle tenderness, he’s been slowly growing his portfolio over the past seven years and expanding the roster of brands and publications he collaborates with including The New York Times, Vogue, OVO, Nomad Toronto, Indie Mag, Stussy and SSENSE.
Photography wasn’t necessarily a calling for Grey, but rather a medium that allowed him to document the passing of time and create a catalogue of experiences to look back on as an archive of his earlier life. “My father passed away when I was a teenager and we never had a relationship that was beyond him as my ‘father’ and me as ‘his son’. I didn’t know him. I learned more about him through photo albums I was given after he passed away then I did when he was alive. That was the initial reasoning behind my continuation of photography beyond it being a hobby; I didn’t trust my memory and I wanted to leave behind fragments of myself and whoever I was surrounded by to preserve the fact that I existed,” he said.
He started a now defunct blog, before the monopolization of Instagram, where he built a full-fledged creative space. With rotating playlists, weekly photo drops, turning mundane moments of his life into editorials, he started to cultivate a visual identity that was all his own. “I would purposely use extended shutter speeds to take skewed photos and scan my film with an old scanner that was really soft and made those photos look like paintings.” The traction grew and Othello Grey quickly became the name of everyone’s lips (or at least among a certain subset of the city’s arts and fashion communities). Things ballooned from there, but rather than focusing on developing a grandiose photography career, he focused on his endless desire to improve and challenge himself as a person, building resolve, self-awareness and being critical without being destructive.
In March, he was invited to the Art Gallery of Ontario for an Artist’s Talk to discuss his purpose, his place in contemporary photography and the roots of his artistic inspiration. It was a nerve-wracking experience but thanks to a little coaxing by the moderator, culture journalist Anupa Mistry, he was as vulnerable and open with the 100-person crowd as he is when he’s shooting a model or a friend.
Afterwards, some attendees told him hearing his story and the unconventional trajectory of his career was an inspiration for them. “I’ve always wanted to be the inspiration for others that I never had. I didn’t have any mentors, I didn’t know any prominent Black artists, other than Basquiat, until I was twenty-three. I was never exposed to someone who wore a New York Yankees hat, spoke eloquently, had white gold teeth and whose work could be placed beside the countless white artists that the art world heralds.”
Grey has simultaneously produced music the whole length of his photography career, but he’s been more reticent to share it publicly, until now. On August 10, he released a soundtrack to accompany Freddy Carasco’s Afro-futurist graphic novel, GLEEM. It has taken him time to get acclimated to the level of analysis that comes with releasing music. When you shoot an editorial most people don’t wonder what it says about you, but when you release an album full of songs listeners automatically seem to want to parse and decipher the deeper meanings. “With my music I am at the centre and all the emotions I’ve poured into it are being analyzed. I had a hard time grappling with that.” But now that he’s wet his feet a bit he feels better equipped to release his full length, which is complete and features him singing.
At the forefront and at the heart of everything Grey creates is an underlying commitment to community. He feels a great responsibility to other Black artists and to be someone other photographers can look to as a “reference point.”
“The usual strategy for photographers is to build a name based off of proximity to someone famous, photographing celebrities or musicians, and there’s no problem with that but I personally never desired to excel that way. I find society’s obsession with celebrities quite strange, to be frank, so I wanted my work to steer away from that and into its own category—personal, layered, thoughtful.”
And that thoughtfulness goes beyond the way he shoots. He uplifts emerging photographers by getting them job opportunities, uses his platform to share the projects of other creators, does work for free or at a rate far below his usual to make his skills more accessible to the community. “There’s a heavy burden that comes along with being a recognizable figure and I hope that I can be an example of how to manage those pressures while being at the service of others.”
Written by Kelsey Adams
Lead Photo Illustration by Marta Ryczko
Photos courtesy of Othello Grey