Passport to nowhere
His name, Sunny Deriko; a lanky handsome black boy with a tongue made of razor blade. He had so much flare and was as significant as a radio. He was my elder brother’s friend and he was also responsible for documenting the youthfulness that was oozing in Uwessan village in the early 80s. As a photographer, Sunny Deriko had more swag and power than anybody of his age at the time. And to crown it all, his father bought him a Suzuki 100 motorcycle; if you don’t know how important that was at the time, imagine you buying your kid a Range Rover Sport now. Yes, that is the equivalent of a motorcycle in a farming village with a few bicycles.
Why Sunny Deriko as a name? As they say, packaging is everything in life. Good packaging is what makes the difference between “beef” in a Shoprite supermarket and “cow meat” in Mile 12 Market. Back in the days, to be popular, earn some money and attract the finest village beauties as a photographer in Uwessan, you must have the most interesting nickname aka guyname. So it was not unusual to be in a disco party and during one of those alcohol-controlled speeches, a young man would stagger up with a Yashica camera dangling round his neck and say, “My name is Johnson Okojie, alias Sagadaga! London trained photographer.” Never mind, he had never travelled beyond Ekpoma, our local government headquarters at the time. But mind you, a photographer saying he was “London trained” was not facetious. Uwessan photographers had a great sense of history. They knew that passport photography as a form of identification has it’s earliest practice in London as far back as 1915.
Anyway, the first time I ever sat for a passport photograph to be taken by Sunny Deriko had to be during my transition from primary to secondary school. I had butterflies in my stomach and stars in my eyes. I obeyed his every command because I did not want anything to jeopardize my entrance into one of the many secondary schools built by Professor Ambrose Alli of blessed memory. The Passport taking was intense; I couldn’t strike a useless pose or else I would pay dearly for it. One must keep a straight face, with all maxillofacial bones in the right proportion. There was no luxury of blinking or else you would have to wait another extra 14 days to correct a half-asleep, half-drunk looking face. Yes, it took about 14 days to get your passport, because the photographer had to finish an entire roll of film before going to the dark room. There was the option of taking the roll of film to his dark room and cutting a part of it for processing, but that would be reducing his importance of making you wait. Good things don’t come easy as they say, and photography was one of those things in my village.
I would later in life take so many passports including in America, where once upon a time, to take a passport for green card, aliens aka immigrants had to turn their faces to the right behind a grey background so INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) could slap their ears psychologically.
Many things have changed since when I first experienced passport photography. We are all in a fast moving world, a train racing to the future we are so unsure of. Passport photographs taken and printed within two minutes by everybody and anybody, is the norm these days, and this has forced an old photographer like Sunny Deriko to becoming a Pentecostal pastor in Lagos.
On my way to the studio last week, for no absolute reason, I decided to patronize one of the roadside “photographers” near a VFS office in Lekki Phase 1. If you have never been to this place, it is where visas to some countries Nigerians want to migrate or visit, are processed. So there is an army of hustlers along a short stretch of road. They weave in and out of moving cars soliciting quick businesses, from selling travel insurance to taking your passport.
As I succumbed to one of the best hustler in the pack, he asked a question I least expected;
“What country sir?” Apparently, each country requires different passport features from their Nigerian visa applicants, including background colour. Since I was not visa hunting in this exercise, I answered: “Nigeria,” just to have some morning fun. A slight confusion plastered the young man’s face; his dreadlocks looking like used mop on his broad head. He didn’t waste time getting the joke and quickly he spread a white cloth behind me. No time to waste in executing this “wait and take” as we call it. The aura and magic of the process of image making is fading faster than the papers these modern day passports are printed on. Even the cameras used, and the printers that spew out the prints, look like toys. But these are the tools available to these young men and women irking a living in the belly of a monstrous city.
What hasn’t changed though in passport taking is the tense expectation of the outcome of a passport: to see if your face looked like a convict, or victim of a double homicide, or better still, a civil servant whose salary has not been paid in months.
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