After obtaining a law degree and his call to bar in 1993, renowned Nigerian photographer, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, settled to full-time studio art. For over two decades, he has remained at the forefront of his career while inspiring a new generation of photographers.
He has photographed some of the biggest celebrities in Nigeria including past presidents and had his works exhibited home and abroad. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, he speaks about his career and the challenges plaguing his industry.
PT: Your industry has grown in leaps and bounds since you began your career about two decades ago.
Kelechi: Oh yes, it has. In the last 20 years, I have watched the world change and think the introduction of the digital world has helped the industry in terms of demand. We now have more demands for imagery. In those days, there were two standards: the local standard and international standard. But the advent of the internet has made the world a global village. So just put your work on the internet and you will know if it’s terrible or not just because it is on the internet. The world is watching, so you can no longer say judge your work on the Nigerian standard but global standard.
PT: So there is nothing like Nigerian standard any longer?
Kelechi: There is one global standard. It is either it’s good or it’s not good period. You can’t say it’s good for Nigeria. So what the internet has done is to provide a demand for a certain quality of work and the young ones have also risen to try and meet up with that. I don’t know the statistics but I know a lot more youths are taking up photography and because they haven’t given up yet means they must be making some money out of it.
PT: There appears to be a dearth of photography training institutions in the country. Is this correct?
Kelechi: Yes, we still do not have proper institutions that can train budding photographers. I think the advent of Instagram and YouTube have advanced the industry. You know, 20 years ago people won’t be asked to be photographed on their birthday and then frame it. They only did it on their wedding day but today people contract photographers to shoot them on their 20th, 30th 40th 50th or 60th birthday. I mean 20 years ago I didn’t even know there was anything like a professional makeup artist. I remember the first guy I met who told me he was a makeup artist I was like makeup? I couldn’t help but ask “You paint people’s faces, that’s your job”? There was nothing like a stylist in those days. You know, Nigerians have come a long way. There is a need now, almost a frenzy for people want to look classy so that is one thing that has changed. It has led to a stampede, a demand for photography so it’s a good thing for the photography industry.
PT: What other limitations has your industry faced in the last five years?
Kelechi: Well, Nigeria itself is notorious for either ignoring or pretending that they don’t know about intellectual property and copyright. We have not developed a culture where we respect creativity and we want to pay for it. People want to pay for something physical they want a Mercedes but when you tell them to pay for intellectual property there is a problem. People openly sell fakes CDs in traffic. Nigerians don’t have any qualms buying and they have not sensitise themselves. If you start suing for every time this happens, you will be seen as a cantankerous person. I have seen my images being used for adverts; people lift my works from my Instagram page and put on theirs and then slam their logo on top of it.
PT: Can you recall the the first time your creative work used by someone without permission?
Kelechi: Somebody once took my painting exhibition brochure, reprinted everything and then rented a shop somewhere where they displayed all my artworks. I was startled, to say the least. Again they also took the cover of my photography magazine and used it as a billboard in a shop. I can’t keep reporting them to the police every time else I will appear frustrated and wicked.
PT: Would you say the advent of social media has affected the patronage of your services?
Kelechi: I don’t think so. Everything is so transient right now, people are just looking for the next thing. For instance, people are always thinking about their wedding day but the truth is that after the wedding day, I don’t think they look at that album much. In these days of social media, they even post it on their social media handles.
PT: Is this a positive trend for your industry?
Kelechi: I understand that every generation is different and so I just need to understand it. That’s the way I look at things, it keeps me young. I don’t want to criticize it, it’s just a different way of doing things
PT: What is one of the greatest high points of your career, I know you have several?
Kelechi: I don’t want to sound arrogant but I have done a lot. I have shot heads of state and some of the most famous people whom I have shot are my fans. So, I am trying to look for new things because what excites me is something small. Maybe I discover a new way to tell a story like this morning I start to look at street photography and am thinking yeah, maybe I should take my camera and like o was in my village and I decided to shoot my mom. You know she is 85 so I did a portrait of her and then I said maybe I should round up all the octogenarians in this village and make a shoot so I made a photoshoot of them and that was amazing.
PT: So aside from copyright infringement what other issues plague your industry?
Kelechi: Let me tell you one of the biggest issues. The issue of value. The younger photographers don’t know how to value their works. Also, their clients understanding the value they are bringing to the table is also a problem. We also have a culture of talking down on what you bargaining for in other to get a lower price. So you are going to buy tomatoes, you pretend they don’t look so fresh and nice. The seller now has to look for ways to make you understand that their tomatoes are better than the one’s next door. So this is the mentality that people employ when talking to young photographers. So instead of praising them for a job well done, they condemn the works so that they can underpay them.
PT: Don’t you think this trend will make a lot of photographers vulnerable?
Kelechi: Yes but you see, photography is an art and every artist is very vulnerable. It’s a vulnerable creation. Your art is a part of your soul, so if somebody calls you as a woman and say you are ugly, look at your skin. The person is touching your soul, it’s an insult to your being. So when you talk down on a young photographer because you want to pay him less, you have committed abortion. You have killed a part of him, a child that was about to be born, you have extinguished his fire.
PT: If you are to begin your career all over again what will you do differently?
Kelechi: I am very grateful for my life because somehow I was able to discover my power as a child. I consider myself lucky to have been able to do that because the discovery led me to a world of practice and work but yet, not work but play. This is because what others call work I actually enjoy so my passion became my career. So it has its reward system that is different from money, it’s like a machine that can sustain itself so when I create the work, even before I have been paid, I have been paid.
PT: I know you recently began to explore cinematography in addition to painting and photography. So where does your true passion lie?
Kelechi: Let I tell you, I’m a storyteller by any means necessary that is what I am so I could paint it, I could photograph it, and then I could film it. You see but at the end of it, all is communication. I enjoy the variety involved in travel. When you travel to a new place there is some excitement about discovery so for me, cinematography, is the new place am going to be at for a long time.