By Hazeez Balogun
Kelechi Amadi-Obi, one of Africa's most talented photographers, has set himself apart as a celebrity in his own right. In this interview with Hazeez Balogun, Amadi-Obi speaks about his work and how photography can reposition the perception of Nigerians around the world.
HB: “You have been into photography for a long time, how do you think photography can change the perception of Nigeria and Africa to the outside world?”
KAO: “To me, photography is more than art. It is what portrays a people. When you see someone dressing badly or wearing torn and dirty clothes, you quickly have a perception of that person. In your mind you deduce that he is either homeless, or a nonchalant person who does not take care of himself. You tend to move away from such person. Though you have not met the person or know the person, you have made a mental evaluation of him. That is what is called a bad image, and bad image leaves bad impressions. That is the same problem we are facing in Nigeria and Africa today. I believe that we are victims bad images. If you see the pictures of Nigeria and Nigerians being circulated abroad, they are not befitting of the people. They are images of us that leaves bad impression about us. Other way round, it is a different case.
I have been to Trafalgar Square, and I did not see anything spectacular about the place. I also go to Paris, and I see the Eiffel Tower, it just looks like an average telecoms tower. I go to Times Square in the US and it looks just like Marina Street here in Lagos: it is not really a clean place. But before I went to those places, I have had images of them in my head, and they were beautiful images. I have seen them in pictures and movies and they looked so beautiful. That is because there is a conscious effort to portray these places in a good way. And these images are what the rest of the world see. So even before you go there, you have a good impression of the place. Opposite is the case of Africa. When you have been portrayed in a bad picture, people are already biased before they even set foot in the country. That is the problem we have.
Another thing I see is that we do not dream of where we want to be as a nation. We should know where we want be. We need to fantasise about where we should be as a country. Watch foreign movies and see their pictures and all, you will see that they are creating what they would want their future to be. Though they may not be there now, they make efforts to meet up with the fantasy of themselves they have created. Look at video calling for example, is that not what we saw in 'Space 99' about thirty years ago? Today, it has become a reality. What I am saying in essence is that photography and movie-making are also very important in creating and shaping impressions about ourselves. And they also help us shape our future.”
HB: “But people in the West like to see pictures of Africans looking wretched.”
KAO: “You are right. That is exactly what I am saying. If you do not tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. We have a crisis of identity. We need to define who we are. It is up to us artistes in the society to make that distinction. Right now we are gradually having our own identity through music. Though the older generation may not care, the youth are creating what is known as the 'Naija sound'. It was non-existent some years ago. We had been used to borrowing music forms from Ghana, Cameroun and Francophone countries. But now, we are creating a kind of sound which is Nigerian. That way, we are having our own stories.”
HB: “You talked about telling our own stories, how are you practising what you preach?”
KAO: “Well. I have my own way. I am documenting what we have through photography. I am making a visual impression of our movie industry. I shoot the actors, I shoot the scenes. I look at Tuface Idibia and I try to use pictures to interpret 'Grass To Grace' on his album cover. I look at P-Square and I try to use pictures to interpret 'Game Over'. So visually I use my photos to interpret our sound. In Nollywood too, I do the same. I will take an Omotola for example and use pictures to create an ‘Omosexy’. Also, I work with the Nigerian fashion industry. I look at Deola Sagoe and how she has turned our 'aso oke' into international couture, then I get great artistic pictures from her creations. I took Oluchi to Obudu cattle ranch to have this aura of magnificence and we took great pictures with mountains and clouds. It is important to bombard people with these images so that they can realise that we have our own beauty and presence. And that is not all, I have delved into architecture.”
HB: “What are the hindrances to your work as a photographer?”
KAO: “I think worldwide, we are facing the same problems. People look down on you, people not respecting your copyright, government not supportive and all that. Also here in Nigeria, electricity is a problem. My generator has been I buzzing all morning, that is thousands of naira burning away. Also, we do not teach the next generation to appreciate art. I can count the number of galleries we have in Nigeria, that is if they are still operating. The average Nigerian is visually illiterate, we do not understand the importance of visuals. You can travel to any major European city, you will see hundreds of galleries. During public holidays, how many parents take their children to galleries in Nigeria? This is a norm everywhere in the world. Go to London and you will see the way they display our own Benin masks in their galleries. You will see our own masquerades displayed in all their glory. Down here we do not know the power of these images. Our government does not deem it fit to spend any money building these institutions, but they are what define who we are. We talk about national unity, these are the things that promote it.”
HB: “You have continued to describe photography as an art. There is still an on-going argument about the validity of photography as an art.”
KAO: “That argument is over a hundred years old. It has been taken care of. The question is, what is art itself?”
HB: “Many will say art is flowing and comes straight from inspiration. But photography has to do with using machines to create and image. All it takes is the click of a finger. Do you consider this art?”
KAO: “Like I asked earlier, what is art? The definition of art itself is the ability to open new doors. Every generation tends to use art to define whatever it is doing. This argument was started by painters when photography was gaining ground. They saw it as a contraption that will take away their livelihood. I started off as a painter and I can tell you that all aspects of painting apply to photography as well. “
HB: “You used to work with the manual camera, do you miss those days when you have to process films in the dark room?”
KAO: “There is something about the manual photography that is unique. There was an element of excitement there. Your pictures may or may not come out well. The fear of the outcome is a thrill on its own. Also, we had to get the shot perfect in one take because we had a finite number of exposures per film. So you didn't just shoot at random. I also miss the intimacy of the dark room. The smell of the chemical and the magic of seeing the paper turning into pictures. It was almost a spiritual process. Today the technology is moving so fast. Before you finish learning about a new software, they have released another one. It is better with the digital now, the only downside is that those of us who had worked with the manual ones and had worked in the darkroom, we miss some intimacy and thrill the manual had. I was one of the most sceptical people about the digital camera. When it came, it was rated at three megapixels. For me that was too small. I told my colleagues that it was like going backward. You could not get a good resolution with that when you are shooting for billboards. I stuck to my manual camera for advertising jobs. Those days, you would notice that the pictures on billboards became poor. I did not want to be a part of that. But later when cameras were upgraded, and their resolutions were better than the manual ones. That was when I decided to go full time digital.”
HB: “You studied law at the university but became renowned for photography. Why did you switch from law to photography?”
KAO: “I didn't switch. I've always been an artist from primary school. I took a break to study law and I carried on with my art. But it always sounds very exotic to hear “lawyer turned artist.” Sometimes, I keep quiet. Maybe it is nice for publicity, but I've always been an artist. It has always been my passion and I just continued with it. Even when I was in the law school, I never stopped drawing and painting. Photography came about fifteen years ago and it sort of took over. I discovered it and it consumed me. I'm a man that follows his passion. I was a successful painter who was playing around with photography all the while. I used to make carefully-crafted photos of my models in order to make paintings out of the photographs. I had these photo-realistic paintings that I used to make. I had fun because I thought the more difficult it was, the more I wanted to do it. The more comfortable I got, the more I tried to push the threshold. I met with Don Barber; and he said, “Come, let's go to the darkroom let me show you how it's done.” That was the first time I saw the magic of an image appearing. I said, “Wow, I like this.” In the evenings I would hang out with Uche James-Iroha at Dolphin Studios then in Surulere, we became friends.
HB: “Where do inspirations come from?”
KAO: “From God. He is the best photographer. Let me tell you what stands me out. I'm always in a constant mindset to keep myself uncomfortable with what I already know so that I can make a mistake. Each of those mistakes leads to a discovery. And each discovery, if it works, I have to throw away so that I can make another mistake.”