Nigeria: the photographic giant

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Anyone wanting to get hold of photographic material for a reasonable price in West Africa still has to go via Nigeria. Endowed with a rich photographic patrimony, the country « exports » not just products, but photographers too. Nigerian photographers are still very present in certain countries such us Côte d’Ivoire or Niger.

With around 120 million inhabitants, Nigeria has the largest population in Africa and is the continent’s leading oil-producer. Although weakened by acute political instability, the « idol with feet of clay » still enjoys a special aura throughout the whole sub-region. A veritable international trade hub, a good number of manufactured goods – such as plastics, medicine, car spare parts, electronic goods, photographic material, etc. – come from or transit through Nigeria. The sprawling town of Lagos is a nerve centre with its dozen huge open-air « supermarkets », each specializing in a particular field. You can find everything, including the latest camera. It was here in this country where the photographic profession was recognized very early on that West Africa’s first colour laboratories opened at the end of the Sixties.
The origins of photography in Nigeria
date back to the end of the nineteenth century. In West Africa, the profession first of all developed in the coastal towns. The first professional studios opened in Lagos as early as 1880, run by Sierra Leoneans, Liberians, or « Brazilians » (freed slaves or their descendants). Amongst them were H.S. Freeman, Emmanuel Rockson, Alfred Mamattah, or George S.A. da Costa. These photographers were real professionals, capable of carrying out all kinds of commissions (portraits, reports, adverts, architectural photos, etc.). Once back in their home country, enriched by the experience gained during their long stays abroad, they trained the intellectual and professional elites in Lagos and other major towns, such as Abeokuta and Ibadan. They passed on their skills to the local populations, who were, furthermore, educated in the Yoruba and Ibo lands’ well-implanted Christian missions. (1)
One must not overlook the role of the (mainly « Creole ») Christian missionaries, who were as much committed to a « civilizing » mission as an evangelising one, in the spread of photography too. This specific context gave the coastal populations the opportunity to enter into close contact with Western culture (in Europe and North America where the elite went to train in the Twenties). From the Twenties to Thirties, the colonial forces also played a key role in spreading the medium. Many Nigerian soldiers received photographic training. On their return, they passed on their skills.
The use of « pinhole » or « box-cameras » developed in this context: a kind of homemade wooden mini dark room, fitted with a lens, with or without a diaphragm. The pinhole camera made it possible to make instant identity photos at a cheaper cost and in all circumstances. The « wait and get » is still common in Nigeria, and remains the cheapest way of getting round the country’s incessant electricity and water cuts.
J.A. Fagbohun’s father was one of the military photographers who trained in the colonial forces. (2) Transferred to Kumasi in Ghana (at the time the Gold Coast), he returned to Nigeria after the First World War to become the Ekiti region’s leading photographer. His son took up the flame in 1939 and went to do his apprenticeship in an Ibadan studio for at least three years, as was the tradition. J.A Fagbohun (born in 1923) is the current President of the NPPA (National Professional Photographers Association), created in 1947.
The Fifties and Sixties represented a real boom in the profession
, which gained recognition thanks to several leading names (Jackie Philips, Billyrose, Peter Obe – reporter for the Daily Times, famous for covering the Biafran Civil War – Sunmi Smart-Cole, and many others). In the Sixties, the number of studios increased considerably. In 1963, there were already 397 professional photographers in Ibadan. From now on, photography was part of the daily landscape: from the simple identity photo (necessary for all administrative procedures) to the essential wedding photo, including birthday party photos, degree photos, photos of all the events marking a person’s life right up to their dying breath (the obituary columns in the papers reproduce full page photo portraits of the deceased).
The arrival of colour
in the Seventies initially reinforced the vitality of the studios. The novelty of colour even led some to equip themselves with small-scale colour developing and printing material. But they were soon left behind at the beginning of the Eighties by the supremacy of the major industrial companies, such as Agfa. Bola Ogun, owner of the Fototek and Photo-Palace chain of laboratories (fifty or so shops, mainly in the North), remains the most famous example.
A new generation of « freelance » photographers has emerged in this « colour era »: they no longer need to invest in a studio, even if that remains their goal. Instead, they make do with just a camera and go out looking for clients, offering them colour shots within the hour – the time it takes to go to the nearest laboratory. This is a change from the on average two-day delay at the studios.
Just like in other West African countries, the « freelance » photographer phenomenon has provoked the progressive decline of the professional studios, which have turned to other activities, notably video.
Another very active domain in Nigeria – even if there are still problems – is press photography. Today, most of Nigeria’s photojournalists train either at the Yaba College of Technology in Lagos, or at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism in Ibadan. Most of the older generation started out in Britain or the United States.
The exemplary daily, The Guardian, currently has a dozen salaried photographers who are not « reporters » in the Western sense of the term. The Guardian’s photographers are both journalists and photographers. As journalism is not exactly an easy ride in Nigeria, the photographers often use powerful telephoto lenses to remain discreet. We can cite Raywemegbulem’s brilliant career, who joined The Guardian in 1990. He has since won many awards, including the Reuter Fellowship Award, and regularly works with international journals, such as Courrier International in France.
Nigeria, the photographic giant?
In addition to its very rich photographic patrimony, Nigeria can be proud of having the best-stocked « photo department » in West Africa: many of the sub-region’s shopkeepers and photographers come all the way to Lagos, Ibadan and even the Ibo region’s major markets to stock up.
There are two addresses in Lagos: Alaba International Market and Lagos Island. There one finds dozens of shops specializing solely in photographic material, full of cameras, diverse accessories, batteries, films, and video cameras… at unbeatable prices.
Nigeria also exports its know-how: for a long time now, Nigerian migrants have had a monopoly on certain professions in their host countries (Ghana, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, etc.), including tailoring, hairdressing, mechanics and photography. In Côte d’Ivoire, Nigerian Yoruba – known as « Nago » or « Anago » – are considered the best photographers in the country (which is true of the Ghanaians too). Many Ivoirian studio photographers have inherited their know-how and material from their Nigerian colleagues. This influence can be felt, for example, in the use of black and white painted décors, usually representing urban landscapes (buildings, motorways, airports, etc.), which were very much in vogue in the Sixties and Seventies. Tastes have changed since: people prefer colour, and plain or flowery backdrops… Researcher Tobais Wendl refers to a « Nigerian Connection » which appears to have originated in Sekondi in Ghana (Anthologie de la Photographie africaine, Revue Noire, 2e ed., 1999, p. 146). Another very Nigerian, or rather Yoruba, touch are the portraits reproduced twice on the same print. In any West African studio where a Nigerian photographer officiates (or officiated), you can finds these « double portraits » in the window, a reference to twinning, which is the object of a special cult – the Ibeji – in Yoruba land. (3) And these are but a few examples.
The photography profession was far from prestigious in many countries in the early years, but this was not the case in Nigeria. To such an extent that today, countries such as Nigeria and Ghana’s preponderant role in the spread of photography in West Africa cannot be ignored. In Bamako, designated the capital of photography for nearly seven years now, I have more than once been told that the Nigerians and Ghanaians, who were seen travelling in villages all across Africa at the time of Independence, their cameras on their backs, invented photography!

