We met with Kelechi on Valentine Day’s eve and had a heart-to-heart talk. He just concluded a photo session with Jay Martins and was eager to share with us about his journey so far in photography. The following is the transcript of the 45-minute interview that ensued
Tell us who you are & how you got into photography?
My Name is Kelechi Amadi-Obi. I went to secondary school in Government college Umuahia, after my primary school (Library Avenue primary school, Umuahia again) so I pretty much grew up in my city. Right from childhood , I had always been fascinated with visual arts, usually the best artist of the class in primary school. My primary school was next to the library (hence it’s name), in fact my mum was the headmistress of the school.
My house was next to the school. I had developed the habit of research early and going to the art shelf in the library. Whatever craft I needed to learn I knew early on that I could learn it on my own. I discovered great wisdom hidden in all the books. I became obsessed with trying to master the wisdom of any book I was reading.
By the time I finished secondary school it was obvious I could communicate through the art of the visual though I never thought about how to make a living from it. I didn’t see any gallery or museum or art school in my area. I’d never met a real artist and only read about them in books. So I thought it was something only done in Europe. So back then, when I would make a drawing, I would tell my little sister then that ‘This is a masterpiece!’ I tried to visualise myself [being] like Rembrandt, Van Gogh or Picasso, but it all seemed like a fantasy world.
But when it came to choosing my career, this was story: My family is a family of lawyers. My father was a high court judge and only two professions were recognised in my house; you were either a medical doctor or a lawyer. So I chose law after passing my JAMB examination and gained admission into University of Nigeria (Nnsuka) [UNN]. It was there, [UNN] that my eyes were opened and In fact, I attended ACCA exhibition in Bonna gallery in Enugu then. I was in the midst of real artists. I thought ‘this is it! People actually live this kind of life!’ I immediately grew comfortable with that, and while I was studying law, I was practising my art, and became popular for it. I chose a brand name De’ Zulu (from a movie Chaka De Zulu, who I thought really kicked ass) for business name.
It was in my third year I made the decision I would become a full time artist after I finished law school. But I was not going to be a drop-out because people would misunderstand me. I also found out that in law, there were some things that would benefit me.
After finishing law school, I settled in Lagos with my aunt (Aunty Nnena) and by then my father was late. The only thing I could afford then was a cardboard paper and pencil. So I said, “Great, let’s start making art!”
Freshly out of law school, that was a stubborn and ridiculous thing to do.
It was atop my aunt’s balcony I started making art-works. The first time I went to shop for frames for the artworks the owner of the frame shop asked, ‘’Are these works for sale?’’ I answered, ‘oh, they are N10,000 each” and he bought all five of them! I thought, wow! From nothing to N50,000…. I blew N25,000 immediately on art materials.
I went back to continue with painting. I was amazed at how easy it was to sell those artworks. A friend of mine who was also a fellow artist, came around and found what I was doing interesting. So he said he knew a few people who are collectors. He packed all the works I had that morning and in the evening he came back with N100,000 cash after collecting his commission. Incredible! It became clear I could make a living in Lagos as an artist.
Eventually I had an exhibition, followed by another, and the rest is history. I became popular and was absorbed into the art world of Lagos.
Gradually I was using the camera to take photos for my paintings as reference materials, and as I did I realised I needed to master lighting. More of my paintings were of the human figure and I needed to photograph models for them. I liked to look at the way light falls on the body in the different shapes and forms. I got deeper and deeper into controlling the way light goes into the shutter, through the aperture to make an exposure. So I could thoroughly underexpose a picture or slightly over-expose it to get a kind of feel [I wanted].
While doing that I had mastered the little intricacies of photography. It struck me that some of the photos I was making were already finished artworks. I started hanging out with more artists. I would visit the likes of Don Barbar (even he had collected some of my paintings he found interesting) and he would take me to his dark-room to develop some prints. I was amazed that what I saw was just like my paintings. I then started using Uche James Iroha’s dark room while he was working in Dolphin Studios in Surulere to process my works which I shot in black and white. Soon after, I got my own dark-room. This made my interest in photography come up even more.
It was all just fun, and I wasn’t making a dime from photography at the time. Until a guy (also a photographer himself) came in from Germany to curate an African art exhibition, as part of the biennial, in Bamako Mali. He wanted to have eleven photographers. Someone had told him about my collection of nudes and he came around, looked at them and found them quite interesting. And since he thought they were good enough for the exhibition, I got invited to Bamako Mali. Uche James Iroha, TY Bello, Amaeze Ojekere (representing his dad) and others from diaspora, Mali and Senegal, South Africa were all participants in this exhibition. It was like an art exhibition Olympics for Black Africa!
There were curators and scouts from all over Europe. Some of the curators from Italy came over and after liking my work, they invited me to come and exhibit in Italy. They took my contact [info] and sent me tickets .
Upon returning, myself, Uche James Iroha, TY Bello and Amaeze Ojekere came together to form a group called Depth of Field – a collective of artists who wanted to spend time creating work. And soon we were exhibiting in France, Germany, England, New York and we became very popular. That even sucked me deeper into photography. While this was happening it was my work as a painter that was providing my upkeep.
Gradually people & advertising agencies came to me with briefs for an artistic advertising shoot. When they came I would say, Sure, I’ll work with you, but these are my terms…… Then they would say no, and propose things like N30,000 per scenario. My response would always be , ‘Sorry, I don’t work that way. If you want to call me, you pay for my day and that starts from N150,000 to N200,000. You want me to work for you, it means paying premium for my time. I had gotten advice from Don Barbar about the advertising agencies not having respect for photographers and how not to let myself be treated that way.
