Niger Delta through Akintunde Akinleye’s Lens

Lagos-based photojournalist, Akintunde Akinyele in 2007 became the first Nigerian to win the prestigious World Press Photo award in Netherlands. His winning photograph at the World Press Photo made the official signage of the 19th edition of the International Photo-Journalism Festival in Perpignan, France, the same year. He is also an award fellow of the National Geographic Society- All Roads photo project. Akintunde has attended several conferences and seminars in editorial and documentary photography in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Lagos, as well as made presentations of his work and papers at the University of Stanford in the United States, Amsterdam and other major cities around the world. Akintunde was nominated for the 2012 Prix Pictet Photography award on sustainability for his work, Delta, A Vanishing Wetland. His solo exhibition, Bush Refineries and Other Stories is currently on show at Omenka Gallery in Lagos. Akintunde Akinyele lives and works in Nigeria, from where he works for Reuters.

You are a well-known photojournalist based in Lagos, where you work for Reuters. At what point did you begin to develop interest in this genre?

I was placed somewhere as an apprentice in 1982 and started learning photography in the studio at the age of 11, when I was still at secondary school. After school hours, I would resume at the studio for the rest of the evening. That was how I learnt photography. But there was a break for four years after learning photography to finish up my secondary education. The man who taught me photography was a family friend. In the catalogue, I honoured him.

In 2007, you were the first Nigerian photographer to be awarded the prestigious World Press Photo prize. How has this made you feel considering that the prize is usually awarded to European photographers?

It is well known that Western photographers usually turn out as winners of the World Press Photo, but I want to say that the award is basically not for people from the West. Just like the Pulitzer Award for literature, it is a world prize and about the most prestigious. It was a surprise because I was about the first black African to win the award. If your work merits the prize, you will be given because it is a world-class award and not particularly for European photographers.

Please tell us more about the iconic photograph that won you this prize.

On December 26, 2006, a day after Christmas, a friend called me on phone asking if I had heard news of an explosion in Lagos. Then, I was living so far away in Iyana-Ipaja. I had to take a bike and about 30 minutes later, I was at the fire incidence. Many people died. It is 10 years since I shot the photographs. They were posted on the Reuters platform and went viral the second day. In a week, they became iconic. Newspapers around the world also published that particular picture, especially in Europe. It became significant and it is very surprising that we can still talk about it now.

What was the “underlying beauty in the face of the tragedy”, which claimed 269 lives that made your work the official signage of the 19th edition of the International Photo-Journalism Festival in Perpignan, France in 2007?

I was present during that incidence and without exaggeration, I said in interviews at the time that the official figure of 269, recorded by the Federal Road Safety Corps was much lower. Governments and institutions in cases like this, usually douse tension by not declaring how many people died. After the World Press Photo award in 2007, the picture became viral, majorly in Europe, especially where oil is important to their industries. Nigeria is a major exporter of crude oil, supplying to most parts of the world, and until recently to America. My picture became very significant and symbolic of oil storage in Nigeria. After the World Press award, the organisers of the Photo-Journalism Festival in Perpignan became so interested in the picture that they invited me to put up an exhibition, using it as the lead picture. It became the signature of the festival and somehow, I was brought to limelight.

You have exhibited and presented several papers, as well as attended several conferences and seminars on editorial and documentary photography in major cities around the world, including Washington, New Mexico, Madrid, Munich, Amsterdam and Lagos. How have these international events impacted on your practice and intellectual thrust? 

Photography is synonymous with intellectualism. My kind of photography basically has to do with intellectualism, that is why from the beginning I wanted to tell stories with my camera. I chose my path because I have always wanted to be a journalist, telling stories to bring out our societal ills and expose things that ordinarily would be hidden by government officials. For me, the interest of Nigeria is always at heart. Though I sound pessimistic about change and development in Nigeria, someday there will be a silent revolution through documentary photography. This is why I teach photography and talk or present papers about issues in Nigeria.

In the course of completing several assignments, you’ve travelled to several countries across Africa including Mauritania and Niger. How would you compare the level of development and appreciation for photography as an art form in these places to that in Nigeria?

Nigeria is beginning to take her place in the photography art industry in Africa, in the last six to seven years when LagosPhoto, for example came on board. Before then, the Bamako Photography Festival was in the lead. This development is because Nigeria has the largest concentration of photographers in Africa, especially in Lagos. The landscape in Nigeria is now changing and many photographers like Uche James Iroha, Uche Okpa Iroha, Kelechi Amadi-Obi and I, are now taking the lead in Africa with their various forms of photography, trying to push the frontiers of photography. In Nigeria alone, you can step on stories from your door, waiting for the camera lens. I am not surprised that we are now moving ahead in terms of photography. I can only hope that in five years Nigerian photographers will win many international awards.

In 2012, you were nominated for the Prix Pictet photography award on sustainability, for your work tilted Delta, a Vanishing Wetland. Is this series related to your solo show currently at the Omenka Gallery tilted, Delta Bush Refineries and Other Stories

Yes, basically, it has something to do with some of the photographs I included in the exhibition at Omenka. The man who nominated me for the Prix Pictet award only saw those pictures at the photography festival in Bamako. I was not satisfied because they showed only five or six frames of the photographs; it was not a solo exhibition. I was looking for an opportunity to expand that project and show it to the public, although some of the photographs had been online. I want to create more awareness about what is going on in the Delta, where we are and what got us to this place. Delta, a Vanishing Wetland, was used to produce the book for the festival. I thought it was just about the right time for a full-blown exhibition. I think Omenka gave me that platform and the opportunity because of their belief in what I have been doing over the years.

Please tell us how you came about the title and what you’re trying to achieve. 

I did a story in 2012 titled, The Oil Thieves. Some of the pictures were posted on the Reuters platform. I shot them but had a different opinion to what my editors wanted because had I interacted with those boys. I stayed with them for 14 days and discovered that they were not thieves in the real sense. I hate criminality and without justifying it, I wanted people to look at things from another angle, beyond these boys we call thieves, who were pushed into this mess by the government, and to think about people who are not in the creeks but are the bigger thieves. The pictures are not specifically to attack the boys, but an illustrative symbol of corruption in Nigeria because we cannot talk about corruption without talking about oil. Oil for me, is the only source that fuels corruption in Nigeria because we have so much to spend and so much to waste. Generally, the Delta Bush Refineries is about crude oil being refined in the bush while Other Stories is about corruption in Nigeria, daily life in Delta and the politics of oil, using those boys as a central theme. I wanted people to look at things the way they are and why we received what we got from oil.

Has your work pitched you directly against the Federal Nigerian Government and oil companies working in these communities?

My aim is to bring out the societal ills without specifically attacking the federal government, the oil companies and the boys called “thieves”. I am just trying to follow the ethics of my work as a journalist to balance stories and create awareness, because I was told at journalism school that journalism is about education, entertainment and the sharing of information. What I do is share information with my photographs, showing the ills in our society, pointing out where we have failed and where to make corrections. My photography documents history and focuses on editorial activism to tell stories the way they are. If the government sees it, they will know the pictures are real.

What projects will you be working on in the near future? 

I am working on a long-term project, the fuel dispensary in Nigeria. I also have a bigger Lagos project that will be turned into a book, though t I am presently working on the ‘Lagos Roaming’ pictures.


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