Beyond the Lens with Babajide Adeniyi-Jones
Nigerian documentary photographer Babajide Adeniyi-Jones was born in 1952. He studied under John Vickers, a theatre photographer in London, and later became Vickers’s assistant before pursuing photography professionally in 1972. His photography foundation was laid with a twin-lens reflex camera and the Weston Master V light metre. He currently lives between Lagos, Nigerian and Maryland, United States. Through his work, he challenges stereotypes in Nigeria and also tells the untold stories behind certain well-known events. In this interview with Omenka, he discusses his forthcoming project and his creative expression.
You have devoted the last 45 years to the practice of photography, gaining the status of an icon in the process. Please tell us about your early interest and journey, and how photography has evolved on the African continent during this period.
My earliest memory of photography was feeling distinctly uncomfortable in Chief Dotun Okubanjo’s first-floor studio on Broad Street in Lagos, where our household had gone to take a family photograph. Before then, we had had lots of pictures taken of us around the house as we grew up. And even the renowned photographer Milton Macaulay, who to me was just another visiting uncle, had photographed us at home several times. However, the formal ritual of going to a studio and being illuminated in the unforgiving glare of tungsten light challenged me to project the person that I wanted the world to see. How much of a smile was cool and how much was too much? My parents and siblings seemed comfortable and able to take it all in their stride. Perhaps I subconsciously felt that Chief Okubanjo, through the alchemy of his Rolleiflex, could reveal something essential about me. I could be making too much of this incident, but it is my first memory of the power of the medium that was to be a vehicle for self-discovery for the rest of my life.
My next significant encounter with photography was under the influence of the theatre and portrait photographer John Vickers. I learned from him to establish a distinct point of view about the subject I was photographing and that the resulting image tells as much about the photographer as it does the subject. I really can’t comment on the evolution of photography throughout Africa, but I came into a photographic world in Nigeria in the 1970s that had an illustrious, though largely unsung, history. A tradition of documentary photographic practice began with photographers like George Da Costa, J. Adagogo Green, and Walwin Holm, all of whom practised in the 1800s and were some of the leading lights of their day.
Walwin Holm was inducted into the Royal Photographic Society in 1897. These early professionals were independent practitioners who were hired by the colonial government to provide a record of colonial activities at the time. They are credited with much of the visual record of the country from the late 1800s. This foundation was the basis from which a system of local apprenticeships and overseas study developed, producing a succession of excellent photographers in the ensuing years.
By the 1970s, the whole gamut of photographic practice was trying to find its place in Nigerian society. This ranged from the high-end Jackie Phillips Portrait Studio in Victoria Island to the ubiquitous “wait and get” instant picture photographers who appeared at all social occasions until they were made redundant by the selfie phenomenon of today. The period from the 60s to the 80s was the heyday of the newspapers and picture magazines. This was an era that produced press photographers, the best known being Mr Peter Obe. He blazed a trail so profound that his name became synonymous with photography itself. His two monographs, one on the civil war and the other on the second republic, are important visual records of those turbulent times.
Public perception of the profession was very poor, and there was an assumption that if you were a photographer, it was because you had not succeeded at anything else. Mr Jackie Phillips, a high profile success, was the exception that proved the rule. Though others were doing well, they were “under the radar” and not seen as examples of financial success. Communication was not what it is today, and so the exploits of Nigerian photographers outside the country were virtually unknown. For example, it was not until the 90s that I found out about the exhibition These Are My People held by Milton Macaulay at the Schomburg Center in New York in the 60s. Rotimi Fani-Kayode was also very influential during his brief creative life in photography in the United States and Britain. He was one of the founders of Autograph, the black photographers collective that was the springboard for much of the Afro-Caribbean art photography in England and beyond. Though he only had one show in Nigeria, in which he censored his avant-garde imagery, he drew heavily from his Nigerian heritage in his major international work. Similarly, Yinka Shonibare’s 1998 photographic opus Diary of a Victorian Dandy was a landmark in the contemporary art world in England but was virtually unnoticed in Nigeria.
In the early 2000s, a creative dam seemed to break, and with it, the idea that photographers were in it only because they had no choice. Young men and women, university graduates in disciplines as varied as art, law, economics, and so on, followed their creative compass in writing their own visual stories, with no role models to emulate. This was not exclusive to photography, however. It grew out of a creative milieu that produced a breed of musicians, comedians, writers, actors, filmmakers, painters, and sculptors who were free from the shackles of convention and confident that their time had come. In their wake, there has been a flourishing of photographic talent, making the photographic landscape unrecognizable from when I started.
How would you compare the contemporary photography scenes in Nigeria and Kenya?
During my time in Kenya, I was on the jury of both the Kenyan and Ugandan press photographic competitions. Both Kenya and Uganda, like Nigeria, have an emerging crop of extremely talented practitioners who cast aside convention and define reality in their own creative way. Both countries have strong portrait and press traditions and a lucrative wedding photography market. Kenyan and Nigerian art photographers are turning up in prestigious galleries around the globe and are also carving a niche for themselves in their increasingly savvy and flourishing domestic art markets.
