Time was, when medicine was regarded as the ultimate professional. Most parents considered it both a status symbol and a bragging that their children were medical doctors. But the times have changed. Today, many have dumped the doctor’s scalpel and stethoscope for professions considered not so lucrative or worthy of serious attention. One of such people is Ademola Olaniran, who was top of his class as a 200-level medical student at the University of Ilorin before he suddenly did an about-turn and his tent with photography.
While many of his contemporaries expressed shock and worries at that decision, ‘AO’, as he is fondly called, had no qualms whatsoever. In his own words, abandoning his career in medicine to pursue photography was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. Now, he is not only living his dreams, but he has also gained so much in material terms and self-fulfillment.
Meet Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf as he tells his riveting story., Excepts:
What informed your decision to switch from medicine to photography?
I really didn’t plan to be a photographer. From my days in secondary school and early days at the University of Ilorin, I actually wanted to become a medical doctor.
I got into medical school at the University of Ilorin, so photography wasn’t anything near what I wanted to do. I guessed it happened after I left the university. I had started interacting with a couple of photographers like Femi Adewuyi who was also in the College of Medicine at UNILORIN but I was a year ahead of him. He was intrigued by photography and was actively photographing back then.
There was a total solar eclipse in March 2006 and he took a series of photographs from it. He then needed someone to do some calligraphy on the pictures and contacted me to do it.
So, doing the captioning of the images marked what I could call my first up-close interaction with a professional photographer.
We sold the pictures and made some decent money. I was intrigued by his ability to capture the Solar Eclipse, as most photographers couldn’t do it because they weren’t toying with the exposure triangle properly enough to capture it.
So, when I wanted to fully delve into photography, it was only natural to call him up and he gave me some really good advice. All I wanted to be at some point in my life as a surgeon. I had some really impressive dissection experiences in the Cadaver laboratory in my 200-level. But then, I guess my hands were destined to squeeze on the shutter release button rather than hold the scalpel and cut through people.
You have worked in both the private sector and the civil service in the last 10 years, including being the photographer to the First Citizen of Lagos State. How does it feel?
It is a humbling experience working with the Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu, in this capacity as his personal and official photographer. I enjoy what I do and feel fulfilled. The Governor makes it a lot easier. He’s an interesting person to photograph though. He’s a hard worker, which makes photographing him quite demanding.
He’s quite interesting to photograph and he is interested in photography. He handles the camera once in a while and even flies the drone when we go on inspection to see work progress on construction sites.
One of the remarkable moments of my working with the governor was on my birthday some years back. That morning, he was leaving for work and I had already started squeezing the shutter release to make some images. Then, he said to me,’’ Let me see what you‘ve got on your camera’’.
I went to him and he said, stand there. He took pictures of me and said, happy Birthday boy. It was humbling. He never ceases to demystify the office by reminding people around him and himself how normal life around the Government House should be. For me, that’s quite remarkable.
I get to see the Governor count his days in office- days past and days to go. I find that instructive, because it brings to reality time and how it waits for no one.
He works very late into the night. Sometimes, I walk in to take pictures and he doesn’t even notice. It is a culture for me not to greet him w when I walk into his office. That way, I just want to be a fly on the wall and he doesn’t get out of character.
The difference between the two sectors is quite huge. But in a state like Lagos, the gap is not as wide as you would expect, because Lagos has a fine blend of the private and public sector in government.
Documenting a political figure exposes you to a new level of work ethics and creativity-to be faster and swift on the jib. It also comes with a lot of pressure, as you do not have control over events, unlike when shooting a wedding and you can dictate.
When I started working with the Governor, it was a sharp twist. He is a very energetic person and fitter than I am, so, I always play the catch-up. Like you’ll see in most of my posts, the side of a politician that you do not get to see as a citizen is what a photographer works to give to you almost every day.
The responsibility of communicating and bridging the gap between the government and citizens is almost going to totally rest on the shoulders of storytellers like photographers, photojournalists, and videographers
In a world where we do not listen to each other anymore, what we see resonates more than what we are told.
How did you become the governor’s official photographer/ That’s as plum as they come.
I was actually recommended to the governor by one of my mentors ever before he became governor. In the course of the campaigns, I was also involved with him. Naturally, I think my sense of dedication later recommended me for the plum job as the Chief photographer of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu.
More importantly, I have God to thank for the opportunities that have come my way in the course of my sojourn as a photographer. What the Lord has done for me is marvelous in my eyes. He alone takes all the credit.
Ten years after your venture into photography, ho do you consider your greatest influence?
