Above the Lens: A Talk with Photography Phenom Yasin Osman

by Tariq Toure

On my last day in Toronto in November 2016, I meandered around the jam-packed lobby of The Drake Hotel on Queens St. West, waiting for the arrival of my host Gavin Sheppard, co-conspirator of the Creative Jungle DAIS Creates. I had been in Toronto for 2 days doing poetry readings, walking Queens St. West, meeting other artists, and breathing in the northern air. But, I had yet to meet Yasin Osman. So far, I was only able to listen to recantations of his graceful aura and genius-level photography talent by some of his closest friends.

Yasin Osman is a 24-year-old, Toronto-based Somali photographer and a creative visionary. He is internationally recognized for documenting humanitarian crises across the world, introducing at-risk youth to the craft, and capturing imperturbable moments of Black Muslims existing. Yasin’s eye has landed him opportunities to shoot for VICE, a feature in American American Photo Mag, and as of late a sponsorship by Canon. In 2016, he was listed as one of Toronto’s Top Changemakers to Watch.

Yasin is a part of the Somali Muslim community in Toronto, the target of political scrutiny and discrimination, that is becoming more known in mainstream circles for art and music. We promised to meet before I left. Yasin walked into the waiting area, towering over the multitude of young professionals draped in their Saturday night’s best. We exchanged salaams, and fit a lifetime of dialogue into a breakfast on the upper balcony that overlooks Queens St. West. The following interview is a healthy attempt at bottling a sample of an artist who is quickly becoming one of the most heralded photo-journalists of this era, not because he shoots stunning photos, but because he has transformed the lives of others with his passion.


Well, I don’t want to make this interview super formal but I’ve been craving to cover more Somali folks because I feel like culturally, artistically, Islamically and politically there is so much to uncover. My first question is going to be very generic though and that is who is Yasin Osman?

Who is Yasin Osman? Yasin Osman is a son, a brother in Islam, and [an] early childhood educator who loves working with children. I love people. I love talking to people. Islam is definitely something that’s an important part of my life. It affects my every day. Especially in the field that I’m in, there’s a lot of things that in my work, my beliefs may come to clash with. Alhamdulilah, I’m also a photographer. I’m all about stories. I love stories. I like capturing images of people and I like getting people’s stories.

So when did you figure out that you could have an impact with your camera?

After I finished high school, I was trying to figure out what route I was going to take in my life. In the beginning, I told just a few people that I was going to take early childhood education, and that I wanted [to] start working with kids. And [a lot of] my friends and a lot of my family were saying, “You know you’re a man, you shouldn’t be studying something for women. You shouldn’t be changing diapers all day. You have to do something that’s going to benefit you.” So for a few years, I found myself coming in and out of, programs like computer networking and computer engineering, taking random subjects at university. My heart wasn’t in it, you know. Finally, I came out of prayer one day and there was this older guy there in the mosque. He asked me how I was doing and I said, “I’m doing great,” (right). Then I started walking away.

He followed me and tapped me on my shoulder and said, “You said you’re ok, but you don’t look ok.” And then I just literally poured everything on him. I said, “I’m in this situation. I’m not sure what to do. I want to do what I love. I hate my program. I’m failing.” Literally, I was just dumping it all on him. He just waited for me to finish and said, “Ok, well what do you want to do? Is there something that you like that you can’t do that you like doing?”I said, “Yeah, I want to work with children and that’s my passion. Everyone is telling me it’s not good for me.” And then he said, “Is there anything wrong Islamically [with] working with children. I said, “No.” He said, “Then why aren’t you doing it?” I said, “Because people are telling me it’s not good for me.” He said, “You have to do what’s best for you. You have to make choices for yourself. You can’t let other people make choices for you because they’re not going to be living your life. You’re going to be living your own life.”

And honestly what’s so interesting, my whole life I’ve heard, “You gotta think for yourself. You have to live for yourself, not for others.” We hear these quotes everyday and we need them, but I think we forget that these things are powerful depending on the moment. I already knew that. But I needed to hear [it] in that moment, at that low point in my life. So when he said that to me, I looked at him and said, “Can I do that? Can I?”
He said, “You can; you absolutely can.”

That same night I’m like, whatever this guy told me I can do it. I literally went to the enrollment page on the internet and it was a day before the deadline bro. Subhanallah, I applied and put everything in there. I got in. I got into the program. I completed the program. I worked as [a] preschool teacher and I loved it. I worked with school-aged [children] for about 3 years.

