Although photography has become a more popular artistic medium across the continent, institutional support has remained a hurdle for most photographers. Nigeria’s Nlele Institute hopes to provide local photographers with high-quality resources from professional training to equipment and funding. The organization’s founder, Uche Okpa-Iroha spoke to Ayiba about the Institute and the rise of photography in Nigeria.
What was the inspiration behind starting the Nlele Institute?
In the early 2000s, we didn’t have indigenous spaces or platforms where young talent could learn about different aspects of photography, from critiques to positioning to personal voice and vision. There were infrastructural gaps, no facilities for workshops, trainings, portfolio reviews, and curriculum that teaches and contextualizes photography from the standpoint of knowledge and intellectual discourses, especially in terms of art history, sociology, philosophy, and politics.
I set up the Nlele Institute to bridge these gaps and also to address some of the deficiencies in photography education in Nigeria. We have achieved some outstanding results with very limited resources at our disposal. With the digital revolution, the number of people who use the camera has greatly increased (also in Nigeria), but with no articulated training pedagogy and curricula to engage them critically on different issues affecting our society. I wanted to intervene in this regard to create an enabling collegial environment where artists (or photographers) can come in to work within the space, use equipment, the library, and other resources, and also to be able to freely express themselves.
What advantages do the photographers enjoy from being a part of such a collective?
The Nlele Institute is not a collective of photographers but an informal photography training platform/centre. This is one aspect of our tripartite objectives: developing photographers, archiving and collection, and establishing a fellowship scheme to support photographer in-residency programs and the production of works. However, all the participants who come to us are exposed to a wide range and variety of viewpoints by our faculty, guests, or visiting established artists and curators. We foster artistic, intellectual, and professional development of photographers. We are more interested in how photographers develop in terms of reflection and critical thinking in order to engage their spaces in more articulate forms so that they can develop their visions, have voices that can be heard, establish their positions, and be critically involved with their communities.
We also provide a platform for the visibility of emerging photographers through exhibitions, exchange, and network projects with their contemporaries from other African regions and other parts of the world. We have also introduced the Lagos OPEN RANGE and FOTOPARTY Lagos, which is a partnership project with the Video Art Network (VAN) Lagos in collaboration with the Goethe Institut Nigeria. We were at the 10th Bamako Encounters in Mali and showed the works of eight Nigerian photographers in an auxiliary exhibition during the biennale. Photographers who participate in our workshops and other projects have the privilege of benefiting immensely from what we offer them in order to develop, build capacity, and become visible.
What is the level of art education in Nigeria and why is it important?
Up until now, it never really functioned well even though there are art departments at most universities and polytechnics in Nigeria. Bureaucracy, poor infrastructure, a lack of equipment, and scarcity of funding have hindered the development of programs at established institutions that should have the capacity to run articulated photography programs. The absence of training pedagogy and curricula has further negated the development of photography education in Nigeria. The government hasn’t really paid much attention to photography as a subject in primary and secondary schools, and have underestimated the vocational nature and values of the form which, if properly harnessed, can contribute to the GDP of the country and also help produce a well-trained workforce for the economy in this 21st century and beyond.
However, individual efforts by some experienced photographers are taking root, and there is a commitment to create quality platforms for training. The Nlele Institute is a founding member of the Centres of Learning for Photography in Africa (CLPA) because of our commitment to the professional training of photographers in Nigeria. Yaba College of Technology and the University of Port Harcourt have developed strategies to train photographers and to award certificates and degrees in photography. The format at the Nlele Institute is informal with an eclectic mix of projects, workshops, residency programs, and other training modules. The Lagos Photo Summer School also trains young photographers each year during the Lagos Photo Festival. Photogarage Lagos is another platform involved in informal mentorship of young photographers.
What, in your opinion, makes a memorable photograph?
I think it is subjective and varies among photographers. It could be a very special moment like wedding, birthday, child birth, etc. frozen in time, an extraction of a very critical event that has just occurred, an expression of thoughts or ideas in photographs as in conceptual photography. It could be anything that gives the photographer the feeling of some kind of emotion or nostalgia.
What do you look for when choosing photographers to support?
Very simple, at the Nlele Institute, we look out for what motivates each individual and their interests in photography. Then we look for passion, commitment, and drive. The rest are purely artistic, academic, and professional, and these are the things that can be learned and developed by the photographers through mentorship over time.
What new trends are being seen in photography in Nigeria?
The digital revolution and the proliferation of the DSLR cameras, other allied equipment, and software has enabled a lot of people to be involved in photography or use it as a tool for visual or artistic expression or as a business (mainly because of the country’s large market).
I identify the different sensibilities in this industry as commercial photographers, artists, photojournalists, and industrial photographers. But some attention needs to be directed on the reflective or critical aspect of photography in Nigeria. However, social media has played a big role in the development of photography in Nigeria especially with the blogs, Facebook, and Instagram. Many people use these platforms to democratize their ideas and to promote one concept or another. The use of mobile phones and the “selfie generation” is an important development in Nigeria. People just use it for leisure or fun and the approach is vernacular. What is needed now is how to properly articulate, exhibit, and curate works coming out from these technological platforms.
Fashion photography is a genre that attracts a lot of photographers in Nigeria because of the booming fashion industry and its contribution to the country’s GDP. This genre has also been made popular by famous Nigerian fashion photographer Kelechi Amadi-Obi. His work is very creative and he recently founded a lifestyle and fashion magazine called MANIA.
Conceptual, reportage, and documentary genres are also popular in Nigeria because of new platforms that are now training photographers from the academic and knowledge point of view which involves focus on reflection in terms of history, philosophy, religion, sociology, economy, politics, and the development of new knowledge, documentation, and publications that tell who we are as a people through photography.
What challenges are faced by art photographers in Nigeria?
I will say the lack of photography awareness in the grassroots domain. The challenges are common to all photographers and I think it’s because of the perception by the public. We are superstitious people and traditional beliefs play out too. Cynical experiences developed by people over time contribute to some of the aggression towards photographers, especially in Lagos.
Also, most people do not recognize photography as an art form like the traditional ones (painting, drawing, sculpture, etc.), so it’s difficult to create a market for photography here in Nigeria outside of events and commercial photography.
How are the activities of Nlele Institute funded?
We all know the purpose of the arts is to increase people’s capacity for life by helping them understand, interpret, and adapt to the world around them; to enrich their experience by bringing color, beauty, passion, and intensity to lives, and also to provide safe sites in which they can build their skills, confidence, and self esteem.
At the moment, the Nlele Institute is personally funded, but we are trying to make art photography an interesting venture for the private sector, oil companies, and government by coming up with unique and sustainable projects that can bring in the fundamental funding to the Nlele Institute and at the same time add value to her funding partners.