First on the list is my mentor, Dayo Adedayo. I’ve got a lot of other people who inspire me, from Donald Barber to Sunmi SSmart –Cole, TY Bello, Aisha Kuta-Augie, and Kelechi Amadi –Obi.
In the top spot is my mentor Dayo Adedayo, because he has managed to blend finely the business and technical aspects of photography.
He’s not very famous on our platforms like Instagram, and that resonates with me because the marketplace isn’t really the social media for all kinds of products you want to sell.
Sometimes the vintage style is golden about the photography business.
My mentor is one known for the beauty of timeless photographs and art pieces in the mould of Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo –da Vinci of this world who are able to put images on an exhibition stand and sell.
It’s important to note that what you see on social media is just a thumbnail representation of pictures. People want to be able to appreciate art and the fine details.
The visual art revolution is cycling back, and although in its rudimentary stage in Africa, the NFT (Non –fungible Tokens)is the future exhibition space and if I must say, a marketplace for what we create.
10 years ago, your work, ‘Atupa mi’(my lantern), clinched StillLife Photograph of The Year at the Nigeria Photography Awards. What inspired it?
I bought my first camera in late 2011, and my Uncle, Dr. Clement Meseko, a veterinary doctor at the National Vetinerary Research Institute in Vom and a famous Nigerian virologist who played pivotal roles during the COVID-19 and Avian influenza outbreaks in Nigeria, as going to travel to Taraba State to collect a sample from wild pigs.
Having acquired a new camera, he asked me if e could go on the trip together. I said yes to this very long trip to the border between Nigeria and Cameroon.
The Mambila Plateau has this cattle studded endless lush greenery; it actually spreads all the way to Calabar.
Whilst he was doing his work, I was taking pictures. It was amazing seeing the landscape.
When I got back from the trip, my friend Femi Adewuyi called to tell me about Nigeria Photography Awards and encouraged me to enter my images.
I went through my portfolio, sent him four pictures and two of the images he picked and submitted at the competition were taken on the Taraba trip.
Some weeks later, I got a notification that two of my images had been shortlisted for the finals.
In the portraiture category, was an image of an old man with some grey hair, with his face away from me.
It was rendered in black and white. The other image is a simple picture I took in a hut around Gashaka-Gumti, Traba State.
We got there late and needed to pass the night. We met some friendly locals and the rangers that took us there and got us settled in.
The lantern was sitting in the middle right in front of me, and there was a curtain shifted to the third of the picture, with the lantern sitting on the other third of the picture. The picture obeys the rule of thirds. I didn’t know what that meant back then.
From the day I took the picture, I knew there was something magical about it. I knew it was the strongest image of all I submitted. But the category I fell into when I saw the names in the category, I researched then and found that they were strong names.
I traveled from Abuja to Lagos just to attend the Awards, without any hope of winning on my mind.
I thought I was just blessed and grateful to have been nominated, with my image sitting on the big screen and the Greats in photography seeing my works.
It showed when my name was called as the winner and I was still clapping for the supposed winner until someone nudged me to reality.
Femi was so excited about me winning the category. The picture has earned me a lot of fame and fortune.
Immediately I got back from the awards, one of my executive directors, while I was at the bank, now an Ambassador to Burundi, Elijah Onyeagba, called to say he wanted a copy of the picture that won the best-still life picture of 2011.
He bought the picture for what I charged. I didn’t sell it cheap. That work and award opened my eyes to the wonder of photography.
I’m eternally grateful for this singular sale because it changed my business approach to sales of images. The photograph is dedicated to the hope that someday, Nigeria will have no need for lanterns
Looking beyond Nigeria, are you exploring the Non-fungible Tokens(NFT)?
The NFT is something very new to me. I’ve started seeing myself as old school. There are quite a handful of young guys well-informed about the digital possibilities there are to photographs and art in general.
I consider myself first as an artist; someone who has decided to use photography as a mode of expression of the art I wish to explore. I am seriously considering it.
I recently posted the picture which won the award and it has been getting a lot of buzzes.
Someone, who commented actually asked if I was considering listing it on the NFT, and that got me researching.
I am optimistic about the possibility of listing ‘Atupa mi’ as my first NFT item. I’m open to the world of possibilities around arts and what technology can offer.
What key ingredients make a great photograph?
The key to making an amazing photograph is the eye to see the picture, scenery, moment, or something beautiful staring at you.
The eye for identifying a great image is key and not even the camera.
If you are a storyteller, you need to hunt for moments, which may involve chasing or lying in wait.
You also need to have a creative mind in aspects of still–life, fashion, and other genres of photography. You need loads of imagination to bring to life what you imagine.
A lot of physics goes on in the head of a photographer when trying to dial in your shutter speed, aperture, and film sensitivity.
