There’s something bubbling in the industrial estates of London.
Photographer Cian Oba-Smith calls it “A fast growing phenomenon of rebellious youth.” That phenomenon is the bikelife community. A community whose passion for riding on one wheel on motorbikes and mopeds means they live life quite literally on the edge. Their exploits are well documented on Instagram and the increasingly popular #bikelife has taken on a life of its own.
Cian got turned on to the scene late in 2013 when he first started seeing pictures of London youths appearing in his Instagram feed and wanted to know more about the scene and its participants. Armed with nothing but a camera and a link on the inside he set about documenting the scene.
We spoke to Cian about his photographs, bikelife and his passion for documenting subcultures, regardless of what form they take.
How did you first hear about bike life?
It’s a project I’ve wanted to do for a long time, I initially became aware of the bikelife community in late 2013 and ever since then I was trying to gain access so I could shoot it. I found out about it because one of the riders that I know followed me on instagram and I saw all these pictures of him pulling wheelies around London, I got in touch with him and the process of producing the project began.
What was it about the bike life community that first interested you?
There are the obvious visually engaging parts of the bikelife scene (wheelies etc.) that drew me in straight away but then when you scratch the surface you start to understand the people who are a part of it on a more personal level. I was interested in what their motivations were to continue riding after experiencing accidents or even losing friends, I was also drawn towards the romantic notions associated with the freedom of riding bikes.
When you decided to start documenting the scene where did you start?
I started with the daredevil aspect of the bike life community and focused on making pictures of them pulling wheelies, as I came to understand it more I realised that for me the people were the most interesting aspect so I began to focus on them, I spent time interviewing the individual riders so I could get a sense of where their initial interest came from and also to explore how they felt the bikelife community was perceived by the general public.
Were the people you met willing to be photographed? How did they react to your camera?
They were very open to being photographed and were friendly towards me when I approached them, once people started to recognise my face they treated me as one of their own. Instagram is a huge part of the bikelife scene because it connects riders from all over the world as well as giving them a platform to showcase their lifestyle, this definitely influenced them into being open to being photographed.
Do you look at Bike Life differently now?
I wouldn’t say that my viewpoint on them has changed but I would say that I became aware of the level of skill that they have as individuals using bikes and also as mechanics. As well as this I was surprised by the vast amount of members that there were in the community who regardless of age or ethnicity all treated each other like brothers. I also understood the problems they faced with the police when finding places to ride, even though they would ride in industrial areas with no members of the public around the police would still track them down and move them along.
Are there any other sub-cultures you’d be interested in documenting?
At the moment I’m not focused on any specific sub-cultures however they are a theme which always leaks into my work one way or another, the whole of society is made up of numerous levels of culture so its inevitable that sub cultures influence a part of any project with a documentary focus.