She isn’t your average run-offthe- mill photographer. Not only is she a professional at what she does, she has a passion for telling stories with photography while also using the lens to bridge gender barriers. Married to advertising executive, Steve Babaeko, Yetunde speaks on her photography journey and why she is intensely passionate about it.
You are one of the very few professional photographers who is into story telling via exhibitions. Can you recall your very first 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 arrow head, I urged two of my closest friends, 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 have volunteered to have pictures of their naked bodies photographed? Volunteers like you rightly called them, they are all around. Their faces were covered for the exhibition because I didn’t think Nigeria was ready for that then. The response from the exhibition was immense, because people were seeing something fresh and different. We were basically celebrating the female body. Up till now, 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 with your aimto differentiate between nude photography and pornography?
Yes the aim was achieved because the pictures were tasteful and people liked it. 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 stigmatization is one negative thing I see a lot in this country and it just means that we are holding back on so much potentials because of what others think. The exhibition was all about being free and letting go, allowing your creativity to run wild.
You are obviously aware that there is a thin line between nude photography and pornography.
Yes I do but if 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 of intimacy and trust.
Have you ever photographed nude men?
Yes, about two so far.
Did you get aroused while photographing them?
No I didn’t because I was occupied with lighting, camera, right positioning, 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.
Fast forward 2015, do you honestly think that Nigeria has come of age and is ripe for nude photography?
Absolutely. Like I said, the one I spear headed lasted for a few weeks 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 would see photographs of naked women all painted by renowned artists. I honestly don’t see the difference between painting naked women and photographing naked women.
Which other exhibition did you spearhead?
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.
And your most recent exhibition?
I called it 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 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 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 yourself but to seek help and not think too much of 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 simple 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 this particular exhibition, the women had their faces covered.
Are you working on anything new?
Yes but totally different. It is about dancers this time. It will be dancers within Lagos, I will take them to different places in Lagos, they will dance and I will photograph 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?
No 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. This particular photograph had the model caressing a snake which was coiled round her neck and people couldn’t just bring themselves to have such painting hanging in their home. 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 with 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, what not to do, being conscious of all the eyes that are watching you and not feeling like you can’t do anything to please yourself. 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, I as a person, I am not ready for this. So it is basically all about you, your mind set 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 throw more light on them?
I founded the group in 2011 as a way to empower female photographers because I realized that a lot of them are holding back from exhibiting their potentials and exploring where their fellow men explore without inhibitions. For instance, my first exhibition 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 insecurities. So I felt, if that be the case, we might as well do it together as a group thus 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?
Well my grandfather gave me my first camera which was his own, as a gift, seeing that I was a creative person. I couldn’t imagine doing 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 at different agencies to be taken 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 to be a graphic artist. I realized that as a photographer, you are everything; a graphic artist, an editor, director of the shoot, you train your eyes much more intensely than as a graphic artist – you have all the jobs combined in one. I was better off a photographer. It was a three year intensive practical and theoretical training.
How long have you been in the business of photography?
About 15 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 equipments. 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, organizations, who will push our work globally more, educate upcoming acts on the standards to aim at. There are a few photographers pushing their works outside of the shores and making good money but they are all pushing alone. I also think photography in schools should be a must.
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 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 Nigeria environment?
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 equipments, 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 being 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 got advise from him on job related issues.
How long have you been together?
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, that I do not need sports. But I disagree because sports helps to strengthen the body. Besides I have always liked sports and do not consider it 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?
No. I have tried to learn with a teacher but it didn’t end up well. Surprisingly I am able to speak all the Latin languages; German, French, Italian but Yoruba is so different, I have been unable to get the hang of it. I don’t know if it is too late for me to learn it now or for me to break down the barrier in my head.