by Fadekemi Azeezat Sulaiman
Bayo Omoboriowo is a documentary photographer who has won numerous awards for his outstanding work and contribution to the Nigerian arts scene. He was recently on CNN’s African voices, where his project ‘100 Unsung Heroes’ was featured.
One of his many works on telling the stories of ordinary people in Nigeria, the ‘100 Unsung Heroes’ project seeks to showcase everyday Nigerian women who are contributing to their local community through stunning imagery that evokes the most passionate reactions from the viewer.
Omoboriowo is not your typical photographer. For this young creative, photography is a tool for social change and he doesn’t waste time declaring this to anyone who cares to listen.
‘I want to tell stories with my pictures’, he tells me.
‘My interest in ‘Reality photography‘ which involves combining documentary with street photography, stemmed from my view of photography as a tool for social change.’
‘A writer has her pen, a doctor has a stethoscope…I am a photographer but not one that only wants to make money. I want to take a photo that tells stories..to inspire people to provide tools that will make our society better, that’s the assignment.’
The 27- year- old is passionate about his craft, constantly seeking to develop himself by drawing on past experiences and his vision of portraying Nigeria in a positive light. Perhaps, this motivation comes from understanding what life must be like for the ordinary people living in some of Nigeria’s poorest communities.
The son of a photographer at the University of Lagos, he reminisces about his humble beginnings and how this has shaped him into the man he is today.
‘I grew up in Mushin, and my parents weren’t very well off’, he says.
‘My parents could only afford to give me N2, 000 as pocket-money every month while I was in University. As You can imagine, N500 per week was nowhere near enough to survive in the University of Lagos.’
So, is this why he took to photography, in an effort to make extra income?
‘Not exactly,’ he says. Apparently, he discovered his talent for photography unexpectedly.
‘It all began when I started taking pictures during fellowships and other church events. I’d borrow cameras to take pictures of people during events as I didn’t own one myself.’
It was a hobby at first, something he enjoyed doing but people seemed to like his pictures.
‘I continued taking pictures at school and before long, when other churches had events, people started calling me and were even willing to pay for my pictures.’
At this point, the young Omoboriowo came to the realisation that his hobby was becoming a great source of extra income and he wasn’t about to say not to that.
Did he start to seriously consider taking photography up as a career at this point?
‘Not at all,’ he says.
‘I was a high-flying chemistry student at this point. I graduated with a second class upper degree with dreams of getting a white-collar job in an industry or an office where I would be able to wear suits and look smart. At that time, photography was just a great way to while away time.’
All this was about to change however, as the young graduate went to Port Harcourt, Rivers State for his NYSC.
With no camera to his name, Bayo would borrow a camera from a friend and start taking pictures of fellow corp members.
Before long, he became popular for his photos and to his surprise, people were demanding for his photos over those of the camp’s official photographers.
This was an interesting development which got the young amateur thinking that there might be something in this. So he bought himself his first digital camera.
He was fortunate to have befriended a photography lab owner, where he developed the photos he took. This friend would also give him valuable tips and insights on how to take great pictures, information Bayo soaked up like a sponge.
At an exhibition involving top Nigerian photographers, this friend, now mentor, entered him for the event. He didn’t think much of it and probably didn’t expect anything out of the event but unbeknownst to him, he was about to have a eureka moment.
‘I was surprised when during the exhibition, someone actually bought my photo. I was like…wow! It’s time to take this seriously!’
By now, he was beginning to consider photography as more than just a hobby, so much so, that he would dash for a training session in Lagos on the very day he finished his NYSC.
‘On the same day I finished NYSC, I ran down to Lagos for an event organised by Kelechi Amadi Obi and some other notable photographers, because I wanted to improve my skills using their experience. That was mostly all the formal training that I had.’
‘I didn’t go to any photography school, it was more a divine calling.’
It’s hard to believe Omoboriowo had no formal training when one sees his outstanding work.
The detail that goes into each shot is simply amazing.
In 2012 alone, Bayo received 4 nominations for various awards, two of which he won, including the Future Awards Creative Artist Of the Year.
At a time when studying for prestigious degrees in medicine and technology were the order of the day, how did his parents feel about him taking up photography as a career?
‘I can remember one day when my Head Of Department saw my dad and told him I was really doing well at school. I could tell he was really proud of me at that moment, so I didn’t make them see that I was doing photography. They thought I was still doing it as a hubby until it became something glamorous.’