1. It is interesting to note that in northern Nigeria (Hausa country) the missionaries came up against Islam and the indirect rule instigated by the British, which slowed down economic development.
2. Owner of the Crosby studio in Ibadan and President of the NPPA, the Nigerian Professional Photographers Association.
3. Cf. Marilyn Houlberg’s article: « Ibeji images of the Yoruba », African Arts, vol. VII, n°1, 1973, pp. 20-27, 91-92
Erika Nimis is a post-graduate student in History at the University of Paris I. She is preparing a PhD on the Diaspora of Nigerian Yoruba photographers in West Africa.
Bibliography
American researcher Stephen Sprague was the first to study specifically African photography in the mid-Seventies, with a pioneering work on Nigeria’s Yoruba photographers: « Yoruba photographers: how the Yoruba see themselves », African Arts, vol.XII, n°1, 1978, pp. 52-59.
Nigerians (whether they be photographers, academics or journalists) show great interest in the study of photography and its recognition as an art. This is clear from Yemi Ogunbiyi’s essay: « Portrait of Photography » (introduction to the work « The Photography of Sunmi Smart-Cole », Book Craft Ltd & Daily Times, Ibadan, 1990), initially published in The Guardian, 15 January 1984.
The cultural journal « Glendora », recently renamed « Position », has also focused extensively on creative photography in Nigeria. Cf. Glendora N°4, Vol. I, 1996: « Making Photographs », pp. 102-116 (a meeting with four photographers from the PAN – Photographers’ Association of Nigeria – [email protected]).
Babatunde Ayinde Okoya
Babatunde Ayinde Okoya, known as Babatunde, was born in Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1961. At the age of 20, he obtained a diploma as a radio and television technician. From 1990 to 1994, he in turn worked as a technician, editor, actor and video film producer. He then became an independent photographer. His encounter with the musician Fela in the Nineties was determinant for his work.
///Article N° : 5534

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