September 24, (THEWILL) – Yetunde Babaeko is not only a professional photographer but also tells stories with photography and uses the lens to bridge gender barriers. She speaks with IVORY UKONU about her passion for photography.
Excerpts: You are one of the very few professional photographers who tell stories via photography exhibitions. Can you recall your very first exhibition and what it was all about?
That was in 2008 and it was about nude photography. While having a discussion with friends, the issue of nude photography came up. I was particularly interested because I wanted to be able to differentiate between it and pornography using pictures.
With me as the arrowhead, I urged two of my closest friends and fellow photographers, Kelechi Amadi-Obi and Leke Adenuga to do an exhibition on nude photography. They agreed and were even more interested in knowing how the exhibition will be received, being a first of its kind in Nigeria. They were skeptical about Nigerians truly being ready for a nude exhibition.
Did you actually take photographs of naked people?
Yes, we took pictures of naked women. The pictures taken were as close to their natural bodies as possible and we tried to explore their bodies artistically.
Who would want to have pictures of their naked bodies photographed?
Volunteers, they are all around. Their faces were covered for the exhibition because I didn’t think Nigeria was ready for that then. The response to the exhibition was immense because people were seeing something fresh and different.
We were basically celebrating the female body. Till date, I still photograph naked women. They come into my studio and ask to be photographed naked. For them, it is their own way of distilling their bodies in time. Sometimes, they allow their faces to be shown but not for an exhibition.
Did you succeed in showing the difference between nude photography and pornography as you are obviously aware that there is a thin line between both?
Yes, the aim was achieved because the pictures were tasteful and people liked them. Nude photography would always somehow affect you emotionally when you see it. It can arouse you and can also leave you cold, but the aim was simply to appreciate the human body and do away with hypocrisy, stigmatization, and generally being afraid of what others might think or say.
Hypocrisy and stigmatisation are some of the negative things I see a lot in this country, and it just means that we are holding back on so much potential because of what others think.
The exhibition was all about being free and letting go, allowing your creativity to run wild. When nude photography is done artistically and tastefully, then it can’t be seen to be pornography.
I am not an advocate of pornography, but one who encourages the celebration of the human body in an artistic way. Yes, it is an intimate thing and that is what we need in this country; a bit more intimacy and trust.
Have you ever photographed nude men?
Did you get aroused in the process?
No, I didn’t because I was occupied with lighting, camera, right positioning, and battling with how to capture what I had in my head with the camera and so much more. So there was no room to get aroused.
Do you honestly think that Nigeria has come of age and that society today is ripe for nude photography?
Absolutely. As I said, the one I spearheaded lasted a few weeks and was always packed full every day with guests. I mean, this is art. We have done this for thousands of years.
If you go to all the major museums worldwide, you will find photographs of naked women all painted by renowned artists. I honestly don’t see the difference between painting naked women and photographing naked women.
What other exhibitions have you been involved in?
The subsequent ones were group exhibitions. But my first personal exhibition was the one I fondly call Itan and that was held in 2013 at the Porsche center, Victoria Island. It was about deities, something that has always fascinated me about Nigeria; how we have been able to combine and live with our strong religious beliefs as well as the fetish traditional aspect. I photographed models who were painted and dressed to look like deities.
I worked with models, stylists, and hair stylists. There was another I called ‘Battle scar’ and it was done with other female photographers called X-perspectives. It was about breast cancer awareness and our main cause was to raise funds for the Sebecceely Breast Cancer Foundation, to shake some people up and remind them that breast cancer is real and that people suffering from it need help.
It was also to tell people that being diagnosed with breast cancer isn’t the end of a person’s life and even if the government, sadly, doesn’t care about what happens to you, as they aren’t doing much for breast cancer patients, you can still prepare yourself by early detection, a positive attitude, and openness.
It is important not to hide but to seek help and not think too much about what people think of you. Covering up won’t help. I have heard terrible stories of how families have turned their back on their supposed loved ones who have breast cancer.
How were you able to convince breast cancer victims to pose for photographs?
Through the breast cancer foundation which is a huge group. They simply told them what we wanted to do and asked for volunteers. Six women who saw the usefulness of what we wanted to do, indicated their interest. For the exhibition, the women had their faces covered.
What other kind of photography have you worked on?
There is one about dancers within Lagos. I took them to different places in Lagos, where they danced, and I photographed them. All my projects are parallel. I don’t usually finish one and immediately jump into another. I photograph and keep things that I feel may be of interest to people and that I am passionate about and when the time is right, I put them together to be exhibited.
Are your exhibitions usually sold out?
Not quite, but a lot is usually bought throughout the period of the exhibition and subsequently as well, when they are on auction, by art lovers. For the Itan exhibition, I couldn’t sell some images because people didn’t quite like them, especially the mammy water deity.
There was a particular photograph that had a model caressing a snake that was coiled around her neck and people couldn’t just bring themselves to have such a painting hanging in their homes. I found it difficult to understand because it was such a beautiful piece of work. Sold-out exhibitions are difficult in Nigeria but over time, people buy them.
Why are you deeply attached to exhibitions?
Well, I think that looking back on all the works I have done and exhibited, I consider it my inner struggle of wanting to be real and free of all inhibitions. Also sometimes, maybe taking it a notch too far like the ‘Battle Scar’ exhibition, which many may consider harsh and graphic, but it is something that I think we need in our society.
