Hello folks welcome again and thanks for always taking time out to check out our posts. I want to particularly welcome you to the first edition of #ThoughtivityChats, our rebranded interview segment on the blog where we engage in conversations with people who are making impact in various fields and endeavours, with emphasis on youth.
Today, we are talking to Ayotola Tehingbola. Ayotola is a writer as well as lawyer turned freelance documentary photographer. She talks to us about her style, how new media is changing photography, the nexus between law and photography, among other stuff.
Ayotola it is nice to have you on the blog today.
Thanks very much, I am pleased to be having this chat with you.
At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to be a photographer?
I became a photographer by accident in the first place. Until about a year ago, I wasn’t intentional with my work. My grandfather was a photographer and my siblings and I used to get Polaroid cameras as presents. My mum has always been a photo enthusiast and she was in her school’s photo club in when she was in the university. While I was growing up, my father had a range of film cameras that he used to record our childhood. I have always been exposed to photography. Then in 2013, a photographer friend asked me to be his creative director and assistant. I love the logistics of putting things together and he needed someone who could plan – location, outfits, posing, props, themes etc. I did this for a while and thoroughly enjoyed myself. At the time, I had basic Photoshop skills. so I started retouching images for him. He tried to teach me but I refused to pay attention. Then sometime in 2014, he practically forced me to do a pre-wedding shoot. I was upset at first, but I didn’t want the clients to see that. So I just went along with the flow. I remember looking at the LCD screen on the camera and thinking – oh wow, I can actually do this. Then In 2015, I got a beginner DSLR of my own – a Nikon D3100 and started to create street and documentary photographs. That wasn’t intentional too. I moved around a lot and started capturing images and I liked it. I craved studio experience but law school loomed large in my face so I stuck with street and documentary photography.
In 2016, because I was busy with law school. I shot events mostly – a dinner in school, music festivals and concerts, church events etc. After I was done with law school in September, I started looking for international scholarship opportunities to study photography since there was no standard institution in Nigeria. Nothing fell through – I had no background or experience or cohesive portfolio. I started mailing photographers in Nigeria asking to intern with them. No replies came through. I gave up. In April 2017, I was sitting at my desk at work and cringing at the bulk of unread mails I had and the piled up work and I decided that this was not the rest of my life. I knew what I wanted. I quit my job and luckily for me, a photographer I had mailed earlier reached out to me. After I assisted her a few times in May, she decided to take me on full time. So on the 10th April 2017 I consciously decided to be a photographer. I gathered my courage and typed up a resignation letter and hit the send button without thinking.
You are a photographer and also a lawyer, you both have to deal with humanity from two different perspectives, do you think there are points where the two professions mesh/ overlap or do you constantly find that you have to choose between being one or the other?
I don’t practice law full time. The good thing about being a freelance photographer (and lawyer if I can say that) is that I get to choose my specialization, my clients, and my schedule. I have never liked litigation, so I don’t do that at all. I am that lawyer that has never announced her appearance in court. I enjoy corporate law practice though. Right now, I do incorporation and legal drafting mostly now. If the opportunity to practice property law comes, I do that too. But no, I have not found a meeting point between being a photographer and a lawyer. I have also not had to choose.
You seem to have a flair for portraiture and studio work in general as opposed to shooting events. Is there a particular explanation, personal or otherwise, for this?
Shooting events are stressful. The hours are long and you have a bulk of images to retouch. It doesn’t work for me. I like a blank canvas. With events, you’re just recording on a canvas that has been painted for you. When I retouch an image, I invest everything into it. This is why I give out just a few images when I shoot portraiture. Nobody needs 20 images. Even if you do, I won’t give you. I pour everything in 4 to 10 images and make magic with them. The only kind of ‘recording’ I like is street/documentary photography. I like to influence my images. I like to decide what the final image looks like. I want to be in control of colors and my lighting, the mood and props. When I have to shoot portraits, I plan with my subjects first. I discuss their outfits and makeup. I tell them the kind of props and background(s) I want to use. I sometimes create a mood board on Pinterest and send to them to set expectations. I guess it’s a control thing. I also love shooting products. Products stay where you put them and don’t talk back. You are done in the shortest time and retouching is minimal. The only kind of chaos I allow myself indulge in is when I’m shooting on the streets. So shooting Events are a no for me, for now.
As the popular anecdote goes, “A picture is worth more than a thousand words” I am sure you have gained some valuable personal insights on the nature of Nigerians/ humans in general in your years of taking their photographs, do you mind sharing some of them with us?
Nigerians don’t value pictures. It is hard to find someone here that sees beyond the aesthetic value of a picture. They want to slay and look skinnier and that’s all. Seeing all the photographs my dad has made of my family, a photograph marks time. It literally creates history. I take a lot of pictures of myself and make personal videos. It is way beyond me being a part of this selfie generation. I feel like I’m keeping receipts of my life – a visual journal. I’m tired of seeing people smile and look pretty in a photograph. I wish we could take it a step further. When I’m shooting, I always engage my subjects. Ask personal questions. It is in a bid to draw out emotion. I keep saying that I have become a better liar since I became a photographer. Photographs lie and there is very little I can do about that. I shot a couple one time who were at loggerheads with each other at that time. A few light blows were exchanged. I was embarrassed for them. But the pictures came out pretty and you know were #goals and everything . Photographs lie.
