It’s not easy to be a photographer, not when your father is a high court judge and there are four lawyers and two doctors in the family. Photographer Kelechi Amadi-Obi has made peace with the fact that he’s a bit of a black sheep in the family. And looking back, his family should have known all along that he was going to be an artist.
Growing up in the eastern region of Nigeria, in the city of Umuahia, he quickly developed a passion for drawing.
“It all started with reading comics and drawing Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk. I realized that I had talent with visual arts and I started to draw. My drawings earned me respect among my peers,” says Amadi-Obi.
With the encouragement of those around him, he was spurred on to improve his skills. Unfortunately in the neighborhood where he grew up, there were no museums, art schools or galleries where he could hone his skills.
“I would go to the local library to do research on drawing. The more I read and practised, the better I got and the quicker I improved,” he says.
Even with his passion for drawing and the visual arts, his family put his career choices down to law or medicine. Amadi-Obi chose law and duly enrolled at university. Ironically though university exposed him to art in a way he had never encountered before.
“When I got to university I realized there was an active art scene there. I naturally gravitated towards artists,” he says.
The law student became the talk of his campus as his artwork surpassed that of the art students. Yet he kept hitting the law books and graduated to take up a job as barrister. He only wore his gown and wig for one year after being called to the bar.
“After my one year of service I started working at an art studio, where I exhibited my art and became a successful exhibiting artist. Photography came gradually. I used to make photos as a reference material for my paintings. I started making paintings of human forms and took photos of models in my studio with light coming from my window,” says the painter-cum-photographer.
“I learnt to use a camera and learnt to capture light in a very intricate and delicate way to achieve my purpose. The photographs themselves became artworks. I started associating with other photographers too. Once I finished taking images I would go to the darkroom to print my photos. I looked at the darkroom process and it looked very similar to my painting process, only it had quicker results,” he says.
His decision to settle in Lagos shaped his career forever. The city has not attracted many photographers but it has certainly attracted those with an eye for drama. The city exposed him to spectacular sites including the picturesque lagoons of the region, which span over 635 kilometers and cut across the southern part of the metropolis, linking the Atlantic Ocean and Lekki lagoon. But it wasn’t just the beauty of the lagoons, which attract so many artists that inspired Amadi-Obi. He also saw inspiration in the sprawling fishing slums that draw together the huge influx of people migrating to the region.
His photographic career took off in 2001, when a German friend invited him to exhibit at the Rencontres De Bamako or “African Photography Biennale”. Since the exhibition’s inception in 1994, it has caught the attention of jet-setting curators, critics and dealers. It has also popularized African photographers such as Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé.
Soon after he was invited to Milan to showcase the collection he exhibited at the Biennale. But while Rencontres De Bamako has opened doors for many African photographers, it has also been a source of controversy.
“Some of the reasons for this controversy are familiar and echo long-standing issues in the presentation of African art to Euro-American audiences,” write Jennifer Bajorek and Erin Haney, who are independent curators.
They claim that such exhibitions perpetuate asymmetries of power and leave young artists and organizers feeling alienated from their work. To overcome these challenges artists are forming new alliances and building their own networks, which are not remote-controlled by the West.
Amadi-Obi is no exception. After his exhibition in Milan he established a career in Nigeria in collaboration with other upcoming photographers. Depth of Field, set up in 2001, is the brainchild of Amadi-Obi and five other photographers: Uchechukwu James Iroha, Toyosi Odunsi, Amaize Ojeikere, Emeka Okereke and Toyin Sokefun. This artist collective was formed to deepen the conversation among the photographers and aims to attract local audiences to their work. They critique each other’s work and share resources including a library, publicity platforms and web visibility.
The ace photographer’s online portfolio is stacked with fashion photos he took before he was commissioned to such a shoot.
“I wanted to shoot fashion but there were no fashion magazines. Still I would call models and take pictures of them like the ones I would see in Vogue Magazine. So I was making a portfolio with no clients.
“When someone in Nigeria bought the South African franchise of True Love magazine [to the country], they needed a photographer and someone recommended me,” says Amadi-Obi.
His work with True Love earned him recognition among mushrooming corporates looking to improve their image with slick photographs in company brochures, annual reports and on their websites. With commissions from companies such as Guinness, MTN, British American Tobacco, the Ford Foundation, Prima Garnet Ogilvy, Insight Grey, Flour Mills of Nigeria and Orange Drugs, his career is on the up.
His passion for photography has made Amadi-Obi a household name in Lagos. To be a successful photographer does not require extraordinary equipment, he believes. When he started his career he used a Mamiya RB67 film camera. Today, most of his images are taken with several professional lenses but he’s hooked on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II body.
“I am not particular with equipment. There was a time when I used to be crazy about cameras but I got tired because they keep changing… To get a good image you just need to have a good eye,” says Amadi-Obi.