THISDAYLIVE: "It is 53 years since Lemmy Ijioma started active photography. Ayo Adewunmi travelled from Enugu to interview him in his studio complex in Markurdi. Ijioma, one of the Nigeria’s greatest photographers discusses his background, inspiration and challenges in the field of photography in Nigeria" - ThisDayLive. READ FULL INTERVIEW BY THISDAYLIVE BELOW.
Could you tell us your background, sir?
I started active photography right from 1962, when I was in high school, but I never thought it was going to end up as a profession. I studied mathematics and statistics at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. But again, most people will ask why I changed to photography. It was way back in 1972 – 73 when we used to do vacation jobs in Lagos. Polaroid cameras just came out, so I bought myself one. Everybody was curious about Polaroid and wanted me to take their photographs. Initially I was doing it for free, but due to the financial demands on me, I changed my mind and started charging money. I found out that I was making good money.
After I graduated, I was living in Makurdi, Benue State and then there were many foreign construction companies working for the government and other establishments and all these companies used to hire photographers from London to do their project photography for them. One of these companies somehow considered trying a local photographer. As a gamble, they invited me to photograph for them. I charged them a paltry sum, but when I brought my photographs, the expatriates were very excited; they considered my photographs better than what the foreign photographers did for them. They were impressed with the elevations and the perspectives I showed in my shoots. They did not realise I was coming from the mathematical side of life. My approach was different. The man said my charge was too small for such a professional work. That if I charged what I charged, he reasoned that their headquarters in Zurich would think they were not sincere, so I tripled the charge. They accepted it. I was afraid I had charged myself out of business. I was even scared that they may come back for a refund of their money; to my surprise they did not come back. When they came for another set of photographs I asked them to increase the price a little. Surprisingly they did. At that time, I was teaching mathematics and applied physics at Murtala Muhammed College of Science and Technology, Makurdi. When I found out that I was making more money from photography I decided to have a clean break from teaching mathematics.
Even with all these engagements I had my other passion of presenting a radio musical programme. I was presenting jazz music, African music and country music. I was not only enjoying myself, I was also getting paid for my passion. During this time, I was invited to climb the Kilimanjaro and take photographs of diplomats and soldiers climbing. That was it, and I did it. I was invited three more times; each ascent took three days to climb and two days to descend. I enjoyed it, it was fun. The government wanted African photographers who were cheaper (laughs). Equally, we understood what the cultural heritage was; when a foreigner is taking your photographs, he takes it like a Peeping Tom…
Where are you from?
I am from a town called Igbere. It’s a town in Abia State. By the way, people from Igbere are known for selling second-hand clothes and stock fish. Besides these, the only other thing we do is the job of being governors. We have produced Orji Uzo Kalu of Abia State, late Commodore Amadi Ikwechegh, former governor of old Imo State, Wing Commander Emmanuel Ukaegbu, former [sole] administrator of Anambra State and yours sincerely, I am a past District Governor of Rotary International.
So we produce only governors and we sell second-hand clothes (laughs). My parents were from Igbere but they are late now. I’m an orphan now (laughs). Their names: James Ijioma and Jenny Ijioma.
What is your educational background?
Well, I was an itinerate scholar. I was moving with a primary school teacher from one place to another. But I had my secondary school education at Okongwu Memorial Grammar School, Nnewi and then to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. But then, I have had a lot of courses in photography and had numerous exhibitions all over the world and in Nigeria both joint and solo. I have worked with some great photographers like Peter Wilson, late Rev Fr. G. Avery and Owen Logan.
How was your growing up like and when did you really begin practising photography?
I said 1962 when I was in high school; we took photographs and printed them for the fun of it… I used to play the guitar, I used to play music. All through my life, I have done everything that God endowed me with. My father used to teach me mathematics because he was a business man, and he said his children must know how to do shillings arithmetic. So, he used to teach me mathematics and that was why I ended up studying mathematics in the university. Then, my interest in music stems from my father. Among what he owned was a gramophone record player. The music other children grew to know later, I knew them as a child. Last month I was at radio Nigeria, they interviewed me for about six hours or more and they aired it internationally. Many of the radio Nigeria DJs and broadcasters were proud to say that I influenced them. One of those was Mrs Alice Akale. She is a great broadcaster.