‘When they realised I was taking it as a career, it wasn’t a problem because I was making money from it already’.
‘My dad is the official photographer of Unilag, so yes, it’s kind of a family thing, he jokes.’
Speaking of his admiration for his dad, he tells me, ‘Even though he didn’t have the right gadgets at the time, he’s got the passion and that’s what drives him. People think it’s the camera that makes the photographer, no, it’s the creative mind, your resilience and determination. Gadgets only enhance the stories in your mind,’ he added.
In the last decade, photography has grown to become a lucrative craft in Nigeria, mostly in the wedding photography genre. I asked why the talented photographer didn’t choose to ply his trade in the highly sought after wedding and events industry.
‘I actually started photography as a red carpet photographer,’ he replied.
‘I did a lot of society events. In fact, when I finished the first training…my first official work was photographing for Nigerian Idol and after that, the demand just went off the roof with media houses and companies demanding I take photos for them.’
‘However, I knew I just didn’t‘ want to be a social photographer, so I became a wedding photographer. After some time, I became tired of photographing weddings and I knew I had to step out as I wasn’t finding fulfillment in it.’
This was a very difficult time for the rising photographer as he struggled to find direction in his career but, Omoboriowo is a great believer in faith, probably as a result of his upbringing.
It’s non negotiable for him even till now.
‘One of the most important things in life is finding out what God wants you to do,’ he muses.
What would he tell someone who is struggling to find their calling? I asked him.
‘It’s a journey. You don’t jump into it. Once you have that desire that you want God to drive your life, make it obvious that you’re not trying to do it yourself.’
‘Photography chose me, so if I have to struggle my way through it, then I shouldn’t be in that field.’
‘It was a painful decision, because I was earning well from wedding photography, so people should not think that God will just suddenly tell you what you want to hear.’
‘You have to go back to the drawing board and keep asking and seeking.’
‘I tell people that there are basic ingredients to life and success. These are principles that you must put in first in order to be successful. God works by principles as well. Principles of dedicated investment and time management is key. Client management, being prompt, if you’re running late for an event, text the client to say you’re running late.’
Asked if that wasn’t a cultural issue, Bayo replied. ‘There’s something called work culture.’
‘I learnt a whole lot from my work with DFID, I was late for a shoot and the lady said to me, we don’t tolerate lateness. That got me sitting up straight. There are cultures, attitudes and ways that people need to learn if they genuinely want to be successful.’
‘Don’t just be talented, combine talent with good quality character, have integrity. I’m not perfect myself but these are the things that will work for any body. ‘It shouldn’t be all about money always. We are driven by money and what we’ll gain.. but sometimes you have to learn about sacrifice, because sacrifice opens bigger doors.’
Omoboriowo’s passion for photography is palpable. As can be seen through his work, his pictures reach to the heart of the matter, telling a story in a way even words can’t describe.
In his quest for social advocacy, Omoboriowo is not interested in using his talent for political or economic bashing.
‘I don’t only Photograph negative sides of our country, I also try to capture the progress we’ve made. I want to encourage government to do more to say thank you for doing this, but please do more.’
‘I want to take a picture of a family sitting together on a plank of wood to show that they might have nothing, but at least there is still togetherness in their family’.
Omoboriowo has made giant strides in getting recognition for the ordinary Nigerian through his work. Last year, he initiated a project, ‘Photograph A Child’, which brought together about 60 photographers, 100 volunteers and 300 children from Makoko area of Lagos state, to document the inspiring stories and lives of the people who inhabit one of Africa’s biggest slums.
About the project, Omoboriowo says, ‘It was beautiful, and Now I’m doing ‘100 Unsung Heroes’, his project about celebrating the ordinary Nigerian woman.
‘We call them ordinary women but there aren’t ordinary at all. We’re looking for women who have integrity and are contributing daily to the development of their community and we want to celebrate them.’
‘We want to show young girls and the international community that look, there are still a lot of exceptional people like these women, who will not lose their integrity, who will not bend corners, and are resilient.’
As far as this young, brilliant and astonishingly astute photographer is concerned, waiting for the government is a complete waste of time.
For him, change begins with the individual. Why not be the change you desire? He asks.
See some more of Bayo Omoboriowo’s stunning work below. To contact him or support the ‘100 Unsung Heroes’ project, please click here.
All images are copywright Bayo Omoboriowo, please do not reuse or republish.
All images credit: Bayo Omoboriowo photography