Sunlit reeds glow at the end of the day, a boy sitting alone on the limb of a tree, a moment on the basketball court, a group of girls peering down at the lens—a sample of a day in the life of a teen in New York City.
Who tells the story of a place? Paints the picture? Frames the shot? How does their relation to the place come across in the images? The questions of representation and photography will forever be intertwined. Reflecting on the neighborhoods of his childhood, New York-based photographer Ousman Diallo felt that he’d “seen the neighborhoods that I grew up in photographed, not in an insincere way, but more of an outsider way. And there’s something missing, because you know the concept and the context of the beauty of where you’re from, and it is always present.”
In the photographs that make up Sunset at the Supermarket, Diallo pushes back against an idea of the Bronx and an urban childhood that others might expect—a picture painted by the media and by outsiders. A picture that seems to overlook beauty. But say ‘the Bronx,’ and Diallo conjures up the warmth and intimacy of friends hanging out after school, the quiet of finding oneself alone in nature, the last light of the day. Say ‘New York,’ and Diallo shows it to you; a lived-in city that is both specific and universal. It is easy to focus on the loud, the sensational, and the dramatic, and yet it is just as much the moments in between that fill our time and lay the foundation to our days.
Mixing group and solo portraits of teenagers in the city with environmental details, Diallo builds the world he is documenting with a cinematic flourish to the warm light and color that envelops his images. His subjects are photographed from within a scrum of people on a basketball court, one to one or from slightly below, forcing the viewer to look up, reinforcing that heady age of youth where life is stretched out ahead and the days are long. The naturalness of the portraits reinforces the sense of connection, of collaboration between subject and photographer.
Sunlight, golden as honey, runs throughout the photographs. Diallo likes to say that “light is just as much the main character, holding the images together.” Film borders appear, creating a space of timelessness. These photographs could be from today as much as from the past until you see the headphones, cheekily breaking this sheen of nostalgia.
For Diallo, part of the power of photography is the possibility of transcendence, of time, place, expectation. In these images he crafts a space where the viewer can see beyond race, an antidote to preconceptions, prejudices, and differences, where we are simply in that moment, with the subject, sharing a connection, a familiar feeling. “I wanted to create images that had a racial element but that were so beautiful that you only saw their humanity, that you saw yourself in the picture because you remember what it was like to be 16 or 17, to be confident but confused at the same time. For a moment it sounds crazy but the notion or the boundary of difference is dissolved—and in that moment we become better human beings.”
Diallo describes the work’s aim as to “transcend boundaries and simply be a document of time and an almost eternal sunlight.” As the series closes, we are left in that light, lingering. It’s a memory we all share. We remember opening the car door to start the evening with friends, the color of that August afternoon at the gas station, and just how beautiful that sunset was at the supermarket, how it felt to be there in a moment that could stretch on forever.
This remarkable work by Ousman Diallo was a top winner of the LensCulture Art Photography Awards 2023. Discover all of the winning work, as well as the special jurors’ picks and finalists — 40 photographers you should know.