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Whoever says there is no future in photography has no future — Kelechi Amadi-Obi

Kelechi Amadi-Obi is an award-winning Nigerian creative photographer, painter and artist of international renown. Beyond his work in photography and the visual arts, many don’t know that he is a lawyer. Described as one of Nigeria’s breakthrough celebrity photographers who helped put Nigerian photography on the world map, Amadi-Obi is a major force in the creative scene in Nigeria and a man many want to meet and hear from. At a recent event for photographers on the art of pictorial storytelling, he spoke about how his journey has unfolded so far. ROTIMI IGE brings excerpts.

Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?

By the time I was in my third year at university, I had already decided that I was going to be an artist. But coming to law school in Lagos was just to fulfill all the promises I made to my parents. However, my years at university have convinced me that I will not starve. I started with painting. It was crazy, and it wasn’t easy. Once you believe in what you are doing, you know that no matter what, the universe will miraculously open doors for you. I was there, fresh out of law school, didn’t go to art school so I didn’t have a group or network of artists or collectors. I didn’t know anyone in Lagos except my connections. I was at my aunt’s house in Surulere and there was a balcony in the house where we cut vegetables and I decided to paint there. The first time I went to frame my work at Art World in Ojuelegba, the owner asked me if it was for sale and I stuttered and said ‘yes’. He asked, ‘how much is it?’ I was confused. I just mentioned a price in my head and he immediately asked if he could buy them, I agreed and he bought them. These were the kind of miraculous situations I faced. At that time, many people thought I had gone crazy. Here is a qualified lawyer who refused to enroll in a law firm, he does not know any art collectors, did not go to art school and decides to start drawing on his aunt’s balcony . It made no sense.

But after that first purchase, I spent all the money on buying more supplies and continued with my painting. A friend of mine came and asked me: what do you do with all these paintings? I told him that I did not know, and that I am an artist therefore I paint. He asked if they were for sale and I told him to take them and go sell them. He came back in the evening with wads of cash. Long story short, I had an exhibit in my living room. I had my first real exhibition after the show in 1997 and it was my first personal exhibition. It took me into the art world proper. I got the nickname “lawyer turned artist”.

How did photography come into play then?

The photography was done gradually. I started hanging out with people like Uche James Iroha. He had a studio close to my painting studio in Surulere which was then called Dolphins Studio. At that time you would finish shooting and go to the darkroom and print your stuff yourself. I used to have fun doing things like that because then I was painting the photographs that I was taking. I used the photographs for reference. Then I met someone who told me he wanted to exhibit Nigerian photography, and someone referred him to my collection of reference images of my paintings. He looked at them and said “that’s good, you’re in for the exhibition”. I was sent to Mali. After this experience, TY Bello and I decided to form the Dept of Field (DoF). We wanted to keep creating fine art photography and it took off like wildfire. We started to organize exhibitions everywhere. We have been invited to France, Glasgow, London, Germany and New York. It was then that I concluded that a photograph is something. That’s how photography took over and I found myself here taking pictures.

What was your experience the first time you handled a professional camera?

My first experience? I can’t quite remember now, but the first professional camera I used back then was a Canon AV1, my father’s camera. He was going on vacation, so he had this SLR, a single-lens reflex, it was nice. I finally inherited it. I would go around with it to take pictures. It’s been a long time, but the process was beautiful. I really enjoyed the moments. It was because my photographs were experimental. I wanted to understand how light works. I used to try to do a double exposure. If light is what they use to expose we now take them to a dark room and make sure there is no light open the shot for exposure then we will use the flash to give us two heads. That was what I used the camera for at the time. The moment I started using the camera seriously was when it became a problem. I read anything, I just wanted to learn. I believe that if you want to paint something, you have to feel it, be there and paint it live. So I would take a sketchbook, go to the Ojuelegba bus stop and start drawing. It was because I wanted to study and paint. But it has become like a circus. I always had this big crowd that would gather around me and give various opinions on what I was drawing. It was very entertaining. Nigerians are not used to seeing artists draw. You hear things like: see this man pushing a wheelbarrow, can you read it?

During your photography career, have you ever looked back and considered a new career option?

I’m not your usual type of person. I made this decision to be an artist when I was in university, in my third year, and I never had reason to wonder if I would go in another direction. It’s not the kind of trajectory that most people go through. People always have doubts, but I tested the waters on campus, did all the experiments in the outside world, and came to believe that I am not an ordinary person.

Would you say you are blessed?

Oh yes! I am immensely blessed. I mean, how do you decide to do what you love and then people start chasing you and giving you money for it? It’s a lot of blessing. It’s amazing and I wish that for every human being on this earth. I think we would be much more successful if people just did what they love. No one would work. Everyone would just be bouncing around, having fun, and getting paid.

Speaking of the future of photography, many believe that the next generation of photographers have their work cut out for them.

Unfortunately, I’m not one to try to predict the future. I believe the future is a mystery unfolding. I have my imagination as to where I want to be, but I don’t just want to watch where the trend is going and stay there and enjoy it. It’s because I constantly ask myself, am I enjoying this? Am I having fun? Is it fulfilling? And I’m going in that direction. Sometimes when you follow this path, it begins to succeed. But when you’re trying to predict the direction things would move in, you might not be the only one and you might encounter a crowd.

What do you say to those who think that there is no longer a career in photography, when everyone is now an amateur photographer?

These are the people who fall by the wayside. Everything that you believe would come true for you, that’s what would happen. If someone says there is no future in photography, then there will be no future in photography for such a person. Who would believe that now I decide how much I want to be paid and that I am busy from the beginning to the end of the year? And a lot of people are wondering why I haven’t retired, meanwhile more clients are coming. I don’t worry about the future; I like to savor the present. It’s a gift, that’s why it’s called a gift. Don’t worry about the past cause it’s gone, I’m having a good time. The future is something I would plan and imagine for myself, my family, my colleagues and the country. In the end, it makes me feel good about the present. When television arrived, people said that it was the end of radio and that no one would listen to the radio anymore. However, the story is different. So forget all those people who predict the future, they don’t know what’s going to happen.

Beyond photography, what is your definition of success?

Success is a journey. It has to do with when someone focuses on where they intend to go and actively works to get there. This person is a success, whether he made it or not. It is a process of moving towards a predetermined goal and actively working towards it, not daydreaming. When you are actively in this process, money follows success.

Having money is not synonymous with success. A person can now win the lottery and win around $20 million randomly, but that doesn’t make you successful. You are just someone who won the lottery. If you don’t have a money management process, you’re going back to your pit of poverty.

For example, I can decide that in the next six months I want to become a billionaire, then I start actively working to become a billionaire through my profession. As I am here, even though my bank account is 1 million naira in debt, it does not make me less successful as I work towards my goal.

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