What inspires you most?
Yeah! That is a very interesting question. I think part of my breaking loose in photography was the fact that one day, in 1975 or so, we were drinking somewhere. I saw two dogs mating and I found out that a black dog was mating a white dog. I was just curious and for me it was something like racism, a black dog on top of a white dog and I called a photographer to take the photograph for me, I had no camera with me. You know what the photographer told me? He said “oga, I no dey take nonsense”. It hurt me so much so I decided I was going to carry a camera everywhere I go and so since that 1975 or so, I’ve not left my point A to point B without a camera. I don’t wait for events to pose for me. I’m a photo hunter… Many a times, people ask me the question: how did you know this thing was going to happen? I anticipate all the time. For instance, the photograph of the two flies mating. I was having an exhibition some time ago, Colonel Kontangora who was the governor of Benue State, asked me, “Why did you take this?” I told him, “Your Excellency, if I didn’t take it, would you have seen it that the fly holds the head of the female with the hands on the head pushing it in and they will stay in that posture?” So he asked me a second question, “Where did you take it?” I answered, “In their bedroom” (laughs). At that point, the AOC, Air Vice Marshall Edem countered and told him, “Look Your Excellency, if you ask a stupid question you have a stupid answer.”
I wouldn’t say I have the monopoly of knowledge of photography in my head. I take time to study people like Ansell Adams, for landscape… I have studied people like Avedon…, I’ve studied so many others, but I’ve also seen loopholes in their own photographs and I have tried to create my own ideas; bringing my own knowledge into it, taking my own photographs… In my career as a photographer, I have combined all genres of photography to make a living – documentaries, photo-journalism, abstract, landscapes, children’s photographers, portraitures… just name it.
I’ve sold series of photographs. The National Gallery Art has my photographs, UNICEF, the World Intellectual Property headquarters in Zurich also has my photographs. The National Theatre Iganmu has 42 of my works. I also get excited when you want to buy my photographs, even if they are portraits. I think it’s a mark of respect and love for me.
When was this studio/gallery built?
I built this studio in 1990, but before then I was moving from one rented office to another all over Makurdi. I had an office in Port Harcourt. I was shooting for Monipulo and sold photographs to Shell, in Port Harcourt and all that. I found out that everywhere I went especially in Nigeria they don’t have regards for photographers. When it looks as if you are making a little money and want to change the place, they will increase your rent and keep inconveniencing you. To think of it, I was perhaps, the first person that started an office that has a kitchen, studio and gallery. I have to use the whole of the first floor to express myself… I have taken millions of shots. Every carton you see here contains photographs.
When did you open your studio at Abuja?
Abuja studio started 2003, but it is now being managed by my two sons, the first is Heavyrain Ijioma and the second, Lemmy Ijioma jnr. They are both engineers. The one in Port Harcourt, Marcus Ijioma, read linguistics, he’s also a photographer and lives with his family in Port Harcourt.
Did you have any confrontation taking photographs of the dignitaries?
You know photography came to Nigeria not as an art form as we know it. It came into Nigeria as an artisan’s work, just like carpentry, so for the average Nigerian they looked down on you, just as they looked down on all other artisans. When you take a photograph of a governor, it is like an ant looking at an elephant (laughs). You know photography has so many aspects. It has documentary, which Nigeria is at zero per cent level… When you come to abstract, they are photographs you see. They are not what they appear to be; there is also nature, glamour…
Could you explain more on the different types of photography?
There are different aspects of photography; if I decide that am going to do only abstract, I can survive. If I decide to do documentaries only, I will survive. If I decide that it’s only portraiture, I’ll still survive. If I decide that it is only imaging – that is, to take a photograph and remove all the pimples from their faces, making them look fair-complexioned like most other people do, that’s what we call flattery – I will survive … I am a general duty photographer, I do all sorts because I want a do a little from each side.
Did you start with black and white?
I started with black and white, and then I moved on to colour photography. Just around the 1970s, then there were only two places in Nigeria where you could print your colour photographs – Kingsway Chemist, in Apapa or in Oyingbo. They printed anything but colour. Everybody’s skin was red. Luckily for me, when I started using Polaroid, I was making small money. I could now go to London on Fridays and come back on Saturday morning. Return ticket to London was just N250.
