Culture impedes growth of female photographers in Nigeria – Uche Okpa-Iroha

Culture impedes growth of female photographers in Nigeria – Uche Okpa-Iroha

A visual artist, photographer, founding member of Blackbox photography and the Nlele Institute as well as curator at the GT Bank owned Art 635 art, Uc

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A visual artist, photographer, founding member of Blackbox photography and the Nlele Institute as well as curator at the GT Bank owned Art 635 art, Uche Okpa-Iroha tells Nkarenyi Ukonu about his experience as a facilitator and judge at the inaugural edition of Days of Dorcas photography competition while also giving more insight into why the project is aimed at female photographers.

As one of the facilitators cum judge in the inaugural edition of ‘Days of Dorcas’ photography competition, how would you describe your experience?
It has been interesting, challenging and impactful. The aim of this project is to democratize photography. Unlike traditional art forms like painting, sculpture, drawing etc, photography is just beginning to pick up in Nigeria and what we are trying to do is create the awareness of what photography can be used to achieve. My experience has shown me that there are only a few female photographers in Nigeria who use it as an art form. Normally, one would see them in the commercial sector but photography is truly an art form and what Days of Dorcas photography is all about is to find young unknown female artists who have a passion for photography, develop and make them visible. What we basically did was to share experiences from where we are coming from. I have over 15 years of experience as an artist. We had lectures, portfolio reviews, editing session, practical sessions so that they can understand the way photography works. We also taught them that photography is not just about camera and lights but that photography can equally be approached from a reflective manner in the sense that one can use it question the way society is run.

I take it that women are unable to access the kind of platforms their male counterparts have had the privilege of which is also the reason for the project.
When you look at our Nigerian environment and the art scene as well as other traditional art forms, you will see women who chose to use drawing, video art to express themselves, but photography being new doesn’t have much women expressing themselves through that art form. Also the cultural aspect of it comes to play as well. You see a young female photographer who is actually talented about that form of art abandoning her talents as soon as she gets married. So our work here as facilitators and with the programme as a whole, was to encourage them on running with and growing their talents despite cultural pressures. Again, looking at how our country is structured, Nigeria just barely out of that pariah period of the military era, we are still very cynical about photography. It is difficult to photograph in Nigeria especially in Lagos. I have had my own fair share of experiences; being beaten up, my camera either stolen or destroyed. But I didn’t get discouraged.

I am not sure things are still that way, what with documentary photography gaining grounds
Yes things are changing and that is what we are doing with platforms like this. The platform is essentially trying to help change the perspective photography was hitherto being viewed. I remember a project that was done in Makoko many years ago by the Goethe institute. Today, some of the young boys that were groomed from that project are today well known photographers. And that is what we are trying to do here, create a platform, not to compete with the male folks, but to also give young women that platform to come out and have their own voice and be visible because the male folks outnumber the female folks. It is not just about the training.

What were the criteria for choosing the participants for this initial training?
We found them raw, people who are still very new in the photography business, say 5/6 months. Participants can’t be more than 35 years old because the program is channeled towards the youth. The age was pegged at 35 because if the participants are beyond that age, one now uses a different module of training where you now use some kind of psychology to condition participants to key in to what is being taught. But at 35 and below, they are more receptive and more engaging.  We are not trying to be discriminatory here but with time, we may likely involve older participants.

How were you able to discover their strengths in relation to the various aspects  of the photography business and was their training based on their area of core competence?
Well, it was just a week programme where they were introduced to the basics of photography. But having said that, we did a portfolio review to see how far individual participants have gone, see their strengths and weakness and help them focus better on their strengths. Developing their strengths helps them gain more confidence to enable them look into other areas of photography rather than just lumping up everything together and not making headway. For instance, I started off as a street photographer before I found my strength as a conceptual photographer.

Is this going to be an annual affair?
Yes and hopefully it will evolve into exhibitions, book projects and also as a form of documentation on the part of the facilitators. Documentation helps to bring out new knowledge which will be put down and can be used for future references.

Why weren’t the winner and the runner-up given prize money?
Because it is important for the prize to help the participant develop their craft. If they are given money, they might channel it towards something that has nothing to do with photography. So for that, they were given only photography equipments

What is next for the participants after the training?
It hasn’t ended. They will be mentored over a period of time yet to be determined. They will be shared among the five facilitators who will now continue from where we stopped. It doesn’t just stop at mentoring. They get to have the benefits of our contacts, networks. They will be placed into some platforms that will give them that much needed exposure like the Lagos Photo Festival, the Lagos Photo Range, Bamako Festival etc. Artists need visibility, if they are not, they can’t penetrate into the art market. So the most important thing is to create the work, know what they are doing, then they can begin to evolve. Evolving makes them visible in the arts space which fast tracks their entering the arts market and earning a living from their works. I earn a living from my art, I don’t do commercial photography. My background is food engineering at the Federal University of Technology and I picked up photography in mid 2005 and took it seriously in 2006 and I have not done any other thing since then. What I am now doing is to bridge the gap by building an informal structure outside of the conventional educational structure and train people informally. And that has worked. South Africa has a very vibrant informal arts space and our population is quite large compared to that of South Africa. And so I began to wonder, why can’t we utilize our numbers here and make our photography space, vibrant? That was one of the things that prompted this platform via the GT bank Arts 635 Gallery, to come up with a project that can bring in young people and by extension, fight social menace and reduce social vices. If we had a very articulated curriculum, that will focus on the people, you will see less miscreants on the road, the energy will be channeled into something meaningful. These are some of the things Days of Dorcas plan to achieve going forward.