During that time, I was playing around with photography. Actually at the end of high school, all the way up until the time I was in early childhood education I was learning about photography and studying. Now, I didn’t introduce photography to any of my friends because I remembered how they’d received me when I brought up early childhood education. And I didn’t want anyone to ruin it for me. I [kept] it to myself…Sometimes we can ruin a good thing by letting someone know and it spoils it for us. For a lot of photographers, the first image that they take to show someone that’s like a big deal. Based on that person’s reaction, it can allow someone to continue or not continue. I didn’t even want to be in that position. When I was confident enough to put it on social media, because I said I want to be a professional. Right when I started sharing, of course, my friends [were] making jokes you know. And I was so sensitive about my photography. I had kept it to myself for so long it became like my baby. So when I put it out and people were making fun of it, [that] led me to delete posts, even photos that I don’t have today.


There is a photographer from Baltimore, Devin Allen. I remember folks were clowning him the same exact way when he began. He was a regular dude from around the way yet seemed destined to get to this point in his career. So how much did this part of your own life seem like it was chasing you?

Oh my God bro, Subhanallah. Like even though it would make me feel bad, every time I felt like I wanted to quit I would see someone who says, “hey, I like your stuff; you should keep shooting.” There were multiple times I put my camera down and said I’m not picking this thing up again, you know. And then, there would be someone like, “Hey ummm, we’re having a barbecue can you bring your camera.” I would do it and while I was shooting I would say to myself, “Why did I even put this down?” You know, so it’s funny every time I wanted to quit I kept getting put in these funny positions. I definitely [felt] like my rizq was coming towards me as much as I was coming towards it…because it was not meant for me to put that camera down.

Tell me a little bit about you quitting your job now. What does Yasin Osman the professional 2.0 look like now?

So I obviously didn’t quit photography and I continued pushing stuff on Instagram. I kept getting noticed until some companies started to hit me up. Like, Adidas hit me up and asked if I wanted to shoot one of their kicks. One of my friends who was at the time making jokes about my photography, that obviously led me to almost not wanting to continue, was who I hired to be the model for the shoot.



And so it was that moment that I mentioned to him during the shoot, because he was asking me, “Oh my God, is Adidas going to let me keep the shoes?”
I was like “Of course you can keep the shoes.”
He was like, “Yo, this is amazing.”
And then I was, “Yo, you remember that thing when you guys were commenting on that photo and I deleted it?”
He was like, “No way you deleted it! You got upset about that. I’m so sorry.”
I said, “Yeah, but at the same time, I just wanted to let you know that it hurt me, but you’re my brother. I know you were playing. I wanted you to know it severely impacted me and I almost stopped taking photos. But Alhamdulilah because I kept going, because of my drive, I’m in a position where I can hire my friends to do shoots.” He literally looked me in my face and said, “I’m so happy you never put that camera down.…”

After that I thought to myself, “How can I give back to my community?” Every time I walked around in my neighborhood, all the kids would start striking poses you know. Like they already knew what it was when I came around. One day I was taking a photo and the kids came up to me and were like, “How can I do what you do?” So I immediately started my photography program Shoot for Peace and it’s been running for a year. As you’ve heard, a couple months ago,we got sponsored by Canon and Alhamdulilah we are doing really well now even working on a gallery space.

So back [to] your question about now that I’ve quit my job, to be honest with you I don’t know man. I literally don’t know. I just wanted to put my trust in Allah. I [knew that]…I had to do what I love and take risks. Even though I knew that everyone was against me. So I really have to [take] another risk now, no matter what it was. There’s like a fire burning inside me you know. And unfortunately when you’re working a full-time or part-time job sometimes that gets in the way. For me it’s like, “How can [I] inspire or touch the most people?” And I thought about it. I realized as an early childhood educator I get x amount of kids for one year, only one year. Then I get another batch. So potentially I’m changing like, if I’m working really hard I can change the lives of like 20 young children or 30 young children. With photography I literally touch as many people [as] I want to. It’s limitless, if I really, really put a lot of effort into it. The goal has always been to inspire. And the reason that I’m doing photography as my main gig is because I know I can touch a whole lot of people.

So me being in Toronto of course was like a walking epiphany every time I met other creatives working on different projects and the Art scene altogether is really dynamic. I have to ask how has “The North” (Toronto) inspired what you do?

Honestly, what I love about Toronto is that collaboration is something that is possible. We are [a] very collaborating community. People are collaborating everyday. It’s the thing. Whether it’s Instagram, whether it’s musicians, whether it’s poetry, there’s a constant thing of there being so many creatives. When I think of Toronto, I think about people who are grinding just trying to help one another. A lot of the gigs, and a lot of the things that I’ve done, interestingly enough are just like, people just hitting me up and being like, “Hey let’s do that shoot we were talking about.” And it was something we were talking about before when I saw him. I don’t know, I think we have this stereotype of being super nice to one another. Yeah, I think collaboration is huge in Toronto.


