When Brad Ogbonna was a student at Roseville Area High School in a first-ring suburb of St. Paul, he wasn’t much interested in art or photography. “I played varsity basketball in high school,” he says. It’s when he jumped the state border to attend University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where he earned his Bachelor of Science in International/Global Studies, that he started “following the blogs that were popping up.”
“I didn’t want to be in Wisconsin,” he says. “I went on blogs to see what people my age were up to, where they were going, what stories their photos were telling. It was a way to escape Wisconsin.” While living in Minneapolis one summer, he read Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which inspired him to start taking snapshots of his friends with a simple point-and-shoot camera, pictures that he’d post on his website.
After an exchange year — spent partially in Europe, and then at Queens College in Flushing, NY, where had an internship at Spin — Ogbonna returned to River Falls to finish his degree. Then, he says, things started to pop. Through a friend, Diet Coke offered him a photography project, shooting New York Fashion Week in 2011. “It was a massive first job,” he says. “Seeing my photographs posted in Times Square, I decided to make photography my career.”
Today, Ogbonna’s client list includes Top Shop, DIESEL + EDUN, VICE, Myspace, Radio City Rockettes, Maison Kitsuné, Zaarly, Facebook, The Participation Agency, BULLETT Magazine, Carmichael Lynch, and OWA Market. Locally, he’s shot for the former METRO Magazine and City Pages.
“I’m always inspired by what’s going on in Minneapolis,” says Ogbonna, who now lives in New York City. “I try to make it back every couple of months, and I’m constantly paying attention to what’s going on there. I feel like I’m part of the community, although I make my money in New York.”
The project that connected him with his Nigerian roots and led him to work with DIESEL + EDUN, and then to create “Places,” was a book about his father, George Ogbonna Sr. Brad Obgonna’s father grew up in the village of Nkwerre, in Nigeria. During high school, his father received a list of top US colleges from an uncle. Winona State University was on the list. He’d never heard of Winona, or Minnesota, but he decided to enroll. Soon after arriving in Winona, George’s wife, who was from the same village, followed. George eventually transferred to Augsburg College. He eventually became an administrator at the University of Minnesota. She became a nurse. Their son, Brad, grew up a thoroughly American kid, despite his strict Nigerian parents.
Shortly after Brad graduated from college and moved to New York, George told his son he had cancer. He passed quickly. According to village tradition, you are buried where you grew up. So, Brad accompanied his father’s body back to Nkwerre, hung out with his Nigerian relatives, and started taking pictures. He returned a year later, as is customary to conclude the mourning period for a father, and he took more pictures—in Nkwerre but also Lagos, Port Harcourt, and Abonnema.
The result became a book, Jisike, which Obgonna self-published and quickly sold out. Images from the book were also exhibited at Oberlin College last February. “I wanted to create a tribute to my father, but also create something tangible to show my family and others in the village,” he says. The photos were really about “people’s interactions with me,” he says. “In Nkwerre, everyone knew why I was there. My Dad was very popular in the village. And the photos show how the people I met were reacting to me.”
Seeing where his parents grew up, their middle and high schools, was “a humbling experience,” Ogbonna says. “The way the kids looked at me—I was the personification of the Nigerian dream. The prospects of people making it outside of Nigeria are limited. For them to see someone whose father came from the village and did well in the U.S., and that the son comes back and forth — people are very proud of that.”
The book prepared him for his next big project, shooting for DIESEL + EDUN’s “Studio Africa,” by “building my confidence in shooting people I didn’t know and getting a feel for places.” His assignment had three components. As others shot music videos of the three innovative musical talents—Spoek, Faarrow and Olugbenga—in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, Obgonna shot behind-the-scenes footage.
He also shot the clothing for ads and in-house marketing efforts. And he photographed the scenery “to capture the aesthetics of the places we traveled to.” As to why they chose Ogbonna, he says, “I think I probably gave them street cred, because I’m an American-Nigerian artist who doesn’t shoot poverty porn. I shoot pictures that are a true slice of life of what’s going on in Africa.”
His ongoing project, “Places,” is a collection of images he’s shot around the world, from Duluth to Africa. “People are starting to pay attention to Africa in a different way,” he says. “It’s not the little brother of the world that needs taking care of, but a place where a lot of cool things are happening, with a lot of potential.” Ogbonna’s images—direct, engaging and authentic—attest to that change, and to how a Minnesota-born photographer of Nigerian heritage sees the world today.