Yorkville University alumnus Faisa Omer has been making headlines for fusing her dual passions for counselling and photography into a pair of powerful projects that take aim at racial inequality and discrimination.
The Class of 2021 Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology graduate, whose background is in neuroscience, has been profiled twice by the CBC over the last year – firstly last August for her Instagram portrait series Reclaiming Ritchie, then again in February for her follow-up project, It’s Different For Us.
“It was all very surreal. The week the first article came out, I did two TV interviews, three radio interviews, and received a lot of messages online from people saying how much it had impacted them,” said Omer, who studied photography at Algonquin College.
“That’s when I realized art really does make a difference. It was such a great feeling to know I had an impact, no matter how small.”
Omer said Reclaiming Ritchie, which features portraits of young Somali men who live on Ottawa’s notorious Ritchie Street, was spurred by a conversation she had with her six younger siblings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
“During my time at Yorkville, I really tried to exercise the mental health skills I was learning in class…so I thought of the idea of bringing my siblings together and asking them how they were feeling,” explained the Ottawa native, who now works in Edmonton as a mental health clinician for the RAJO Project.
It was the reaction of her brother Abdullahi to that discussion that surprised Omer most and propelled her into action.
Unlike the others, the then-21 year old quickly grew irritated and stand-offish. But when gently pushed, he began to open up about his own experiences of racial discrimination.
“He said to us, ‘Why are you all surprised that this happened?’ Then he started to me all the things that had happened to him in school and in everyday life and whatnot,” she said, noting that it was at that moment that the idea for Reclaiming Ritchie was born.
“I asked him if his friends all had similar experiences, and he said yes, so I told him to tell them all to come over.”
Summoning the counselling skills she was learning at Yorkville at the time, Omer said she was able to get each of the young men to open up to her while she took their photos in the home studio she set up at her parents’ Ottawa home for the project.
The goal of Reclaiming Ritchie was to defy Ritchie Street’s negative reputation for gang violence by showcasing its young men as regular people who have faced discrimination related to their address.
Judging from the flood of positive feedback she received online in the wake of the project’s release, Omer said Reclaiming Ritchie was a complete success in that regard.
“I remember getting a message from a social worker saying that he had worked in the Ritchie area for the past 20 years, and he said he had never really felt a connection, never really understood the circumstances of the people who live in this neighbourhood, until he saw this project,” she said.
“I have a bit of the imposter syndrome, so when I read messages like that, I’m, like, ‘Really?’”
Reclaiming Ritchie has since been picked up by the Ottawa Art Gallery, where Omer’s photos are on display as part of the Sheltered in Place: Portraits of Self, Family and Community exhibit – a huge achievement Omer is immensely proud of.
“When the art gallery put up my work up on their wall, that’s when I felt like I wasn’t just an Instagram photographer anymore,” she said. “I finally felt like I was actually an artist.”
Hot off the heels of that accomplishment, Omer was commissioned by South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre to spearhead another photography project entitled It’s Different for Us.
Similar to Reclaiming Ritchie, its aim was to bring awareness to the impact the Covid-19 pandemic had on marginalized youth in the south end of Ottawa, which was the hardest-hit area in the nation’s capital.
Omer’s It’s Different for Us photos were recently bought by the Mayor of Ottawa, who hung them in his boardroom, she proudly reported.
Next up, Omer is preparing to publish her most recent project, which tackles the issue of Islamophobia, on her Instagram page.
For that project, one of the subjects she photographed and profiled was a Muslim woman who recently fell victim to a hate crime when she was attacked in Edmonton – a sensitive interview she was once again thankful to have her counsellor training to fall back on for.
“It was very jarring to hear her story and how she’s feeling,” she said, noting that the woman was attacked at an LRT station on her way to school.
“It was the middle of the day, so there were a lot of bystanders, but no one helped her…She feels like she’s been rejected by society and that she doesn’t fit in anymore. She wants to leave Canada now.”
Looking to the future, Omer said she’s planning on relocating back to Ottawa, where she hopes to open her own private practice one day, all the while continuing to search for inspiration for her next photography project.
“Photography, for me, started off as self-care. I did not think it would be a source of income like it is now, but I’m so thankful for it,” she said.
“It might seem kind of daunting to follow your passions and your hobbies, while also fulfilling schooling or work, but if you have that love for your passion, you just have to pursue it. If I can do it, you can do it.”