In reality, you are doing a lot of fine arts because of the colour match you have to contend with the colour wheel. You also have to be intuitive. The most important of all is the eye.
You have demonstrated an affinity for producing images in both styles-black and white. What makes you choose one over the other? Is the photographic process different?
The photographic process from history started in black and white. I have a lot of books that cover Photography and Fine Arts, and I am very intrigued by the Italian greats- Leonardo da Vinci, Michel Angelo, Donatello, etc. I have also studied them. That is where colours intrigue me. I’m a little bit biased because I like to do a lot of black and white.
If a picture is strong in emotions, you can take the colour out of it, so, you can lead your subject to be more interesting in the deeper aspects of the pictures.
The texture and essence of the picture are more pronounced in black and white. If your picture is not strong enough character-wise, making it black and white does not do anything remarkable to it. Black and white show you the soul of an image and I connect personally to these images.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
For the first half of my career, I was almost exclusively doing social photography. This is because that was what could put food on my table. I, however, started out as a Fine Art Photographer and I hope to retire into the same genre.
It’s a beautiful thing to do social photography, but I realized there were no enduring roots to it, and I didn’t want to retire as a social photographer. I wanted to have a body of work that people will look back and say, I captured history in time. That’s why the second half of my career saw me doing documentary photography which has evolved into photojournalism in my current assignment.
In the bid to chase documentary photography, I started I started to do consultancy jobs with John Hopkins University, Bloomberg, CCPN in Abuja, and a lot of NGOs. II did the cover shoot for the Golden Morn box for Nestle in 2016. It was really amazing to see the picture on the sachets.
I was in Houston with my wife when my younger brother just had a baby in 2017. We went to the African store and my sister-in-law picked up the Golden Morn cereal box and the picture caught my attention. It was a proud moment for me. That is the joy for me when people ask where are your works? It’s not sitting enough to say my work is on Instagram or sitting in someone’s house in an album. My picture sitting on a Gpden Morn Sachet means millions of Nigerians have seen my work. That is enduring.
HC3, an NGO which works in collaboration with USAID and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, used one of the pictures I took for them on assignment for a mosquito net Campaign in Nigeria.
The picture of a grandmother holding her grandchild. The child is the biggest gainer in the scenario, as they reached out to protect children in those hard-to-reach regions. Those pictures, which I am grateful to God to have created, will stand the test of time. I want to be remembered for pictures that will inspire behavioural change in society.
What are some of the differences you identified in yourself before and after you began to take photographs?
I’ve always had an attentive eye. But when I started, I realized that I see things people don’t necessarily pay attention to. Even when I’m driving on the streets, I see some pictures I would never be able to take because I’m driving, and sometimes because I have passed the moment. Those moments happen all around us. Life is a developing story and you have loads of moments happening across the face of the earth.
What tips can you share with aspiring photographers?
Photography needs a lot of patience and I say that because you don’t break even immediately.
You have to learn the ropes, learn from people and do the time. It requires a lot of money to get your game to an enviable height.
I took my earliest pictures with a crop-sensor camera-quite affordable. But when I switched to a full-frame camera, it became more appreciable and standardized.
Photography requires a lot of creativity. There are millions of photographers on the planet and each of them is trying to express a form of thought, ideology, or creativity.
What makes a great photographer is whoever is able to pass across these thoughts in the most creative way, such that people keep asking questions about images you create.
I am proud to say that a handful of my contemporaries are breaking the glass ceiling in these regards; people like Henry Oji, Tolani Alli, Segun Olotu, Emmanuel Oyeleke, and Bayo Omoboriowo.
Great photographers have always had great mentors. It requires the ability to learn from others who have been before you. In my early days, I went for training in Germany, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles; learning under the Great American photographer and multi-award winner, Nick Saglimbeni.
What day of your life has been the most memorable? Did you capture it in Photographs?
The most memorable day of my life yet was the day I got married, and I actually wasn’t taking pictures. I didn’t take pictures of my wife, which was the cliché then. I’m sure if my wife reads this interview, she would have a little cute frown across her face.
The second most memorable day of my life was when I got an award for the Best Still Life Image in Nigeria -2011. Also, I wasn’t taking pictures. I guess it is a trade secret that when you are in your happiest moments, you wouldn’t be taking pictures. When next I have the opportunity of my happiest moments yet, I will bear in mind to take pictures. I am certain it will be the welcoming of my first child.
Do you have any project(s) in the works?
I’ve got a storytelling project that would fuse Photography and Medicine. I’d like to consider it a family project because my wife is a medical doctor and it will be such an honour to work with her. It’s been in the works for some time; and so, I hope to finish and launch it soon.