Interview with Nigerian photographer Abraham Oghobase
“Yes. I want something. I want my freedom. I want to live like a man. I am not an animal”. With these words from Brian Keenan, a hostage victim for over four years in Beirut, Nigerian photographer Abraham Oghobase introduces us to his photo essay Ecstatic. His conceptual and experimental photography is a response to many things he says, but with one overarching theme, “purpose” and identity against specific socio-economic backdrops and political developments happening within Lagos.
From the seedy and bizarre commercial transactions taking place in the city to the country’s history and reminders of colonialism, Oghobase’s work invites to you to think and to question.
His journey into photography began with traditional film. “I love the feel of film” he explains to us, “it’s also for me a language, the texture that you get from film and the kind of camera that you use also, everything boils down to or takes you to your concept of a language and what you are trying to say”.
However in 2011, the 36-year-old made his transition to digital. “I was thinking of the fluidity of digital photography and how you can actually layer things on to another and another and just rework your images and I thought that might be interesting and something to look into.
New works experimenting with digital include previously unreleased images for a future project into Nigeria’s colonial history. The artist has been modifying his own image onto those of imperialists working during British occupation in Nigeria.
What was your first series of work with digital?
AO: It was basically exploring the residue left behind by people. I’d been photographing empty spaces. It’s called Are We Humans. It’s exploring how spaces can never be entirely empty, there’s always going to be some sort of presence of humanity in that space. In the area where I lived, I started photographing those spaces where people had just moved out. I liked the idea of how people you may not know, you get to know them from the fragments of what they leave behind.
NG: What particular types of stories are you trying to tell with your work?
AO: Recently I just started exploring that subject matter. I looked at the trajectory of my work and I realised that I’ve been doing a lot of self-portraits, which has to do with socioeconomic matters and political matters. I stumbled upon this book in South Africa called The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, written by Lord Lugard. [He] was one of the British general of Nigeria and his wife gave Nigeria its name according to popular belief. These are the things that inspire the work that I’ve been doing. I’ve also been inspired by a place I visited five years ago called Jos [Plateau State, Middle Belt of Nigeria]. I saw a lot of huge craters and lakes and I started wondering and I asked my fiancé’s dad at the time what that was about, and he told me this was as a result of tin mining perpetrated by the British at the time. So I’m interested in that history, colonial exploitation on the land and looking at the effects. For me there’s a need for a larger narrative. I’m not interested in going to Jos and just photographing these mining points – there has to be a larger narrative. I started looking at the key players and portraits of these people so from Prince Phillip to Princess Alexandra and Queen Elizabeth II. I started using their portraits and reconstructing them using my face. It’s called the Anatomy of a Place and that’s what I’m working on now.
NTalk us through your images of the fuel subsidy protests in Nigeria and why you took them?
AO: There seemed to be a sense of consciousness in terms of what was happening politically at that time. There were a lot of crowds and people came out wanting to fight for what they believed in. They wanted to fight for justice even though there might not be a possibility of getting a result. There was a belief that for once let’s just show that we are very much conscious of what is happening now and people have to be careful and the idea of corruption in the country as well. People were frustrated at that time. It was a five-day protest and on the fourth day there was something about the crowd that I found interesting. Also the space is very symbolic, it was named after a famous lawyer called Gani Fawehinmi. He was a human rights activist, there’s a park named after him where that protest was taking place and it’s called Ojota. For me, what was interesting was how the presence of people changes the dynamics of things and spaces.
Can you talk us through Mysterious Minds?
AO: Mysterious mind was the very first work that I did as a young photographer. I was reading a lot of books and one of the people that influenced me at that time was Dorothea Lange. She made images of the Great Depression period – white farmers and black servants in America – that I found interesting. There was something about the texture. And the way she photographs she really gets connected to the subject matter. At that time Lagos had a lot of mentally challenged people and I got disturbed by it and could relate it to the Great Depression time and the images, which Dorothea Lange did. It’s weird that the world has become so uncaring.
You took a series of images on guerrilla marketing in Lagos. How do you feel about the city’s changing landscape?
AO: Lagos is a city of about 20 million people and counting. I’d just moved to a place called Ajah [close to Lekki, an affluent area in Lagos]. I look at Ajah now and I think wow this is insane, the traffic is alarming and it didn’t used to be like that. The amounts that people pay for properties in Lekki is not even realistic because you are dealing with bad roads and lack of infrastructure. So the changing landscape in Lagos is really dynamic and it’s evolving so fast that they are trying to build infrastructure but sometimes that infrastructure cannot sustain the tension and the people living in the city and that in itself creates alternative modes of transport and alternative modes of commerce and that’s what I found fascinating about this stretch of wall that they wrote these texts on. That wall was actually a marketplace but they evacuated people and as soon as people saw this bare wall it became another form of commerce again so they started writing.
You make a bold statement in Ecstatic, what were you trying to achieve with it?
AO: I want to be ambiguous in a way, it could mean this and it could mean that. It’s also an expression and performance. I’d just come back from Berlin at the time, and Lagos for me has been photographed in a certain type of way. Oshodi has been photographed often and that’s the representation of Lagos. And we all know it has to do with congestion but there are ways that one can photograph Lagos, there are ways you can tell those stories without the literal way that people want to see Lagos. So it could be my response to congestion, it could be a response to lack of infrastructure, unemployment or just trying to find myself as a young person.
Can you expand on the literal way you think Lagos is usually photographed? What do you mean by this?
AO: For example, foreigners, they come to Lagos and what they want to photograph is Makoko [Nigeria’s large floating slum soon to be demolished to make way for luxury apartments in the area]. Or back in the day when Oshodi was very busy, they like to go and photograph Oshodi. I’m not saying they are not important but there are different ways that people can show those things, but it’s not my place to say how people should show their work. It’s not something that interests me really because these places have been photographed and shown so many times, that it’s become a pollution to me so things like that I stay away from. I just think it’s important for me to develop a language so if I want to talk about congestion for example I don’t have to use the representation of Oshodi.
How do you plan your projects?
AO: When I first started I just worked strictly with tripod and I used a self-timer. In Ecstatic, the distance was quite challenging for me so I composed the image and I got a little boy to click. I told the boy when I jump just click and when he clicked the boy was screaming and shouting how he really liked it [clicking the photo]. I thought oh my god just don’t finish the film. So it becomes a live performance because it’s not digital for me to edit the images. For Untitled, I got a friend [the sound artist Emeka Ogboh] to actually click the camera for me. I would first compose my image on a tripod and then all the person needs to do is just click. They can’t move the camera – just pull the trigger.
NG: Finally, what advice would you give those wanting to capture their culture through photography?
AO: For me I think it’s important to read, photography is a medium, It’s a tool. I think if you read your mind opens and you can start thinking about a visual language. You can find your way of telling your story. It’s not enough to just make beautiful images. Anybody can make fantastic images in this day where people have 12 megapixel phones and digital. They make really great photos that they post on Instagram and it’s just a hobby. With digital now, you can take a photograph and see it instantly and people think that makes you a good photographer but what makes you a good photographer is the content and how much you understand of what you are doing and the depths you are willing to go. I think what is missing is that process, there has to be a process there has to be a methodology there has to be research and if you have those I think for me one should be fine.
Abraham Oghobase will be exhibiting in April 2016 at Savvy Contemporary Berlin, and Art Twenty One Lagos.