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When Faisa Omer switches on the bright lights and turns her camera on her subject, she knows the power of her lens to highlight the good, the bad and the stories of those who step into her spotlight.
The 31-year-old photographer and mental health counselor says she was blown away by the response to her first major photography project, which shed light on the racism her brother and his friends had experienced growing up Black in Ottawa community housing.
That led to gallery exposure and Omer’s photos being put on display in the mayor’s office, as well as his decision to expand the project across other communities across Ottawa, which he and videographer Hersi Osman documented for CBC Ottawa’s Creator Network.
Only this time, Omer decided to focus not only on the challenges and difficulties faced by Black youth, but also what makes them proud.
“Sometimes the trauma we go through kind of becomes who we are.… That’s what [people] see, what they remember,” explained Omer.
Telling that complicated story through images has become the photographer’s goal.
“We’re more than just these negative experiences that happened to us. We also have joy, we’re complex, just like other people, right? I wanted to showcase that and their hopes and dreams instead of just the negative side of the spectrum.”
Rooted in Ritchie
Omer’s first project started in the summer of 2020, when he asked his brother Abdullah, then 17, and his friends to pose in his family’s Ritchie Street basement.
She posted the photos to Instagram alongside the first-person stories they’d shared of their experiences being Black and growing up in a neighborhood that’s often in the headlines for the wrong reasons. It touched a nerve.
“One of the main sentiments that I felt from the community was how these stories were important. These photos had the power to change minds and attitudes towards Black people,” she said, adding she couldn’t keep up with the outpouring of messages from support.
For her, it seemed natural to keep going.
After garnering a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, she decided to take the idea to three more neighborhoods — Lowertown, Michele Heights and Overbrook, basing her operations in each area’s community house, hoping that would help young people feel comfortable and safe to share.
On camera, participants opened up on everything from what it’s like to have your photo taken, to how to respond when you’re repeatedly asked, “Where are you from?”
Shaunette Simon opted to share a message for the next generation.
“My hope is that my grandkids will be able to come into this world and be able to be kids … and not fear that they’re going to be judged and things are going to be denied to them because of the color of their skin , something that they can’t change.”
Omer says she was surprised and saddened by the difficult stories she heard, including one woman’s experience of suffering a brutal beating at 16 during her first year in Canada, which resulted in her losing a year of school, and what it felt like to learn later on that the case had been dropped.
Osman also said he was surprised by the depth of pain their subjects shared.
“They were telling personal stories about their first encounter with the police,” he said. “They got pretty deep in terms of their responses to what it means to be Black.”
He said he expected the 12-year-olds to care more about what they had for lunch or the activities at the Boys and Girls Club, but they all had their own experiences to add.
“They’re not as sheltered as we thought they were,” Osman said.
Timings in Lowertown
There were particularly difficult moments in Lowertown, where the scheduled photography session happened shortly after a shooting in front of the community house where an 18-year-old was killed.
Omer says it became an opportunity for people in that neighborhood to talk and share what feels like.
“I was thinking, this is when the community wants their voice to be heard,” she said. “Let me see what this neighborhood wants the rest of Ottawa to know about them right now.”
As a psychotherapist, Omer says the sessions were not just about the photos, but also helping the youth process a traumatic event and validating their feelings about it.
“You have to stop and give them that respect .. that eye contact while they’re speaking, ‘I can’t believe that happened, I’m sorry,'” she explained, adding that hearing those stories was hard on her, too, but talking it over with her siblings always helps.
Still, Omer says he came away from the project seeing the pride the youth had in their neighbors and communities — a sentiment echoed by Osman.
“There’s a lot of bad press when it comes to certain neighborhoods in the city and people don’t see the positive side of it,” he said. “This was something that was going to shed light on neighborhoods that don’t really get the limelight they deserve.”
New home, new job
Since wrapping up this project, Omer has started a new chapter of her life. In January, she began a new job as a counselor at Carleton University.
Her family also moved to a newly built home in Findlay Creek this May, with enough room for their parents and all seven siblings, six of whom are over 20 — a bittersweet change for Omer.
“I feel like if you live somewhere for more than two decades, it definitely becomes part of your identity,” she said.
“I’m proud to be from Ritchie, and all the other neighborhoods that I grew up in, because it made me who I am today.”
All in a Day11:55Through Faisa’s lens