By now you might know his name. You’ve seen it before in these very pages. Maybe you’ve started to put a face to the name. You see him on the Downtown Mall, holding a camera, watching.
He is freelance photographer Eze Amos, whose first photography exhibition, “Cville People Everyday,” opens this month at New City Arts Welcome Gallery. Originally from Nigeria, Amos fell in love with photography at age 18 when he stumbled on Photography Annual at his workplace library. Back then he worked part-time as a lab technician at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. When he first picked up the photography magazine, he says, “I was blown away by all the black and white photos.”
He started to see his world differently. Without a camera and unable to afford one, he told his friend about his interest. His friend’s father dug an old Pentax Asahi camera out of his garage and gave it to Amos. It was so old, Amos says, if you needed to use a flash you had to hold it in one hand while holding the camera in the other. Then, as if the universe was conspiring to guide him to his future career path, a new neighbor moved in who happened to be a photographer and shared with Amos what he knew. Using the only film he could find, Kodak ISO 100, Amos started taking photographs.
After immigrating to the U.S. in 2008, Amos took a job at Ritz Camera, where he finally developed the film he’d shot in Nigeria. “Some of those photos I took with those first rolls are some of my best photos ever,” he says. “Black and white kind of stole my heart from day one.”
Over the last 10 years, he has continued to develop his art. “I think it’s very important as an artist giving yourself time to discover yourself. I knew what I wanted to do but I didn’t know how to go about it, not until it was time,” he says. “And when it was time I knew it because everything just fell into place.”
After four years of steady work, Amos feels comfortable calling himself a street and documentary photographer. “There’s something about the human expression in the face,” he says. “Minute gestures and body movements tell a ton of story. That’s all I’m trying to do—tell a bunch of story with one click.” For the last two years, he has worked on a project—shared on Instagram—called “Cville People Everyday,” from which he selected the photos for his exhibition. For this particular project, he restricted his documentation to the Downtown Mall.
“It’s just a unique spot,” he says, sitting at an outdoor table at Mudhouse, a cold hibiscus tea in front of him. “There’s so much going on.” He gestures at a nearby restaurant, “Right there, right there, where they’re having dinner there’s probably someone panhandling with a sign that says, ‘Please help me I haven’t eaten today.’”
Documenting the Downtown Mall became a way to try to make sense of it. “How is it that all of this can coexist in this space?” he says. “Are they really coexisting or is it just that they find themselves in the same spot? I think it’s interesting and ironic to a certain degree. I can see a lot of wealth down here and at the same time immense poverty.”
Unlike some documentary photographers who avoid photographing buskers and panhandlers because they feel they would be taking advantage of them, Amos feels they are an integral part of the story. “They’re part of that environment you’re documenting,” he says. To illustrate his point, he pulls up on his phone a photo focused on a pensive young man sitting in a doorway with a backpack, just as a happy couple with their arms around each other enters the frame. “I don’t select who falls in my frame. If you’re in that frame, you’re part of that story.”
His documentation of the Downtown Mall is not only about what he sees, but what he doesn’t see, too. Last year he started to notice 90 percent of the photos he was taking were of white people. When he made a deliberate effort to photograph black people, he says, “I realized quickly there were a very limited number of black people I could actually photograph” on the mall. “That sparked something in me. That was when I really decided to document downtown and do it as a major project.” With “Cville People Everyday,” he says, “I’m inviting people to see the mall the way I see it, through my lens.”