After my graduation from the University of Benin, where I studied Botany, I did not bother to look for any job as my eyes were set on graduate school. I wanted to continue the experiment with Cow Peas I started. The result of that kindergarten experiment was to reduce a 60-day maturing plant to 45 days. Yes, I was able to induce polyploidy in the seeds with the help of Colchicine and reduce the maturation days by 15 days. As expected, the seeds were bigger but not viable. The implication of that was that I could not take the experiment to the next stage, so my focus was to move from seeds to the level of organelles…..not to bore you, I was unable to afford graduate school nor did University of Ilorin show any interest in such research. I had to switch to plan B and look for something else to do with my life.
What to do with my life? Simple, Broda Banjo borrowed me his Canon AE1 to use during my graduation, I was physically presented at the ceremony but I refused to pay for the graduation gown! I just walked around taking pictures of other graduates who came with family and friends. As I did that something told me I could earn a living as a street photographer and that was exactly what I did.
After the compulsory one year National Youth Serving Corp (NYSC), Lagos was the place I could go back to, my father’s house was no more an option and I found solace in my sister’s living room. That was how my life as a “proper” street photographer started. I was everywhere taking four-copies-for ₦10 pictures of anyone who needed my services. I made my rounds of Salons and other cultural spots in Lagos, till Demola of the then African Concord retained my services. I became his unofficial photographer, taking shots of people he interviewed for the Back of Book stories. Then one day he took me along to Ogunlana Drive where he had an appointment to interview the publisher of This Week Magazine, Nduka Obaigbena (he graduated a year before me at UNIBEN). I took as many shots as possible of the man, many call the, Duke. After our session he recognized my face as one of the Campus photojournalists at Uniben, he asked what I was doing apart from photography. The answer was not flowing in the wind, I had nothing doing. Right there in the presence of Demola, he made me an offer as a freelance photographer in his glossy Magazine. The job was to go around town looking for images that tell their own stories without the need of text or captions. He wanted images that could be used as picture of the week. The description of the kind of pictures he said they wanted threw me, how on God’s earth will I find such pictures on the streets of Lagos. I left his office that day feeling a little defeated, dejected and downcast.
As days went by, my critical eyes were opened wider than usual, I was married to my camera and ever ready to snap anything that looked awkward so that I could “win” the one hundred Naira he promised they would pay for such shots. I am not sure if it was quite a month after my encounter with him; I saw a Police man on the pedestrian crossing at CMS trying to drive away street hawkers on the bridge. In his right hand was a broom and on his left shoulder was his Mark IV “dane gun”. Without thinking I took several shots of him and went back to Ogunlana Drive where all street photographers congregated to print their colored pictures. I printed mine and took them to the then editor, Sonala Olumhense (SO) alias the editor’s indecision is final. He took a good look at the pictures and liked them all. Those who know SO know he is a wordsmith, someone who loves to play with words. In no time he came up with a caption
“Making a sweeping Arrest”
As at then, I did not contest the caption but many years after I started to reflect on the words he chose and how words interfere with other meanings of images. As far as I am concerned the text constrained any other meaning a viewer could give. Stuart Hall in his time gave the world different types of reading of images and texts. A viewer has the right to press an oppositional reading into service or refuse to see the combination of a gun and a broom as serving any purpose. The picture no doubt is an oddity but the poetic caption compounded (or foreclosed) other possible meanings.
I am sure when the real story of published photos and their caption in publications in Nigeria is told, more of these complexities of images and texts will come into forefront. Those who know Sumi Smart Cole can attest to his deft use of captions for pictures that many come across as simple. Do you recall his black & White picture he once captioned?
“They left her behind”
The picture was made during his sojourn in America. It was of a very well-endowed woman on a lonely road about to cross the street. Sumi Smart caught her at that moment and recorded it for posterity. The first question one may ask after looking at the image and reading the text; who left her behind? In truth the intention of Sumi Smart Cole was to point attention to her behind!
There are so many of these shots published in newspapers around the country in those days. Photographers like Afolabi Adesanya (the creator of sign righting), Jide Adeniyi-Jones, Monday Emoni, Felix Elijah, Sam Olusegun, Baba Oje and too many of those foot soldiers to mention. They brought the richness of city life onto the pages of newspapers and magazine covers and editors had a field day crafting captions that ran parallel to the images or extended the meaning therein.
As you would have noted, I promoted myself from street photography to the newsroom and soon found a place doing stage photography. That was where I met most of the artists you now see on screen. Some of them cut their teeth on stage and I was there to preserve memories of their humble beginnings.
A photograph can be a lie because it takes only a fraction of the moment and the rest is left for those who have the power of recall to retell the story. Now you know where my love for making pictures started and how it has not fully died. I have stories of when my camera was willing but the flash was weak. There were memorable days on the job and days my life was in danger all because the editor wanted an action shot. Thanks Nduka Irabor, no photographer who ever worked at Rutam House will ever forget you in a hurry. Do they make them like that anymore?