Detroit Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara has a view of the NFL experience few fans will ever see. But through the lens of his camera, he’s sharing glimpses of it with the rest of us.
Consider him a 6-foot-4, roughly 260-pound street photographer with a knack for portraits — of family, of fellow football players, of strangers he meets during his travels. That eye for capturing likeness stems from “going to Mass as a kid with my family,” says Okwara, who spent early childhood in Nigeria before moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, when he was 10. “There would always be photographers outside taking portraits of family members as they came out of Mass.” He remembers digging through shoeboxes of family photos as a kid, holding negatives up to the light, and being fascinated by the process of film photography (Okwara shoots with both a 35 mm Leica M6 film camera and a sleek, digital Leica Q2 Monochrom).
Okwara played at the University of Notre Dame before signing with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent, in 2016. While in New York, he documented the firefighters at the legendary Rescue Company 2 firehouse in Brooklyn, building a portfolio along the way, and eventually exhibited his images at the Leica Store SoHo’s gallery to mark the 2019 anniversary of 9/11.
He landed in Detroit when he signed with the Lions in 2018, becoming a bona fide star. He signed a three-year, $39 million extension earlier this year. His brother Julian is hoping for a similar career trajectory. He followed in his brother’s footsteps by also playing ball at Notre Dame and was drafted by the Lions in 2020.
Hour Detroit spoke with Okwara before the start of the season about his experience behind the camera and the sense of identity the arts have given him on and off the field.
Hour Detroit: When did you first start thinking about photography as an artistic outlet for yourself?
Romeo Okwara: When I went to New York to play for the Giants, I got exposed to this whole world of art photography. I bought a film camera and started that practice, figuring out the technical aspects of photography, and started snapping away. It grew into this passion that I enjoy doing obviously during my free time when I’m away from work — and being able to bring that film practice to my day job. It’s been pretty cool documenting teammates and this incredible journey we’re all on together.
Have your teammates been cool with you taking photos of them?
Yeah, definitely. Most of the time people pose. It’s not common in general to see a camera nowadays. Usually, they take a picture with their phone and snap away. But seeing a real camera looking antique and old, people react to them positively for the most part.
It often feels like major league professional athletes get put into a box where they’re expected to do one thing well on the field but little else. Do you think sharing your photography helps show a more multidimensional side to NFL players?
At the end of the day, we’re all people. We’re all humans. We all have feelings. I think sometimes people from the outside looking in can get a little misguided about that. We’re on TV and we’re out in the community doing stuff and we’re glorified — at least in American culture — to be celebrities and these great athletes, which is great for a lot of aspects. … At the same time, we all have other hobbies and passions and interests outside of our day job, even though that day job can be all-encompassing.
Are you able to capture something that the rest of us aren’t normally able to see?
Yeah. I mean, the people that really know us are family members or close friends. Those are people we are sharing our true experiences with outside of the football field. Being able to document that from my perspective is my way of owning my voice, and using that visual language through photography has been very important for me. It’s done a lot for me when talking about identity and being able to separate that from sports.
You can follow Romeo Okwara’s photographic journey on Instagram (@romeokwara).
This story is featured in the October 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.