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The Evolution Of Nigerian Photography

By Billy Praise, Chidirim Ndeche and Njideka Agbo 29 April 2018   |   11:03 am

This simple yet profound quote sheds some light on the reason why photography is one of the most important fields in the world today.

As human beings, we all have a strong connection to our memories; some philosophers even argue that we are nothing without them. Perhaps, this is the reason photography has spread all around the world and has experienced such a massive evolution over the centuries.

Photo: The Port City News

The art of photography in Nigeria dates back to the colonial times and has since expanded to become the behemoth that it is today due to its acceptance as a profitable profession.

“It’s public acceptance as a reputable profession has grown more than 58% among the Nigerian elite population,” says Kola Oshalusi of Insignia Media Productions Limited.

Celebrating National Photo Month, we focus on the photographers, who undoubtedly are a part of the custodians of the Nigerian culture. Over the years, they give a glimpse into the lifestyle of the people at that given time and immortalise that moment. Regardless of the perceptions, shortcoming and limitations of the profession, photography has, in its own way, made Nigeria what it is today, one image at a time.

The pioneers

The rich history of photography in Nigeria includes names like Jonathan Adagogo Green, Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge and Peter Obe.

Jonathan Adagogo Green

Born in Rivers State (known as Bonny at the time) back in 1873, Jonathan Adagogo Green is regarded as Nigeria’s first indigenous professional photographer. For many years, his body of work was largely unknown to be Nigerian because of his English surname.

Jonathan Adagogo Green. Photo: Gale

After studying photography in Sierra Leone, he established a studio in Bonny and became one of the most accomplished photographers in West Africa at the time. Being located in the Niger Delta environment, his body of work covered materials in that area. This includes portrait images of European merchants, British colonial officers, chiefs and elites of the society, ironworkers, women making crafts, and so on.

Solomon Osagie Alonge

Solomon Osagie Alonge lived in the ancient city of Benin when the British took over the city in the late 19th century, bringing photography with them as one of their many traditions. Alonge became the first indigenous royal court photographer.

Alonge started learning photography in the 1920s and, owing to his grandfather being a chief, he was able to assume the role of court photographer in 1933. With a career that spanned for half a century, Alonge became the keeper of the history of his people. His body of work documented the rituals and proceedings of the royal court while running a portrait studio for taking pictures of the people Benin. As the years passed, Alonge’s work began to gain recognition. This was partly because of his skill—as he became known for his mastery of editing techniques—but mostly because, as a native of Benin, he was the only photographer who had the ability to tell the story of his people from a personal and detailed perspective.

Chief Solomon Alonge. Photo:Washington Post

The present of photography

A lot has changed since then, from the prestigious titles photographers held historically to being known by their small boxes in the streets begging for patronage. Kelechi Amadi-Obi, a lawyer who abandoned the noble profession to pursue his interest in photography, was seen as performing an act of foolishness and a waste of financial resources and education.

This narrative has changed as the photography industry in Nigeria today boasts major progress and is arguably one of the largest in the creative industry it sits in. A professional photographer is seen as a modern-day magician who knows how to manipulate his fingers. He sees beauty where there is none and directs people towards his light.

This, to an extent, is true. Photography in itself is an art. Like every artwork, it takes persuasive effort and skill to capture the essence and to have this knowledge. Unlike what is obtainable in the photosphere, he aims for quality. It then goes that the professional photographer makes the saying true, a photo tells a thousand words.

This, however, comes with a price. His equipment is not easy to purchase. A good camera costs as low as $200 (N71,900) and as much as $5000 (1,797,500) for the body alone. Whereas, a lens can go for as much as $1,899 (N682,690.50).

It, therefore, goes without saying that such massive investment has impacts on the practitioners and the economy, especially if the content produced is properly monetised.

At the recently held Business of Photography conference, the need to efficiently monetise the art of photography and define its future as a major part of the current and future national revenue generation sector was emphasised.

This is imperative because photographers are part of the larger economic mix – they purchase equipment, some of which are capital intensive, employ labour, pay rents and invest in other areas of the business. Invariably, these economic activities underscore their roles in the economy, especially as advancement in technologies used by photographers become more sophisticated and expensive.

Lagos

Moreover, owning and running a studio comes at no easy cost. As a profession, the investment needed in the business of photography is on the high side. A photographer has to worry about his location, his advertising cost, his stands and heads, his flash head. All these are put at N600,000 or more.

Idris Dawodu, a professional wedding photographer, says that he spends over N50,000 to run his studio monthly if he is fortunate to have steady electricity. On occasions of electricity lapses, Dawodu spends up to N80,000.

Dawodu goes on to explain the creative process in this order: It takes five minutes for consultations, an average of 1-4 hours of shooting excluding makeup, 10-40 minutes for editing a picture, and two weeks for delivery.

Yet, it would seem that professional photographers, despite the number of resources, are not getting the worth of their value. As Kola Oshalusi, a medical doctor by profession and organiser of the Business of Photography conference, told Guardian Life,

A lot of them are fantastically creative but terrible business people. They could be Instagram celebrities with tens of thousands of followers, but nothing in the bank.”

On the other side of the coin, Kelechi Amadi-Obi one of Nigeria’s most celebrated photographers shows that people are now willing to pay the price for a good photograph, although it wasn’t always like this.

According to Amadi-Obi,

“In those days, you would talk to a multinational or a local Nigerian company and they would tell you they never paid more than N30,000 for a [photo session]. I would walk away from the office during a negotiation.”

“And sometimes, it would take two to three years for a company to change their priority. It is a painfully slow process that has taken about 10-20 years for that [change] to happen. I know we are making progress but we are not there yet. There is a lot of hype and social media is also contributing to that hype. Social media also contributed a lot, making it possible for people to showcase their work. There was a time it was 50,000 naira for a day and now to do one million is a problem; that would be too low.”

Kelechi-Amadi-Obi

But photography did not enjoy a favourable disposition at some point in Nigeria. Reserved mostly for the unlettered artisans, it was deemed a profession for those who could not keep up with the demands of formal education. Today, it is a whole new world of creativity and art.

Guardian Life in-house photographer Niyi Okeowo started off as a graphic designer. So, when he made it known that he had delved into the photography business, it took people by surprise. But, over time, they started to accept him as a professional photographer.

“I think then the idea of photography was always roadside photographers and passports. There weren’t a lot of popular mainstream photographers in Nigeria. We only had the likes of Ty Bello, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Obi Somto and co. Social media wasn’t big then, and people, even photographers, weren’t very active on it. Now, almost everyone is a photographer, which is a good thing. They understand that people actually make money from photography. There is more of respect and people actually understand what we are doing right now.”

As the world becomes more accepting of the impact of photography on the way people live, practitioners believe that the future is a lot more promising. With technology companies now focusing on mobile photography and expanding the capabilities of the new equipment, that belief may not just be a mirage after all.

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