Toronto Photographer Othello Grey on Prioritizing Passion

Toronto Photographer Othello Grey on Prioritizing Passion

If the Toronto take-off was spearheaded by Aubrey Graham and Abel Tesyafe, winning the war to make the city one of the world's culture capitals is a new strain of Toronto creatives, with photographer Othello Grey at the forefront.

For the past 5 years, Grey has developed (pun intended) from being the token documentarian among his friend-group to the city's go-to collaborator for all things editorial. His work has taken him from his hometown to the Dominican Republic and back again, and seen him shoot from SSENSE to Vogue.

On set of Moose Knuckles' Fall '18 campaign (shot by Grey), the photographer talks about the key to his success, claiming that while he benefited from riding the wave of Drake in the digital age, he prioritizes passion over financial success. This, Grey says, has propelled his career much faster than diving into the commercial deep-end. In the process, he has had to contend with a fair number of imitators, but he is intent on pulling up and putting on those around him — in fact his direct messages are always open.

PAPER sat down with the talented Torontonian to talk growth, disconnecting from the 'gram and what makes a great photo.

Tell me about your professional and personal progression because while you've been in this for a minute, people treat you as this new, hot, up-and-coming talent.

Yeah there's like an imbalance, not imbalance in a negative way, but there's one side of it where people who knew me before, have this respect for me as a veteran. Then people who are big now that look at me as new and emerging because there was this transitional period between running around with a film camera taking pictures of my friends and creating something more tangible. I self-taught so it was always for me this kind of ambition to learn more and just teach myself to want more. Having this real hunger is what I think comes from being in Toronto. You're surrounded by people that are inspirational but no one knows them on a grander scale.

I also feel like there's this underdog mentality in Toronto because it's not New York or London. It's a different grind.

Yes because there's no history here. In places like New York and Los Angeles there's so many things that have happened there. Everyone wants to go to New York, live in New York, live in Los Angeles. It's always been get big in Toronto and then leave. I feel in the past couple of years you don't want to leave. You see that something's happening here and you want to be a part of that story, so that when people look back to this time frame, you know they were saying you were there for it. Apart of the growth, a part of that history, I think what everyone's doing is creating history for what people will reference in the future. The beginning stages of what made Toronto so special. I feel like it will reference other things like theirs the most populated amount of people in one space at one time. One generation creating really great things. I feel like years before there were one or two people who were really good and then they would leave.

How much do you feel like the hip hop scene has done for creatives scene?

It's really strange. Even if your work doesn't reflect the hip hop scene or whatever's being created on that side of the spectrum, it's giving closure to us, you can do things that are completely outside of that but because there are eyes on Toronto now people are interested. All the big musicians have put eyes on the city. I feel like my work doesn't relate to the hip hop community in the sense of what I actually create, because people see that I'm from here, they're looking to that city to see what's happening. It's kind of like what's happening outside of Toronto out of that. If these people were really good there has to be other things. With Drake so many people began to take from him and take from his style... He's been able to stay relevant, but not only stay relevant, expose us to new artists. That makes us feel like he's still useful and he's someone that works hard. For me sometimes I have to also look to when the digital age really took over. I credit that for my ability to be more accessible.

Drake's rise must have been in direct parallel to when you started off. What, 2012?

Yeah around then. That's when I started trying to actually pursue it and do something with photography. I was kind of like a knuckle head. I never really cared about anything. I always was an artsy kid, nerdy, but because I came from an urban background being a nerd was kind of corny. I'd be picked on, a lot of my friends said just play basketball, do the basic stuff a kid in an urban community would do. I had all these other ambitions like I always loved art but I never knew how to get to it. It's kind of like playing that game and find your way in. Not a game in the sense of not taking it seriously, but strategizing how you're going to exist in these worlds. For me the whole art and fashion thing, I was always that kid that got picked on by his friends too. I was the first one in my high school that wore slim jeans. I always knew I was different from the other people around me, but I was just searching out where those like minds were, and the people who thought the same and felt the same as me.

What's the dream? Is it going on tour with someone? Is it doing editorial?

I think it's more editorials and working. More fashion and less hip hop or music driven for me personally. I think that I can tell a verity of stories through fashion and editorial.

It's so hard because editorial just doesn't always pay.

Yeah that's always the difficult thing. You look at other big photographers like your Petra Collins, [Petra] fits right in with that and she came from this same area. I just think that there is a way to get there, she kind of carved it out and had her own style, which is a beautiful thing because I think that's one way to do it when you have a very specific style.

I guess then you're in danger of getting stuck in that particular aesthetic.

