Ladan Osman’s Halos in Harlem


For this installment of The Offing FEATURES, we invited multi-hyphenate artist and former contributing editor Ladan Osman to share the process behind her photography. Here are her reflections on meeting Ashley, Michael, and Candace — portrait subjects in Osman’s series Halos in Harlem — through a 35mm lens. (We encourage you to click on each image for an expanded view.)

Years ago, I’d look through photobooks and think: great composition, beautiful work in the darkroom, wow what a scene. But then I focused on the gaze of the subject, really, the collaborator. Hard eyes, surprised eyes, impatient eyes, hesitant eyes. It became obvious when an image was stolen, timed with the light and not a person’s consent. I started collecting screenshots and phone snaps from galleries in a folder titled: Ways I Never Want Black People to Look at Me.

My first film camera had consistent light leaks, usually along the borders of images, creating halos and molten borders. In color images, flames appeared at random. I started to lean into it, to welcome interactions with glare, with direct and reflected light, with ideas of trapped heat during the first seasons after many New Yorkers were vaccinated, and comfortable facing strangers again.

Ashley (2021)

I always ask, with words or my eyes: May I? And very often, the person says: Me? and: What do you want me to do? I tell them they don’t have to do anything. How often do we get to hear that. Just be, I say.

Michael (2021)

We joke a little, or they tell me where they’re going next, and I generally squat, to see them at a heroic angle. To meet children at eye level. I wait until their face opens, or maybe until backlight creates a crown, and we make the image. Usually, I write their name in my phone, sometimes their emails if they want to see themselves. We may never speak again but here’s the moment Ashley and Michael and Candace chose to pause with me; to regard me, regarding them.

Candace (2021)

I’ll forget jobs or other ways of introduction but I probably know every pair of eyes I’ve ever photographed. Many thousands of gazes, most ceaselessly warm. Most patient. Sometimes I recognize near-strangers, in a rush or in their masks or aesthetically transformed. They remember me, too but are unsure how. Do we know each other? they ask. Sort of, I say.