‘My love for photography started with plastic camera’

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Toyin Aiyegbo is a professional photographer, who is passionate about the art. He spoke with The Guardian’s MARGARET MWANTOK on the need for Nigerian tertiary institutions to adopt photography in school curricula.

Can you tell us about your background?
I was born in Lagos. I spent most of my childhood days in a small town called Ijede, Ikorodu, Lagos State. I have a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the Lead City University, Ibadan. Prior to that time, I had done a diploma programme in chemical and polymer engineering at the Lagos State University. After the mandatory National Youth Service Corps, in 2009, I worked briefly with Etisalat before I started my photography career. One thing, though, I’m going back to school pretty soon . I love sciences and will love to take another science course at master’s level.

What led you to photography?
Photography actually led itself to me. I have always loved the art since I was a little boy. My favourite toy then was this tiny piece of plastic camera with series of animal and a shutter at the top. I was always so fascinated about it. Looking back at that time, I feel that photography has always been with me. It was and still is my passion.

Years went by, and I finally purchased my first ‘real’ camera in 2000 but with no experience on how to use it, I couldn’t even make it work. In those days, there were only few places, I mean really few places operating a photography studio and it was really tough to find someone who was willing to put me through. It was frustrating and I eventually abandoned the camera after several attempts. At some point, I felt like I wasted my savings in buying a camera, at the same time, felt good that I was able to purchase one-all by my self. It felt really good to have the stuff.

In 2011, after I started working, I realised I needed to be properly trained and I had to reach out to someone to train me professionally. I searched Google for top Nigerian photographers and it brought out few results. I checked their works one after the other and finally decided. I told him how much I love his work and if he wouldn’t mind, it would be an honour to be trained by him. Thankfully, he was so kind when I met him in his office, the rest is history.

What dominated your focus when you started photography? Are they still the same?
My subject was majorly people and that hasn’t changed. Although, I get contracted to shoot other kinds of photography, I really love to shoot people. I remember when I first started, my subjects were co-workers at Etisalat or my pretty friend’s girlfriends. In fact, I still have some of those pictures on my Facebook page till date and it feels good to look at them now and remember how the whole journey started. Again, it’s people and I will pretty much choose that over every other subjects.

How have you carved a niche for yourself in spite of being in a highly saturated profession?
You are absolutely correct, the photography industry in Nigeria is highly saturated and caving a niche for oneself is very important. Over the years, I have constantly tried to separate my work from others. I make my photos easily identifiable. One of the ways I do this is through my style, and the places I shoot my subjects from. Recently, I decided to shoot only outdoors and I intend to continue to do that for a long time.

In Nigeria, I don’t know about other African countries, it is almost as though everyone is a photographer and this has negatively impacted the industry. I’m sure it’s the country’s economic situation that led to this, but it is becoming really bad. I also blame this on lack of regulatory bodies for photographers in Nigeria.

Who are the major influences on you works?
My image is greatly influenced by two American photographers. This is largely due to their editing style and their composition. They colour grade their images in a very unique style and very consistent with it. They mainly shoot fashion portraits outdoor and they do so using only natural light in most cases. That is quite challenging if you think about it and it takes some great deal of skill to accomplish.

Do you train people as well?
Yes, I train people. I have trained quite a number. I have even done training for Nikon-organised events. It is always a pleasure to see some of the people I have trained in the past doing so well in their vocation. Let me also say that Nikon does these events once in a while, so, young photographers can take advantage of that great opportunity, I am sure Canon does the same as well.

In some private schools, photography is a part of the curriculum. Do you think government institutions should replicate this?
Everyone has the capacity to create images and having it in school curricula will help build student’s creativity. So, I believe government schools should adopt this as well. Everyone has his or her own interpretation of the world and photography will help interpret this view in the way they should, this is the power of photography.

What do you think is the best way to learn photography?
The best way to learn photography is by practicing. That cannot be overemphasised. Practice, practice and more practice. The more you practice, the better you get. You never stop learning in our profession; there is almost something new to learn all the time. Also, another great asset you can add to your continual education is attending workshops. It is good to watch online videos, buy the books, but it can never be compared with attending workshops. I see workshops as an accelerated form of learning, because it will not only provide you with the knowledge that is needed to get you to the next level, but also give you the privilege of being tutored by an experienced instructor. In addition, you also get to meet people who are in love with photography as much as you are — There is no greater feeling than this.

Which do you prefer, between digital and analogue cameras?
Of course, it’s a digital age, like they say, and everything has gone digital. Traditional analogue technology is already on its way out. This is the era where images are now produced instantly without the stress of darkroom and disposable films. You can imagine, for instance, how much many films I will have to use to shoot a sport or wedding photography if I were shooting with an analogue camera. It would be so enormous. Digital has not only taken over analogue camera but it is the new standard.

Why do people prefer commercial to documentary photography?
Well, I don’t know why, but in my view, I think both are quite interesting and similar in certain ways, whether it is happening naturally or staged as in the case of commercial photography. The difference would just be with people’s preferences, some prefer it happening naturally while others prefer to shoot it staged. The difference is just in the way the story is being told.