By Oluwafolakemi Ajala
17-year-old Margaret Yashim Abraham wears a small smile as she looks at the photos exhibited on the wall. She has an air of pride and joy as she walks up to one and says, “I took that one.” As she is congratulated on a job well done, she shows another, and another, her face lighting up at the reactions to the beautiful pictures. The place is the Thought Pyramid Gallery in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja, where a photo exhibition titled, ‘The Art of Seeing’ was in its second day.
The exhibition was a collaborative project by Art for Humanity Foundation, The Skilled Women Initiative, and sponsored by the Spanish Embassy. It ran from May 31st –June 5th, 2022.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is evidenced by the way photography sparks conversations.
“The world is bombarded by images, and AFHF is harnessing this powerful force to shine a light on the issues that matter,” says Osaze Efe, the Director of the Foundation.
GROWING A COMMUNITY
When Osaze Efe started his journey into photography in Abuja, he searched for industry events and platforms where he could be mentored and given the opportunity to showcase some of his work; he found none and struggled just a little harder to find his feet.
If Nigeria is to tell her stories accurately, visual storytelling is a powerful vehicle through which to do so. For this to be done effectively, young and budding photographers need a platform to make their voices heard. This is critical because many of them lack the resources to organise photo exhibitions or pay for mentorship programs with established photographers.
Osaze soon realised that there was a critical need to build a community of young people who possessed the skillset in the art of visual storytelling. Six years later, having recorded some success as a photographer and visual communications consultant; Osaze decided to meet that need with the first edition of The Abuja Photo Festival (APF) in 2017. Using social media and word of mouth, a call for submissions was made, and several budding documentary photographers were selected to showcase their work.
According to the Foundation, “Abuja Photo Festival is an event that serves as a platform for early talents in photography, empowering them to amplify the need for social change, using their lens.”
In 2019, the event gave birth to the organisation now known as Art for Humanity Foundation. With a board and volunteers, AFHF is able to do much more than plan a once in a year event; they are able to extend their reach by organising pockets of events and trainings which pull photography experts from different parts of the world. These events help provide tools for success for budding photographers.
Dawali David is one documentary photographer and photojournalist who has experienced this first hand. He attended the first edition of Abuja Photo Festival in 2017 and it was a turning point for him, as it solidified his decision to become a documentary photographer. “Most creatives in Nigeria are made to feel as though their dreams are not valid, but Art for Humanity Foundation provides a sense of community for us and validates our dreams. AFHF has helped me reach people who will value my art and hire me,” he says.
Since 2017, Dawali has attended workshops sponsored by AFHF, and has had four group exhibitions with the support of the Foundation.
Growing up in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Mayor Otu saw no one doing documentary photography. The recognised and lucrative genres were event and portrait photography, but what he really wanted to do was documentary photography. Mayor was one of the photographers selected to exhibit his work at the Abuja Photo Festival in 2017. “Being selected so early in my career as a documentary photographer was a high point for me. For the first time, non-family members saw my work and thought it was good. Plus, I got to meet Bayo Omoboriowo, President Muhammadu Buhari’s official photographer, who encouraged me.” Mayor recalls.
One theme that is echoed throughout the organisation is that they tell stories from the perspective of humanity, not personal ones. “Art For Humanity Foundation is a coalition of photographers who use their art to highlight social issues and advocate for social change,” says Fortunate Eziugo, a volunteer with the Foundation.
Volunteers at the Foundation are very quick to mention that it is not a one-sided relationship. They get to be mentored on the different aspects of the creative arts, such as the business part, which helps them grow. The tutelage the volunteers receive makes AFHF a place where creatives can hone their skills, while offering their services. “I wouldn’t be where I am now, if I didn’t have the opportunity to volunteer for AFHF,” says Winifred Nkem, a photographer and videographer who serves as the head of content creation and social media management for the Foundation.
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
Photographers are the unsung heroes in accurate reportage of social change, and for them to gain recognition and increase the impact of their work, collaboration is critical.
In April 2022, AFHF organised a training for girls in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp in Abuja. The training was sponsored by the Spanish Embassy, with renowned photographer, Marta Soul, as the lead trainer. It was a female led and driven training, as the girls were trained by female photographers like Winifred. The girls, most of whom are teenagers, were also trained on teamwork and people skills. According to Osaze Efe, some of them would serve as volunteers for 2022’s edition of Abuja Photo Festival, scheduled to hold on 26th-28th October.
Prior to this training, the girls had never touched a camera, but at the end of the four-day training, they had gained enough expertise to have their pictures put on display at the exhibition. This experience exposed the girls and their parents to the possibility of photography as a viable business. “I love taking pictures, and when I grow up, I want to become a professional photographer. The training helped me because I learned that I can make money taking pictures,” says 15 year old Rose John, another participant at the training.
Winifred is continuing her work with the teenage girls in the IDP camp; showing them how they can use photography to heal from the traumatic experiences of insurgency in their home state of Borno and move forward to create a bright future for themselves.
Mayor Otu is all about using his craft to tell the stories of Nigerian and African people with dignity and humanity. He is currently using his craft to raise awareness about the challenges a community in Lagos is facing in accessing potable water.
‘Love Once Lived Here’ is Dawali’s personal project where he explored the lives of those affected by the ongoing demolitions in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. He photographed them in contrast with what used to be their homes; his aim is to show that beyond the destroyed buildings, there are actual people whose lives were affected. This body of work was published in an African photography magazine called No! Wahala Magazine in October 2022.
WHAT CAN BE IMPROVED?
The frequency of trainings for budding photographers can be increased to once a quarter with technical writing elements such as captioning, proposal writing, and grant writing included in the curriculum. This would help provide a clearer pathway to success for the photographers and give them the tools to scale up their reach and influence.
The world of photography changes at lightning speed, and it would be helpful for up-and-coming photographers to be exposed to the ways those changes affect their storytelling at each Photo Festival. According to Ukandi Atsu, a visual artist who exhibited his work at the 2021 edition of APF, new artistic components like how Artificial Intelligence and elements of painting such as acrylics and charcoal can help tell more compelling stories can be introduced to different editions of the Photo Festival.
Partnering with sponsors and collaborators such as the Spanish and Swedish Embassies and UNESCO go a long way in ensuring the sustainability of the trainings and projects that is at the core of what AFHF is about, using photography as a tool for social change.
A strategic partnership with Instax Fujifilm also ensures that the girls in the IDP camp have the basic tools they need to continue to hone their photography skills.
“Nigerian photographers (like Fati Abubakar) who have gained global recognition did so on the platform of social change. When you pursue being an agent for social change, it’s a win-win,” says Osaze Efe.