However, there was a little-known, tragic coming together between Kenyan photography and Nigeria in 1968. This was when the Kenyan rising star-photographer Priya Ramrakha died in a roadside firefight on the outskirts of Owerri while covering the Nigerian civil war for Time–Life magazine. A book of this important photographer’s remarkable work, from his recently discovered archives, was published last year.
What ignites your interest and how do you want your audience to interpret your work?
I suppose my work is in the documentary photography tradition, though it is more so in function than in form. Today I am most interested in confronting established stereotypes and prejudices concerning any subject that I engage with. I don’t think it is up to me to say how anyone should interpret my work, but I do try to make images that people find interesting and are drawn to look at and think about. I think that I am successful if the viewer ends up thinking about the subject in a way that perhaps had not occurred to them before. This seldom happens, because viewers generally interpret what they see through the prism of their own experience and assumptions. For example, a picture of an officer of the Islamic police in Kano standing in front of a church (as they were deployed to do for several weeks following the first Boko Haram bombing of a church in that city so the Christians could worship safely) would be understood very differently by different viewers. Seldom would it be seen for what it actually is. In fact, after reading the caption, some people concluded that it could not be true. But I try.
Your photograph of Salamatu Umar, who was kidnapped by Boko Haram but later escaped, is well known. What challenges do you face and to what extent have you gone to capture images of this nature, considering that your life could be at risk?
I find the idea that my life could be at risk doing some of the work that I do mildly embarrassing. I seldom go to dangerous places, and I go to considerable lengths to ensure my safety on the occasions that I do. It is the people I am interacting within these places whose lives really are in danger—people who do not have the opportunity to get into a car or a plane and leave whenever they want. Of course, there is an element of danger in going to places like Darfur or Maiduguri or Dapchi, but lots of people still carry on with their lives in these places. Yes, we can share horror stories from people we meet there, but my overwhelming take from these places is that this is 2019. As a people, we can and must do better to avoid these things happening and respond to them better when they do. Right now, thriving economies grow up around the tragedies, and it is in several people’s economic interest to keep them going. As human beings, we have to do better, that’s all.
Several of your images capture wars, IDP camps, and people living with HIV. How would you evaluate the positive impact your work may have had on these situations?
I actually am not interested in violence, war, or people ravaged by disease. Much braver people do that, and some do it extraordinarily well. I have walked by fresh corpses and skeletal remains and have never photographed them. If I remember correctly, the only dead person I photographed was Dele Giwa, and we debated for hours at the African Guardian Magazine, where I worked at the time, if it was appropriate to publish the picture. In the end, we did not publish it, but published the picture that I took of his broken and blood-stained wristwatch that stopped at the precise moment that he was blown up. That idea was not mine; it had been seared into my consciousness by the photo from the Japanese photographer Shomei Tomatsu of the moment the bomb exploded over Nagasaki. I am very interested in the factors that lead up to violence and the unresolved aftermath of violence. I do the work in hope, but I am very uncertain of the extent of its impact.
For example, I went to Dapchi a year ago. When we arrived, all the mothers of the kidnapped girls were praying together for the return of their girls. I photographed them together in their collective pain. A week later, all the girls were released except for one. Boko Haram had released them and sent a message that they had kept her behind because she refused to convert to Islam. I think it is obvious that they were not in the slightest bit interested in her faith, but they heartlessly used her as an instrument in their propaganda war. This was the cue for the Christian faithful to come out as champions of the poor child—people who had been silent at the kidnapping of a hundred girls. In the heat of the news cycle, a picture of mothers of all faiths praying together was completely lost. I hope that, with time, subtle images can be understood.
Today, Africa is generally perceived by outsiders as a starving continent ravaged by war and corruption, as well as an exotic land populated by wildlife and lush flora. What is the role of African photographers in challenging these negative stereotypes?
These are not the major stereotypes that concern me. Of course, they are very important issues, and several photographers are bothered by them and are doing remarkable work challenging them. I am really impressed by so much of the imagery, music, writing, and technology coming out of Africa that confronts these stereotypes that you mention head on. I am personally concerned about our divisive obsession with race and ethnicity in the face of common threats. I am bothered by the inequality we have baked into society, be it ethnic, racial, religious, or sexual. We all have more in common than our differences, but we build mountains out of these differences. Once again, we can do better. I think that photography can play a hugely significant role in speaking to the hearts and minds of people.
What new projects are you currently working on?
I have started working on a project that I call Stain on the Banner. It is derived from the line in our original national anthem that says, our flag shall be our symbol that truth and justice reign / In peace or battle honoured, and this we count as gain / To hand unto our children, a banner without stain. So I am making a series of short picture stories about stains that we have to clean before we hand the banner unto our children. The first one is about the almajiri—how we squander a huge resource of children by not affording them the minimum rights of citizenship, an obligation that we, as a nation, owe them and ourselves.
August 21, 2019