I felt like there was defiantly a disconnection between myself and how I view Petra Collins work, especially with Selena Gomez, simply because I don't connect with her music or the things she does. I do connect with Petra's work. It's hard to connect with someone that's so completely removed from her craft. She gets so removed. Everything's kind of manufactured for her, whereas for Petra I feel like it was the opposite, everything Petra created was something that was very authentic. But it's like, which route do you take? I started off doing a bunch of film stuff before anyone knew me, just like lifestyle stuff. Then I started to do more minimal landscapes and things like that and that's kind of how I got recognized through Instagram. That's how the followers and notoriety came. I do find it strange because with Instagram people look to the amount of followers and that makes you valid. It's like if you have a bunch of followers you must be doing something right. No matter what the content of your work is, someone sees that number and in their minds they think that person is legit.

That's funny because we're always looking for that following number to determine—

How valuable someone is. I don't even think people really think about that. For me now I feel a distance from it. I'm going to do what I want to do. A lot of the time I was doing things with pretty pictures and that's when I told myself that I should go back to the essence of what I want and do more things with weight.

Was that a conscious thing? Building up your profile?

It was and it wasn't. I just wanted to take great pictures and always showcase what I was doing. I feel that existing in the Instagram world, you are subconsciously geared into it. You think about it and I thought about it a lot more than I wanted to. I could at least say that I thought about it. My approach is more so like, Okay I feel like I do really great work, I feel like I really have a unique perspective, so why shouldn't people be exposed to this? There's so many people in the world, and there's so many fans of art, I thought that people should see it. That was my process rather than trying to get a lot followers. When that happened I was able to exist in that world, it took time to get to the point where I could break free from that connection with the amount of followers or likes that you get, it's like feeding into that aesthetic that I had of minimalism wasn't going to get me a lot of likes. Fuck that. I'm just going to do what I want to do.

Did you find yourself over-analyzing and beating yourself up over photos that might not have done particularly well online?

At the start, yes, but then I fine-tuned my way of thinking and approaching just how I feel about my work to make it not matter. Even on my profile now. I post a photo that I think is really good, and in my heart of hearts it means something to me, but I'll get 270 likes and I don't care. I don't feel anything from it because the amount of likes doesn't determine if I think it's a good photo. I'm so far removed from that.

What is a good photo to you?

There's so many different levels to it. For me now, there's so many different aspects to what makes it. I think it's subjective. Whether it's a portrait or something that's styled really well, or it's composed really well, I also don't put barriers on things. I don't feel like anything has to be one way. As a fan of art and photos, I can look at photography that's very different from mine, and understand where it fits, without criticizing and breaking it down, because I find that were all so critical of everything all the time. I also remove myself from that so I can understand something but not always having to tear it apart.

When you put something on the internet it's suddenly everybody's and it doesn't belong to you. People can take it and reproduce it. Do you have to battle with that sometimes?

Sometimes. There are times where random accounts would tag me in my photos that they have re-edited. It's such a weird feeling of hyper-edited with a bunch of filters. It's so weird because I'm like, how does this make sense? You're using what I created and you're finding your own gain in it. I think that's more so what kind of trips me out, but then I look at it in a sense where were all human beings and we're all fans of things, I don't think we're all aware enough to realize when we're crossing lines. If someone does that they might have just thought the photo was really cool and thought what they did was cool. In their minds they're completely justified.

Do you have imitators too?

I don't personally think about it but I see it around. I have friends who have said, "Yo this looks like something you did." That's what's been happening for a little while. It's interesting and it's cool. I think it's cool because I don't have that insecurity of, Oh man this person is doing what I do. With photos its interesting because that person is never going to be me. They're never going to have the destination in mind that I do. It's like I'm driving the route and they're in the backseat watching. It's freaky but it's cool. I laugh at it and think it's cool to be an inspiration to people. I get DM's from people all the time.

What comes up really often?

A lot of times people will say that they really enjoy my photos, I have a unique perspective. They'll ask, "how do I get to that point where I can do it my own way?" A lot of people ask me that same question in different ways. "How do I get to that point?" Someone said how do you get your photos scanned. It was weird because you can Google that.

What do you want from the industry? What do you want your legacy to be?

I think in terms of my relationship with Toronto, I want my legacy to be that guy who knew about everything going on and was very involved. At the same time always working really hard to progress. If you ask about me, a lot of people would go, "Yeah he doesn't go out a lot, he's always working." It's not that I'm working to make money. Like, right now, I'm working on this personal project where I'm interviewing people of color, friends and artists. I want my legacy to be that I could find people who didn't initially have any kind of platform and put them on.

Image via Instagram