Written by Jessica Harris; featured portrait of Ézé Amos by Clarence Green
While photographer Ézé Amos’s journey may have been a slight detour from his original plans, it’s safe to say that he has certainly landed on the right path.
Born in the capital city of Ibadan, Nigeria, Ézé’s original plan was to break into the oil industry. “I grew up really, really poor, and the dream was to get a job and become very rich.” In search of this goal, he ended up pursuing a master’s in hydrology – the study of water – from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, with hopes that it would land a lucrative job. Needless to say, life had other plans.
Fifteen years ago, Ézé moved to Charlottesville. Once he arrived in the States, he pivoted his career once more, as he was interested in being an emergency medical technician (EMT) and a firefighter. But photography was always calling his name. He’d pursued photography as a hobby back in Nigeria. Yet even this was something that he stumbled into.
As a teenager, he worked as a temporary staff member in a lab for the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture. Because of the temporary nature of his job, he was not allowed to use the cafeteria, so he would frequent the library on his free periods. One day while there, he opened a large photo book, and it landed on what he describes as the most beautiful black and white photo. “I said to myself after seeing that photo – ‘I want to do this,’” Ézé remarked.
At that time, he was 17 and had never touched a camera. He borrowed a friend’s camera for a few weeks, and eventually he purchased his own using the money he earned from the lab job. Given that this occurred before the emergence of smartphones and widespread use of digital cameras, he immediately loaded up the camera with black and white film.
“One of the greatest photos I’ve ever taken in my life came from that roll of film,” Ézé says. It was a photo of a child praying. He’d taught himself a bit about camera lighting and seized an opportunity to photograph a child standing by a window with shadows and light streaming in.
After seeing the image, he thought: “Hey, I think I know what I’m doing!” This moment gave him the courage to keep exploring photography – even if just as a hobby at the time.
Once Ézé arrived in the States in 2008, he realized that he “had a lot of equipment as compared to Nigeria where there was nothing available.” So he started doing small side photography gigs that he picked up here and there, more for enjoyment than financial gain. After a while, however, these side gigs led him to decide to pursue photography full-time.
He tried to find ways to establish himself as a photographer in town. “Initially my plan was to go into wedding photography because I was like, ‘Oh, that’s where the money is’.” However, he faced hurdles as one of the only Black male wedding photographers in Charlottesville at the time. And, as seems to be a theme in Ézé’s life, simply making money was never really the whole goal. Wedding photography was not as fulfilling for him, and, deep down, the type of work he wanted to do was documentary photography.
So he started documenting things happening around him. “I’ve always had a love for documentary photography. I started documenting community activism; everything that had to do with community coming together, struggles, resistance, all of that.”
And as he puts it, he “wasn’t making a dime.” Fulfilling work for him meant not just artistic expression, but being able to highlight and showcase the community he now called home.
His interest in documenting the community led him to the white supremacist rally that occurred in Charlottesville on the Downtown Mall on August 12, 2017. He was on the front lines, capturing images and supporting the counter-protestors.
Yet, Ézé did not immediately publish most of the photos that he took of the events. He felt sharing these photos was too raw and painful for him and for the community having just experienced extreme racism, violence, and trauma. Five years later, he created the exhibition “The Story of Us,” a collection of 36 selected photos and audio interviews of those he photographed in efforts to reclaim Charlottesville’s story.
And most recently, Ézé sat down with Dr. Andrea Douglas, Executive Director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, for a lecture called “Bearing Witness” at The Paramount Theater. This talk detailed his journey through photography, as well as his recent exhibit, Bearing Witness, which includes more photos from August 2017.
His photojournalism and capturing these events and individuals in Charlottesville and elsewhere put his work on the map. Now, Ézé is a regular photographer and contributor for The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Getty Images, among countless others.
One very important project Ézé is working on is “Homecoming.” A project that started in 2018 but slightly detoured due to COVID, this piece is centered on the stories of Vinegar Hill, Charlottesville’s historically Black neighborhood. He is attempting to tell the story of folks who were displaced from urban renewal.
“Vinegar Hill is often discussed in the academic sense describing where the community was razed and where houses were, but we don’t always hear about the people from the community,” Ézé says. His project, similar to recent documentary Razed/Raised by Lorenzo Dickerson and Jordy Yager, aims to uplift those community voices and experiences, and allow descendants and families of those from Vinegar Hill to reclaim space and reclaim the narrative.
Ézé hopes to complete “Homecoming” by early next year, and in the meantime, is going to continue working on various other projects. “I feel blessed to have a community that is supportive of me and my work. I look forward to doing more work about people that look like me, and to highlight the tons of stories that are here to tell in Charlottesville,” he says.
As he describes it, Ézé kept his head down and worked very hard on his own to hone his craft – taking photos every step of the way. While he may have stumbled into photography, his work has left an indelible mark on our community and around the world, and certainly will continue to for years to come.
More on Ézé’s work: Driven to tell the true stories of Charlottesville and neighboring communities, his many photo projects have included Cville People Everyday, Cville Porch Portraits, Witnessing Resistance and his most recent and ongoing project The Story of Us: Reclaiming The Narrative of #Charlottesville Through Storytelling and Portrait of Community Resilience.
Eze’s photo made CNN’s “In pictures: A racial reckoning in America 2020;” Buzzfeed’s “The Most Powerful photos of 2021;” and Eze’s photo was also included in The APPEAR’s “Powerful Photographs That Captures Defining Moments in History.” Click here to follow Ézé on Instagram.