Most photographers have a style, a sort of running theme through their pictures. does Ayotola also have such a style or a perhaps a theme that runs through her work?
Every photographer has a style. I think that is my solace in this overly competitive industry. I think I have not done photography long enough to have a style. Of course, there are recurrences in my images. I know what I want and what I don’t. But I honestly feel it’s too early for me to box myself in and settle for something. I want to explore and explore and time is a main factor in doing that. So maybe in seven years or ten or fifteen, I would be able to confidently say that this or that is Ayotola’s style, or this is what Ayotola does.
You are part of a generation in which new media is changing the evolution of photography, and in fact you are active on social media yourself, in what ways do you think new media is affecting/might affect the development of photography?
It is a double-edged sword. Take two – social media and the ever-changing technology. I get 95% of my clients on social media. I create and send my invoices and receipts on an accounting website. I create and share client galleries online. It can be beautiful really. I don’t know how the last generation marketed their services or delivered their products.
You also create a network of other professionals easily if you know what you are doing. I can view any photographer’s work no matter how highly rated they are or what continent they are on, as long they are on a platform. I’m able to wade through a pool of images to feed my imagination and learn techniques from those willing to share. I know the photography standards are in Ukraine, Kenya, Netherlands, China, wherever. It is really important. I have made connections on Twitter and Instagram that I have translated to real life – connections that now add value to my everyday creative journey. However social media, especially Instagram, waters down the value placed on images. As a documentary photographer, the pool of images desensitizes anyone fast. That is the very thing you don’t want happening. The commerce of photography also determines what industry standards are and if you are not careful, you will become a chameleon. I’m very careful of how time I spend on Instagram. I’d rather curate ideas on Pinterest. Photography has fast become the in-thing. Everybody is a photographer. I’m sometimes envious of the people that can afford a buy a professional camera and create seemingly stunning images without knowing a thing about cameras. I know the kind of images I can create if I could afford some equipment. People like this also make the problem of non-regulation of standard prices worse. Everybody should pursue their interests, but I wish they would be intentional about it and not come and be more fish in this small sea.
At the moment you seem to be more photographer than lawyer, so do you think you will remain a photographer or will you be a lawyer again at some point?
I believe in times and seasons. Right now, I believe I should focus on my creative journey. Age is on my side. If there is any time to work hard and build and maybe be broke, it is now. Later, when my work is acclaimed and my earnings are more than fair, I can take off some and focus on law again. I intend to write ICSAN (Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of Nigeria) exams later. I also have a passion for medical law. I am not sure I want to go back to school for another year to get a Masters’ degree in it, but until then. There is a level of financial comfort you have to attain to make such decisions. The most important thing is that I don’t have to give up one or the other. When the time comes to focus on something else, I will. I have other interests I would eventually pursue and that makes me grateful for the flexibility.
There has being a marked change in attitude towards photography as a profession these days, but there is still a bias for “professional” courses like law over decidedly unstable “passions” like photography. Does your family support your photography and do you have to deal with people who feel you are wasting your time as a photographer?
I can write a book about this. At first, my family wasn’t. But they are coming around slowly and surely. I intentionally shut out people who have a dismissive attitude to my work. I believe the disrespect is toxic. Believing in myself is hard enough and I don’t need anybody to make it harder. Some clients try to be condescending when negotiating. They think it will get them lowest prices. I hear things like – “you are just a beginner, is it not just to click the camera? Do you really do this full time?” Someone has insinuated that I’m lazy for going down this road not taken. Truth is I don’t even let them finish saying it. I am very firm about toxicity. I don’t owe anyone explanations. I don’t need them to understand, empathy and respect are enough.
Ayotola, As a parting shot in as few words as you can manage, what kind of person should the ultimate photographer be?
In my head there are two ultimate photographers – Henri Cartier Bresson and Annie Leibovitz. I don’t necessarily think they are ultimate. There is no best (photographer) for me in the creative industry because it is too subjective. But I think these two people are standards for me. I want my work to reek of intention. The more you create images, the less lucky you get. I don’t want lucky shots. I want conscious intentional images. I think every photographer should aspire to the same. I like emotive images. It is the best way to tell a story. It is hard to create images the way you want them, if it is a source of income. I’m sure my images will totally be different if I wasn’t commercial. I will evolve and one thing will surface in my work – strong bare emotion. I want whoever is viewing my image to stop in their tracks, take a second look and feel something. Photographers should want the same.
Finally, technical expertise is not overrated. In this day where everybody is a photographer, it is easy to shoot on automatic mode and manipulate with Photoshop and get away with it. I read the manual when I got my camera for the first time. I wanted to know what every button did and what the jargon in the menu options meant. I’m always checking for new in-camera techniques. I am learning my equipment every day. I read books – actual textbooks. On my Pinterest, I have mood boards of the images of photographers I love and take time out to just study their work. Recently, I started studying the Classical and Renaissance periods of art to understand human posing better. Every photographer should keep pushing the boundaries and not settle for shortcuts. The ultimate goal is be a master and explorer of light.
Thank you very much Ayotola it has been nice having this chat with you. I wish you all the best in your work.
The pleasure is mine and thanks a lot for having me on your blog.
Ayotola has more beautiful pictures than this on her website and also on her Instagram Page. she is also on Twitter as @ayotola_. You can also send her a mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to her on +2347065828126