So what would you say was your favorite shoot, like the opportunity you got that you feel most proud of that kind of like, blew your mind?

When I got to go to Africa. This humanitarian organization called Pious Projects of America. They hit me up and were like, “We’ve seen your work and we saw your photo essay on Mecca and Hajj. We want to take you to Africa. We’re going back to Africa. We’re doing some stuff in Mali, Ethiopia and Turkey. Would you like to come?” And that was mind blowing to me. The fact that, again, like I felt like I’m just this kid from the hood with a camera. Now I’m about to get on a plane. And it’s paid for! I’m about to get flown around. I’m going back to the motherland. So to me it was just mind-boggling that photography would open that door for me. Even like my family and cousins, when they want to go to Africa they have to save money for like five years so they can all go together you know. Maybe it’s even more than that. And it’s like a big deal. I got to go. I was just notified months before.

Being able to go to Africa, especially go to Mali and these countries that are Muslim populated. To see how people are living was probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, experiences. Because I literally got to see that we’re living in a world that’s totally opposite of what’s going on. Like, you would never have thought that someone was scared to use the washroom at night because they might get killed by a hyena. We went into this area where it’s these little mud-huts and there was a child there who’s maybe 2 years old and the child is eating sand. We ask the mother, “Why is the child eating sand?” And she says “If he stops eating sand he’s going to realize we don’t have any food. If he realizes there’s no food, then he’s going to cry. So I just let him eat sand so he doesn’t cry.”

So I’m standing there with my friends, and we’re like bawling. Before that, I never thought twice that people were literally dying because of a lack of water. I never realized it. It was the biggest eye opener. But then you see people there who are living in that [level of] poverty, and the smallest thing makes them so happy. Like one of the villages we went in, for the same person that was complaining about using the washroom at night, we built a well close to his house. And when we told him that we’re going to build a school also in that same area he said, “No, no, no, no we’re good.” He said, “This is all we need. This is amazing.”


With that being said what do you feel like your role is when the Somali community is being “Otherized” by the Western world?

I think my role is the same as everybody else in the Somali community. That is to show that we are different [from] the small percentage that they show. Like, that’s why I started Shoot for Peace. So it doesn’t look like we’re just a stereotype. It shows that there are young men that are making programs for children, to show that there are young men that are doing something, making positive changes in the community. And you know, I spoke at this Somali conference and after speaking about just upliftment, one of the girls there came up to me and said, “You know you’re doing so well for a Somali.” And with all due respect, there’s the problem right there. You’re basically saying I’m not supposed to be here and that is hard for me to be here and it’s not. I think when you do that, you discourage kids. When you make it like it’s so difficult people aren’t even going to try.

What is the role that Fatherhood plays in your work? I understand that you never met your father. Is that correct?

You already know, especially with the kids I work with, I always let them know exactly who I am. I give all of myself. I don’t hold back anything. I tell them I didn’t have a father and that my mother worked really, really hard. And, even though growing up in the ‘hood the reason I didn’t follow the same route that a lot of my friends ended up falling into is because I was a really observant child.

I would see my mom working super-hard. I would [see] her working two jobs, going to school. She was doing her best. When she would pick me up from school, right [after] I got home from school, she would go to work. Right after she dropped me to school, she would go to work. After school, she would pick me up, drop me at a sister’s house the whole day. I would stay there all night. She would come back at like 1:00 a.m., wake me up and take me home. Then, the next day we would do that all over again. And then when she got home at 1:00 a.m. it was like, “Finish your school work.” When she would pick me up at 1:00 a.m. she would think that I wasn’t awake. But I would be watching her the whole time.

A lot of that put things into perspective for me. I felt like I can’t mess up. I’ve to sacrifice just as much as she sacrificed for me. That’s why I decided to make a positive impact because I was inspired by her hard work. The key for me was accepting that I didn’t have a father, but not having a father wouldn’t define me. I know exactly how a good father should be because of all of the good fathers I see in my neighborhood and my community. Alhamdulilah I grew up without a father, but…the void was filled by the community. And that same community was what I wanted to give back to.

I want to be what I didn’t have for them. Which is why I always tell them that I’m here if they ever need to talk or if they ever need anything “I’m here for you.” Like the same guy who asked me twice. Now I’m very critical about when I ask someone how they are doing. It could literally change someone’s life. That guy who came up to me twice, it changed my life.

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View more of Yasin’s work at his website Yescene.com

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Tariq Toure is an Award winning Muslim Artist & Activist born and raised in West Baltimore, Maryland who earning a Master’s Degree in Social Work at Howard University with a Concentration in Community, Administration and Policy. As a citizen writer Toure covers Social justice, Black Muslim Narratives, Arts and Current events and has been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN, NewsWeek, and the Nation.

Find out more about Tariq on his website.

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