So I would walk away from big jobs, but when I did get a job [on my terms] and the brief was given to me, I wouldn’t sleep over it. Even if it was a brief on Still Life photography, I would spend the night, the next day, and so on, studying about it, test-shooting it and then do some more reading again until I mastered it… just to make sure I deliver on my promise.
So if I had been given N150,000, I will make sure I deliver a N250,000 – quality of work. The philosophy then was if I gave the client more, the extra that I was giving them was actually payment for advertising. This is because the person I was shooting for will then go round telling others, “this guy is awesome!” It worked like magic. So while I didn’t get many jobs, the ones I got took a lot of time, a lot of people banged their phones on me, saying who is this guy? Because I would not shoot at the price they were calling. I told the ad agencies, ‘the guys who were doing jobs at N20,000 0r N30,000 per scenario were shooting themselves in the foot by doing too many jobs, and having no time for research to perfect their skills or even money to purchase equipment.’ In the long run you advertisers will run out of good material to work with and you will be compelled to import photographers from the UK, costing you more than three times my bill. So I am actually saving you money!”
As if I was clairvoyant, it happened just as I said. The ad agencies got stranded when big clients came from overseas looking for a certain quality of work and very few photographers who could deliver that quality.
That was how I began and continued to grow, and since then I have not changed [my principles]. Over the years I have been researching continuously to learn new tricks to push the threshold of my craft. I want to be in the place, where the most difficult challenge is what I want to face, so that when I conquer it, it becomes normal [to do so], and then I look for another challenge, more difficult and I face it.
So as time went on, I started enjoying my own personal shoots and I make sure that even in spite of all the commercial work one is doing, I find time to express myself as an artist and that is where I am now.
Please enlighten us about how the issue on copyrights apply to photographers in the Nigerian photography industry
Under the copyright act , the rights to a work of art, resides in the person who makes the work of art. In relation to photography, it is the photographer. It does have exceptions, where such rights are limited, like if it is an image of an individual, there are circumstances where you must obtain a release from the individual. You don’t go shooting somebody’s photo and then go selling it for a corporation to do an advert with. THAT WOULD BE INFRINGEMENT and you could be sued. Somebody’s right ends at the point where another person’s begins. But if you got a model release that tells you that you can do whatever you want with the image, then there is no problem.
If you are taking pictures of landscape or even people in a crowd, you won’t get sued. In terms of doing commercial work it Is still applicable. Whenever you do a shoot, under the law, the rights to those images still reside with you. Photographers are advised to, in writing, give their clients license to use their images for definite time duration within a definite geographical area. That is what you are being paid for in addition to your expertise. If it is not written, the right still resides with the photographer automatically.
How do I deal with this? When I am having a client relationship, my interest is to make sure the client gets what he wants. A lot of people who are into advertising don’t even want to use the images for more than 6 months. But if they indicate that they want to use all over the world, say for twenty years, then you bill them accordingly. The usage matters and that is why I advise that you put this into consideration.
Even though it is a shoot that is for one scenario, it is the usage that determines the billing. It is based on what you have told me that it is to be used for a product [packaging]that I come up with my bill of N1.5 million. If they complain that “isn’t it just for a single scenario?” – I tell them If you have commissioned me to shoot the image for use on your product [branding] I cannot restrict your usage in terms of location (country), time duration or even format. In that case it will even be a disservice not to give them the rights, but your client should know that different types of usage attract different kinds of fees. It is as simple as that.
Once an oil company called me to do a shoot for their oil rig. After we had discussed on the fees, they were like after the shoot is done, I will sign a relinquishment of all rights to the images. I said in that case therefore the agreed bill then increases by 800%. If I am not to have any relationship with my work forever after, even to put it on my website, then I will bill you for it. I ended up not working with them and I was very glad I didn’t.
I think what we do serves a purpose beyond just taking photographs. We are people with opinions. As a photographer, you are a storyteller, a chronicler of history, and our work also promotes social engineering and influencing culture.
For me, photography is your first impression. When someone says Nigeria has a bad image, I take it very literally. What Nigeria has is bad imagery. Bad photography. We do not have enough people being patronized by the right people. So you may visit the Nigerian embassy in France and see booklets about Nigeria, full of tourists’ photos, pixellated because they were stolen off the internet, with absolutely no regard for the photographer, while at the airport in Capetown, I see uncountable numbers of coffee table books in a mad duplication of excellence. Amazing South Africa, so many [different] books [with pictures] taken by excellent photographers who have spent hours trying to duplicate (recreate) these images over and over again!
This reflects in their economy as people see the place [South Africa] and keep trooping there in spite of the violence. We haven’t even started [over here] with photographing our environment – I tell you! It’s amazing!
Could you explain your typical workflow from when a client engages you to when you deliver the images?
The first thing is you get a call. Usually it goes like, ‘’Mr K, we have this brief we want you to shoot – please can we know the price?’’(The price is the first thing they jump to…) continues ‘’It’s not a complicated concept, can you tell us how much you will charge?’’ I will respond that at this stage I don’t think we should be talking about price, but you can send me a written brief of the concept so I can go through it to see if it is what I can deliver to you adequately.
So I stall, and if they are people I have not worked with before, I try to set up a meeting to discuss their concept. Because whoever is on the other side [of the phone] is probably comparing your price with those of others he has written down on the paper in front of him. To him you are just another photographer over the phone, until they see how you are going to execute their brief and solve their problem. I believe this is more important than the price I am going to charge.