What are the challenges faced by photographers in Nigeria?
Because of the approach of how we started, like everything in Nigeria, people never really consider it as a serious profession. So you can’t form a trade union to regularise the practice of photography. Also, our universities are so disorganised. There is no school that offers photography at degree level… No one cares, the schools don’t care, the libraries don’t care, the history department doesn’t care. They don’t record these photographs, for posterity; someone has to wake up the authorities to these inadequacies. Do you know that the National Gallery of Art is still in a rental building?
How can this be resolved?
I have been to so many countries. In most of the civilised countries, at every local government level, you have to have an art gallery and a museum for arts. And in that museum, there are sections for photography, paintings and documentaries of historical events, when you come to state government; they have to have big galleries where exhibitions take place. Children go there to see what is happening and contribute new ideas towards enhancing photographs.
How best can photographs be preserved?
Our weather is very hostile to art forms, and most of these things must be preserved in air-conditioned places and regulated bright lights. The UV rays would fade the photographs, heat would damage the photo material, and so if you don’t regulate the temperature and amount of bright light, it would ruin the work. Equally, majority of photographers use digital cameras. In digital photography you have to store in at least three different areas, backups, like external hard drive, you may even store on CDs and leave some in the camera itself, to prevent losing your data to virus. If you don’t back-up you are finished. In the case of negative, the negative change colour with time because of heat. So, you have to store them in total darkness and in regulated temperature. The negatives we took in the 60s and 70s are all fading. You can’t use them unless you enhance them.
All this while you’ve been taking photographs, have you had problems that discouraged you?
If you are not in good health you can’t cope. Photography requires constant exercise; you will be frustrated climbing Kilimanjaro. You will even find the weight of your camera a burden. If you don’t have the energy, you will throw it away. You need good health. Two, if you are covering an event, they usually forget the photographers… For almost everybody in Nigeria, a photographer is nobody. I have been embarrassed so many times. Often times they look at me with pity.
I didn’t just wake up and got to where I am today. I paid my dues. I went through the hard way. Once I was doing some geological photography for Federal Geological Surveys in a place called Ayaragu, in Nassarawa State. Chimpanzees chased us for about six kilometres. I was running with my cameras while the geologists were running with their hammers and rock samples. “Nothing good comes easy,” so says Bongos. By the way, Bongos Ikwue comes here from time to time to look for photographs of him taken in the 70s and 80s. The joy of being a photographer is that you get to know many people, high and low.
What is your advice to aspiring photographers?
One, you must have the patience. Two, you must have a good camera. Three, an elementary knowledge of physics may be necessary to understand the concept of lighting. You must know the basics of lenses. These days a thorough knowledge of Photoshop and how to use your computer is imperative. You must learn to store you works in memory card and how to avoid viruses. If you are involved in photographing people, you should learn to be friendly. A good sense of humour helps at times.
To tell you the truth, photography requires hard work. It has not been so rosy, even till now. It is just the doggedness; it is like climbing a mountain. If you decide to abandon it midway, you will regret it. There have been moment I felt very frustrated but even then I refused to give it up. My father once told me when I was small: “Never come back to tell me that as a result of too many odds you couldn’t make it but that despite all odds you made it.”
Travelling is a major part of photography; you can’t be a photographer and be static. I have travelled far and wide. Apart from Greenland there is no continent of the world I have not been to and it is photography that takes me to these places. I don’t wait for sponsorship. It’s not yet in the Nigerian government culture to recognise artist, photographers inclusive.
In Nigeria, only a handful buys photographs. Others will sympathise with you saying, “This your photo fine o”, and that’s the end of it. But the joy of success keeps you going. I get a lot of fulfilment when I meet all the students that come for excursion to my gallery. I’m also overwhelmed with joy when I meet all the young photographers I have influenced and touched.
My three sons are already great photographers in their own rights; so also my current apprentices – Miracle, Ugochukwu, Rachael, Ode and Kinsley.
Of course, if I had been static in development, the chances are that you wouldn’t have traveled from Enugu to Makurdi to meet me. I am aware that the papers I’ve contributed in seminars and other photo publications have put me on a very high pedestal.