Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko was born in Enugu, Eastern Nigeria in 1978 to a Nigerian father and a German mother. She moved to Germany as a child and completed her high school diploma (Abitur) before embarking on a photography apprenticeship majoring in advertising photography at Studio Be in Greven, Germany. On completing her apprenticeship in 2003, she returned to Nigeria and joined Ess-Ay Studio for a 12-month photography program, facilitated by Invent, Germany. This experience spurred her to deepen her photographic skills by enrolling at Macromedia, a school for art and design in Osnabrueck, Germany.
Ayeni-Babaeko returned to Nigeria in 2005 and worked as freelance photographer, before opening her own studio in 2007 (www.camara-studios.com). She has been active as a photographer with social conscience chronicling the life of modern Nigeria. Besides her fashion and documentary photography, Ayeni-Babaeko has facilitated the numerous photography workshops in partnership with the Goethe Institute, mentoring young female photographers.
In this interview with GuardianWoman, she takes us into her world of photography and her new projects while also urging female photographers to step up their game, as gender alone does not determine one’s success in today’s competitive world.
When did you commence your photography business?
I started my studio in 2008, but I was already taking pictures before then because I studied Advertising Photography. But because I didn’t have a studio, I was working from home until I had my studio. I have always been very creative and active.
Was photography first a hobby for you before becoming a professional?
I already ventured into photography in school, my grandfather gave me a camera; he was very much into photography as well, he was talented. Back then everything was analogue, we didn’t have a digital photo camera but when I look at his images now, I still marvel. So I was also interested, curious and took some courses in school, though I was just doing it as a hobby, but it became a profession. So when I went to the advert agency, I saw even greater skills, what you could do with photographs.
When you ventured into photography, why didn’t you study it in school?
I wanted to study graphic designs in Germany, I interned in a studio that also had an advertising agency attached to it. I was supposed to go to the university, but then I stumbled into the photographic section in the agency and I loved it the first time I worked with the big cameras, which was what prompted my interest. I also figured out that as a photographer you wear many hats, you’re everything- the graphic artist, you’re the creative person, you’re active, but all of a sudden I found this more appealing because everything is incorporated in it. A photographer knows a lot about graphics but a graphic artist does not necessarily know much about photography, so I decided to go that way. Then I studied advertising photography, it was just a big coincidence that brought me to Nigeria, I wasn’t supposed to stay here for long, I was just supposed to be here for six months, facilitated by Invent, an organisation in Germany that sponsors young students. They facilitated for me to come to Nigeria for six months. It is an organisation for languages, if you want to improve on a language they would send you to the country, and I chose Nigeria because I haven’t been to Nigeria for a long while and so I was doing this project and discovering Nigeria. In these six months a lot of things happened. I found a niche in advertising photography, I was working in Ess-ay Studios owned by the Adegunwas and I discovered that there are so many advertising agencies here, but not many photographers, so I stayed back. Since then I have been working in advertising photography, lifestyle images, food photography, family portraits and a lot more.
From your profile, you also studied arts and design; how do you incorporate that into photography. Where does art and design meet photography?
Photography is art on its own; photographers also see themselves as artists, because they print with light, so photography and art is very related just that we don’t use brush, we use camera and digital photography is faster. The photographer goes through the same thing a painter and artist goes through on conceptualisation, you need to know what you want, you have a message. You have to organise everything and create. We photographers create our image, finishing work, auditing and enhancement. So it is the same process; we do everything artists do, we are visual communicators.
Do you think we have enough professional photographers in the country? What is your assessment of the photography profession in the country?
The same way you’d ask if we have enough doctors or lawyers, I could never say we have enough. It’s a profession that needs a lot more support and recognition, so the more the merrier.
Is there any school in Nigeria offering a course in photography?
None that I know of, but I think the Yaba College of Technology offers some courses, a lot of organisations also try to organise workshops. Even we, once in a while, we organise workshops where we teach and train people and it works well because, that way, we make impact on individuals.
You are the boss of Camara Studios and also Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko (YAB). Kindly distinguish between the two brands.
Camara Studios does paparazzi while Yetunde Ayeni Babaeko (YAB) focuses on arts. I started with Camara Studios in 2008, and I didn’t use my name because I wanted to create an entity that could accommodate more photographers not just me. I wanted to create a studio with photographers that I have trained. I wanted Camara studio to grow into a franchise, to operate itself. So, what we do in Camara Studios is catering for individuals, family portraits. We’re doing advertising photography as well, lifestyle images and even passport photography. People always complain about their passport photographs but it doesn’t have to be, though it’s a bit more expensive than a roadside passport photographer’s, but we give you something that makes you happy. So that’s what Camara Studios does and I started with it. I think in about four to five years down the line, I started discovering myself more as an artist, and that was when I started more of conceptual photography, really focusing on having exhibitions and others. I don’t do much of documentary photography; I am more of a conceptual artist. I also collaborated with breast cancer organisations, dance companies and others just to do my due diligence as a Nigerian to support the social scene, and do some charity works as well, but at the same time come together and create some arts and it has worked well. So, that is Yetunde Ayeni Babaeko (YAB) Photography for you. We are operating Camara Studios and YAB photography as parallels.
How would you categorise the two?
YAB photography is fine-art photography, things that would go on sale at exhibitions that you would now buy as arts, while Camara Studios is all about family portraits, advertising photography.
Who are your major clients?
NASCLA, 9mobile, Nigerian Stock Exchange, Dangote, Leadway Insurance, Chicken Republic, Ark Agencies and others.
What exactly do you do for all these companies?
Photography, lifestyle images, calendars, daily and annual reports, portraits of MD and CEO, albums, we cover events for them and a whole lot more.