We need to free ourselves of what to do and what not to do, be conscious of all the eyes that are watching us, and not feel like we can’t do anything to please ourselves. If there is one recurring phrase I detest with a passion, it is ‘Nigeria is not ready for this’.
I mean who is Nigeria? Isn’t it you? When you chant that Nigeria isn’t ready for this, you are actually saying, as a person, I am not ready for this. So it is basically all about you, your mindset, and how you see the future of Nigeria in your own eyes.
You did mention a group of female photographers called X-perspectives, some of who worked with you on the ‘Battle Scar’ exhibition. Could you shed more light on them?
I founded the group in 2011 as a way to empower female photographers because I realised that many of them are holding back from exhibiting their potential and exploring where their fellow men explore without inhibitions.
For instance, my first exhibition was held about five years when I started out professionally in Nigeria and I consider that a late start. I discovered that it takes a longer time for female photographers to get their acts together and present their works on a larger scale and this has a lot to do with insecurity.
So I felt, if that be the case, we might as well do it together as a group, have more power and strength in our number as well as support each other as the group exhibits. When we first came together, I trained them for four weekends and during that period, we networked, exchanged ideas, and then held an exhibition at Gothe Institue at the end of the training where they each showcased their work. Since then we have been together.
How did your love for photography evolve?
My grandfather gave me my first camera, which belonged to him, as a gift. He had seen that I was a creative person. I couldn’t imagine myself settling for a 9-to-5 job. I liked photography, but I didn’t see a career path for me with it.
After graduation, I decided to study to be a graphic artist and I kept applying to different agencies to be accepted for apprenticeship until a particular agency offered to have me spend time in their adjoining photo studio, pending when there will be space for me at the agency.
It was a very big photo studio for advertising photography in Germany. I accepted, but when I started to learn more about photography, I found out that I liked it so much and subsequently lost interest in wanting to train as a graphic artist.
I realised that as a photographer, you are everything: graphic artist, editor, and director of the photo shoot. You train your eyes more intensely than a graphic artist. You have all the jobs combined in one. I decided that I would be better off as a photographer. It was a three-year intensive practical and theoretical training.
How long have you been in the business of photography?
At least 25 years, both here in Nigeria and in Germany
What would you consider most challenging about it?
Keeping the client because photography is both a personal and style thing and the way you portray yourself as a photographer and the way you come across. As a photographer, if you mess up a shoot or the person’s style correctly or the way the client wants it, then you are perceived as being unserious.
Again, stocking and maintaining a studio is quite expensive here. Things are made much easier abroad as you have the option of renting very expensive studio equipment. But here, you have to stock up on it whichever way you can if you need to go an extra mile for your jobs.
As far as most people are concerned, photography is yet to evolve in Nigeria the way it is being done in developed countries. What are some of the things you think should be in place for us to compete favorably with the developed world?
I think the photography business is quite strong here. You can see it in our work. At least we have stories to tell, we have the basic knowledge of photography and how a good picture should look like. But I think we need to get our acts together through unions and organisations, who will push our work globally more and educate upcoming acts on the standards to aim at.
There are a few photographers pushing their works outside these shores and making good money, but they are all pushing alone. I also think photography in schools should be compulsory.
What was your reason for relocating to Nigeria from Germany?
I finished my studies and the next thing was to go to the university. So I decided to visit Nigeria for about six months because my family was never the type to come to Nigeria as often as expected.
After we left Nigeria in 1980, we came back to Nigeria only once. But I felt it was important to get to know more about my country. I came, met my husband, Steve Babaeko, and never went back. At that time, he was working with Prima Garnet, an advertising agency and as an advertising photographer then, there was no way we wouldn’t have met.
How easy was it for you to adjust to the Nigerian environment then?
It wasn’t in the least bit easy. Looking back now, it was hard starting off with my husband. He really did try to get me adjusted and make me feel comfortable. The key was not giving up. I kept pushing and trying to make the best out of the situation.
When I first came, I wasn’t working. It was just long boring days at home, nothing to do, nobody came by, and nowhere to go. I quickly realized that Lagos was a working city and I needed to work irrespective of my situation then as a working mother.
I then borrowed money from my grandfather, bought my first equipment, and started photography from home, and then it grew to the extent where I had to rent studios and from there, I was able to get my own studio.
Would you say your husband’s strong presence in the advertising industry has been instrumental to your growth in the photography business?
No, because his being in the advertising industry was even more of an obstacle for me. He never ever pushed a job towards me because he always had in mind that people would talk without wanting to find out the truth.
So we kept miles apart from each other and I simply worked for other advertising agencies and expanded my horizons. However, I get advice from him on job-related issues.
How long have you been married?
What has kept you both together for this number of years?
The love we have for each other, mutual respect for each other, and the profession as well. He has a very open mindset as well but ironically, he is very traditional. But he does understand that I am different with a liberal attitude to everything.
How do you both resolve conflicts?
Communication! Communication!! Communication!!!
How do you let off steam?
By engaging in sporting activities. People assume that as a photographer and an active one at that, I do not need sports. But I disagree because sports help to strengthen the body. Besides, I have always liked sports and do not consider them strenuous. So I work out. I engage in jogging, tennis, and swimming.
What part of the country are you from?
Ekiti State. My mother is German.
Do you speak Yoruba?
I try. Surprisingly I am able to speak all the Latin languages; German, French, Italian, but with Yoruba it is so different.