Q&A: An interview with Lightroom ambassador Tobi Shinobi

Beam of light coming into the narrow walls of a rock canyon.

Of the ten talented voices within our 2020 Lightroom Ambassador Program, we find our attention shifting to three. Right now, there are few voices louder or more influential than those of the Black creators among you. For us, they are our resident Lightroom Ambassadors: Aundre Larrow, Tobi Shinobi and Gloria Atanmo. When words fail to uphold significance or convey meaning, Aundre Larrow bridges the gap with visceral photography that makes you feel, act, and devote yourself to something greater. In a time where information is in surplus and there always feels like there is more to do, Gloria Atanmo makes you feel equipped, confident, and capable in your journey to becoming an ally in the fight against racism. The stunning consistency and divine symmetry in Tobi Shinobi’s work takes you to another place entirely, which we find to be an especially intriguing quality as of late.

We sat down with our incredible Black Lightroom Ambassadors to chat about how their journeys began, how their creative styles have been affected by the pandemic and concurrent social justice movement, and then challenged them to highlight five Black photographers who are inspiring them right now. First we spoke with Gloria Atanmo, and in our second installment, we hear more from Tobi. Tune in for an IG Live conversation with Tobi in the coming weeks.

Tobi Shinobi

Artistic photograph of Tobi Shinobi.

How did you embark on your photography journey?

As a kid I always thought photography was something that was for the wealthy. Before getting my first camera, I dabbled in using the earliest camera phones because I was interested in capturing whatever caught my eye. When I did get my first camera, I remember just wanting to capture as much as I could. I was pretty much obsessed.

During the early stages of photography I worked in the city as a litigator. My clients were companies and my job involved defending those companies from people bringing claims against them. Each day at lunch time, I’d go out to shoot, getting about 100 shots a day. For me, photography was my therapy. As a litigator, there were a number of things that were outside of my control. On a daily basis I was arguing with either my legal opponent, arguing with the judge, or sometimes arguing with my own client. With photography, I had complete control of when I shot, where I shot, who I shot with, and how to edit. It came at the right time in my life.

The point at which I fell in love with photography was when I was out in Shoreditch, East London, when I stumbled across this derelict area covered in graffiti. There were crushed spray paint cans everywhere, surrounded by broken glass, nails and the like. The cans were rusted through and discarded with reckless abandon. The work was inspiring itself, but the crushed cans were what caught my attention. I remember getting really close to one of the cans with the camera. It was my first time playing with depth of field with a subject matter that had a background that was interesting enough to make it matter. I pressed the shutter button, reviewed the shot and that was pretty much it. My first hit of bokeh and I was hooked.

At what point in your life did you establish your current photographic style?

My style was established maybe a year and a half to two years into shooting regularly, but if you look at my early work you can see where the elements of style were conceived. As a kid I was focused on things being fair and physically intrigued by symmetry when building things out of Legos, for example. I was also inspired by my mother, who was an engineer and had technical drawings on her drawing board. Being based in the city, I had an abundance of architecture to learn from, so it was a great place to learn.

I’m very much about balance and perspective. That’s what I seek in life and my photography is a reflection of that. This manifests itself in geometry and symmetry and also looking at things in a very straightforward manner and sometimes the reverse. Light play, patterns, and where the surreal meets the real are all things I look for.

How has the pandemic and concurrent social justice movement affected the way you work and create?

Getting out to shoot during the pandemic has been challenging, to say the least. Eventually I found workarounds, but those still limited me to the city limits, as travel also comes with its own restrictions. Fortunately, editing photos and videos are also a part of my skillset, so I stayed active by watching tutorials to sharpen those skills.

The Black Lives Matter movement was a lot to deal with, for many reasons. There was a realization for many that there are challenges faced by Black people that go further than just issues of police brutality, such as a lack of representation, lack of opportunity, pay gaps, and more. There was inevitable backlash that comes with any challenge of the status quo, but there was also an outpouring of support from the creative community, with colleagues and brands asking what they could do to rectify these issues. It is my hope that this is the start of meaningful and long-lasting change. Though we all have various roles to play in addressing issues of inequality, it starts by us having the difficult yet necessary discussions.

How would you describe your creative journey over the course of 2020?

I can only describe it as a chance to reset and reassess the kind of creative that I want to be. I was able to revisit a lot of old work and re-edit it. It was great to see my growth and take time to think about the artist that I want to become. This period of reflection has made me come out of lockdown as a better creative. I am more thoughtful about what I want to achieve, and my skill level has grown significantly. The more I reflect on my craft, the more I realize just how much more there is to learn.

Can you share your 5 favorite Black photographers to follow right now? What sets these five apart from other creatives within your realm?

  1. Dominique Shepherd: A multi-talented creative who does a lot with a little. Creatively, she pushes herself to think about her work and what it means to people. Whether that is portraiture or product photography. Delivers stellar results using all types of lighting. She recently won a smartphone competition for her work and I think she is one to watch going forward.
  2. Nitishia Johnson: Is not just a talented photographer, she is an excellent designer and a thoughtful artist. Her efforts to elevate others and show them in their best light is best highlighted in her work: The @selfpublication. She has shot for the @nytimes and set up @thesmartprojectprogram, a creative after-school program to inspire youth through art and design.
  3. Zerb Mellish: I recently came across his work and was an instant fan. Each shot has an individual quality but is cohesive in nature. There is an authenticity in his work that separates him from his peers and it’s easy to see why he has worked with @nytimes and @wsj.
  4. Charmaine de Heij: Is one of the @adobe Lightroom Rising Stars and her work instantly encourages you to think about photography and creativity from a different perspective. From her use of light, color, and subject matter, the ideas are thought provoking and eye-catching. Her style is unapologetic, unafraid, and she seeks to tackle issues of racism in Western society with her upcoming work. I’m keen to see what’s next from her.
  5. Ron Timehin: Not much I can say about this guy that hasn’t already been said. His talent is matched only by his humility. Wise beyond his years and punching way above his weight, this young man is constantly raising the bar and I’m proud to call him a friend. He recently shot for @britishvogue and has worked with household names like @adidas, @canadagoose and @idriselba. Keep an eye on this man.

Tune in to an IG Live to hear more from Tobi and Ron Timehin. They’ll discuss their passion projects, how they channel inspiration through abstract times, their takes on pay equity, and more.