Which strata of the society do you cater to?
Camara Studio is for everyone. People sometimes say we’re expensive but the truth is you cannot put a price tag on art or photography because it is a lifetime memory put together, even when all the moments are gone. So we try to change the perception of our clients and make them understand that images are forever, if they are well kept.
How has it been like in the last 11 years? Aside the financial gains, do you find fulfillment in what you’re doing?
It’s been interesting, I’ve learned a lot, met a lot of people because photography is about networking, about who you know, whom you meet and it has taken me around. And yes, I feel really fulfilled and happy when appreciated by clients, I feel like I have impacted their lives.
Who are your role models in the profession?
I am a fan of Bimbola Oga, Annie Leibovitz- she is an American icon in photography. I like her because she started at a tender age, takes her camera everywhere, she never puts her camera down. She is a documentary photographer who ventured into celebrity photography. I also like Patrick Denarchelier and Chris Knight. I like Chris because he has painterly looks in his images, you don’t know if it’s photography or a painting, and many others too.
Your work is somewhat interwoven with your husband’s own, how has it affected your career considering the fact that he is an advertising guru?.
Initially, he was working for someone but now that he is self-employed and running his own business, we do things together and work together. He is so creative and while working with him, he could give me constructive criticisms, advise me on how to do my work better. So definitely one must impact on the other, sometimes I also give him ideas.
What should Nigerians expect from Camara Studios and YAB Photography in 2019?
Camara Studios will definitely go stronger in advertising photography and videography. For YAB Photography I must at least finish one exhibition and it would happen in June/July. I also want to take YAB Photography international.
Talking about Corporate Social Responsibility, do you have plans to collaborate with any NGOs?
I am actually presently doing that but won’t reveal right now until June/July during the exhibition.
Decades ago, the photography terrain was dominated by men, but more women have ventured into it now. How has it changed the equation?
When I came in 2004, one of the advantages I had was because I was a woman. Having my camera attracts attention, which was either negative or positive, but it still called attention and it helped the work a lot. But now, even as a woman you just need to establish your craft because it is just really your work that speaks for you, not your gender.
Do you think there is competition in the industry now?
There is competition and it is good because it helps you better your craft.
Have you been able to assist more female photographers?
Sure, I always bring women together and train them, but the significant one was an exhibition we had years back. We organised a four-week workshop for female photographers and, at the end of the workshop, there was an exhibition and after that we had another exhibition where we photographed breast cancer survivors and patients. So we had two exhibitions as a full force female exhibition.
How busy is the life of a female photographer, does it affect family life, is it very demanding?
Yes it very demanding, but the beauty is you’re more flexible with your time while the disadvantage is that you have events at night and if you have young children, where will you put them? So you have to be prepared for that, you need help and you have to take time out to train them, know them, do background checks and you don’t start looking for help when you’re really busy. It has to be before so that when you get busy you have someone to rely on.
Outside your life behind the camera, how do you relax?
I am not the kind of person who just lies down on the couch, but even on vacation, I am still busy because I am with my camera all the time, but I will do it in a more relaxed mood. It actually relaxes me. For me it’s something that helps you to just remember even if it’s from a practical point of view, it helps to remember event, things, and places. I also do sports.
Tell us why anyone should have a YAB photography in their living room?
First of all you have to fall in love with the work to understand it. People love most of my works because they are very Nigerian pieces. For instance Eko Moves was all about Lagos, we went to different places in Lagos, we photographed the dancers in Lagos, then another exhibition was Itan, telling Nigerians stories.
Do you speak Nigerian and German Languages fluently?
I speak German fluently but not Yoruba. My father is from Ayede-Ekiti, Ekiti State. I was raised in Enugu for five years and I went back to Germany.
Tell us a bit about growing up, family life?
I grew up in a very serene town in Germany Burgsteinfurt, I schooled there, I have three siblings, and I grew up with my mum, dad and grandfather.
What is it like being married to a celebrity?
When I met my husband (Tunde Ayeni-Babaeko) he wasn’t a celebrity, we were both brokers and the little savings we had was put together just to have a home, but he was employed and had a steady income. We were just determined, I knew we would not starve and what we had was enough for us to live well. I could still fly once in a while to Germany to see my people; it was enough. We just kept going and the good thing was he got promoted almost every year and I was growing my business. So it was also good for us that I had my income even while working from home, so I had my own money always even while raising the kids. We were also very happy when in 2008 I had enough money to get my space. So far it’s been good. We got married in 2006 and we have three boys.
Who is Yetunde Babaeko?
I work hard, I am a liberal and I can also be very lazy. It’s not exactly being lazy but the kind of laziness that makes me always find the easiest way out of every situation, the fastest way to do something. But when it comes to my photography, I won’t say I’m hard working because I love what I’m doing. If I have an idea, I won’t rest until I get it done. I am very flexible and it’s one of the reasons I was able to survive as a German in Nigeria because a lot of Germans cannot cope with traffics and all the issues peculiar to Nigeria. I can improvise very well; I am creative, supportive, and strict on my children. I am very informed when it comes to education, I don’t get angry easily but if I’m angry then you will definitely know. I am very loyal to my friends.
Where are the best places to put photographs in the apartment?
Living room, dining room and you should keep your favourite image in the room you spend the most time.
Can you explain the popular saying that a photograph can tell a story more than a thousand words?
For me, what it means is that you can also put your own interpretation into it because the discovery of photograph and what its represents is personal to individuals. You can write a story from the narrator’s point of view but in image it says so much because it caters to every individual. People see different things from looking at just one image, so there are different stories from one image. So if a thousand people look at the same image, you have multiple thousands perspective and interpretations. So looking at images, sculptures is more about self-discovery.