Invisible Borders: An Interview With Amaize Ojeikere

Photography Interview

 

10

 

 

Amaize Ojeikere is a photographer based in the Nigerian capital of Lagos, where he runs Foto Ojeikere studio. He is a founding member of the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photography Project, which gathers a group of photographers for annual road trips aimed at capturing different areas of Africa on film, and then organizing the resulting photo narratives into public exhibitions. The project partially grew out of Depth of Field, a collective of six Nigerian photographers that includes Invisible Borders Artistic Director Emeka Okereke. The first Invisible Borders road trip in 2009 was from Lagos in Nigeria to Bamako in Mali. The route in 2010 was from Lagos to Dakar in Senegal, with Ojeikere making a memorable stop in the Senegalese town of Tambacounda. The 2011 trip was from Lagos to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, via Chad and Sudan. In 2012, the trip from Lagos to Lubumbashi in Congo was scaled back to Libreville in Gabon, due to time-consuming delays along the route – including four days stuck in the mud while traveling along an unpaved road toward Cameroon. The trip in 2014 was the first to span continents, spending four months on route through 21 countries from Lagos, into Europe via the Straits of Gibraltar, and on to Sarajevo in Bosnia. His involvement with Depth of Field and Invisible Borders trips has helped Ojeikere forge a photographic identity separate from comparisons to his late father, famous Nigerian photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere – whose more than 50-year career saw his photos exhibited at prestigious museums and galleries around the world. I interviewed Ojeikere in the wake of the 56th Venice Biennale of Arts, where his 2009 and 2010 road trip photos were among those in a multi-room Invisible Borders installation of works by 14 artists titled “A Trans-African Worldspace.” We discussed his take on Invisible Borders’ approach, as well as his own, to photography and artistic collaboration. 

 

What follows are his words, adapted from our conversation.

 

 

On the Roots of Invisible Borders

Depth Of Field was a collective that was set up in Nigeria by four of us: myself, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Uche James-Iroha, and TY Bello [Toyin Sokefun]. Then later on, Emeka [Okereke] joined. There was also Zaynab [Odunsi], who went by the name Toyosi. So for a while, we had been in Lagos. Then we thought it would be nice to try something else, so we thought about taking a trip by road to Mali. Especially when Emeka and Uche Okpa-Iroha had been initially invited to participate at the biennale in Bamako. So we got talking, and it became an exciting trip for all of us, and then we just said, “Why not? Let’s do it.” So we hit the road, and the issue was then, “Okay, what title are we going to give this project?” Then “Invisible Borders” popped out, and that’s how it all began. We started it in 2009, then 2010, 2011, 2012, then a bit of silence, and then there was the project for 2014.

 

 

2
Photo taken during the Invisible Borders 2010 road trip.

 

 

On the Road Trip Format

It was good that we could experience something new and different. I mean, for me, I had not travelled by road that far before. I thought it would be nice to see the other side of life, and how it was for the other African nations, at least for this, within the same time zone. It would be nice to see what it looks like by road, and also to share the artistic experience as we journey along with others. Then we realized that there were a lot of similarities. Although, you could also see the differences as a result of the similarities that we have as a people. So it was just to experience something different, something new. I think that because we were going to be sharing this with others, it became more important than one was part of that trip at that time.

 

 

On Tambacounda

I love Tambacounda. I loved the fact that there were a lot of horses. I mean, it was the first time I’ve seen a city with so many horses. I remember one of the works I created in that city, which I think I titled “In The Circle.” In The Circle is about those that belong and those that don’t belong within a particular circle. It’s just my own idea of how to represent people who belong in a particular circle. What I did was to just use a tire, and then to create different images within those circles. That’s all. I love the city. I love the people. I won’t say I interacted with a lot of people within that city. I don’t think we were there for too long. But for the sheer fact that I saw so many horses, man, excited me in so many ways. I love horses. I don’t own one by the way, but that's okay. I don’t know how to ride either. But it’s just something I like. Apart from that, sometimes you’re in a city, and then the warmth of that city just energizes you, inspires you to work.

 

 

On Bamako

Anything I see, or whatever I experience helps me, educates me, improves my life. It was not my first time in Bamako. Other times I’ve flown. That was my third time, I think, in Bamako. I think the fact that each time that there is a biennale, and then you can see new works, and then you can be part of those works (that is, you interacting with the works), can be a wonderful experience in terms of enriching yourself artistically, and sharing the thoughts of the various artists who have produced different works – as a result of their experiences in life, or as a result of just sharing their thoughts, the themes that they have inside for others to see.

 

ID
Invisible Borders' ID badges from the bienalle in Bamako

 

 

On Photography as Activism

I realize whether artists like it or not, they are some form of activist in their own way, in the things that they experience and the things that they share. Now, for the fact that Africans are the ones telling their stories, it becomes even more important, because the stories we are getting are un-adulterated. It’s a belief. It rejects a particular system. What I mean by that is it’s simple and it’s clear. When you’re telling the story of your life, when you’re saying the truth, it’s easier for people to identify with what you’re saying. If those things agree with what other people are already saying, fine. If it contradicts, fine. So the different works that are created by artists expressing, for example, that perspective of those who will see the work, are now placing it in a particular context. If, for example, the experience that we share in the course of our work creates some kind of awareness that turns viewers away, fine. Whatever way people see it is good. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s okay. But the most important thing is that we’re expressing ourselves. At the point in which we’re doing it, we’re at liberty to do it. We are not hindered by borders or by other things. We are able to move from one city to the other. We are able to create works on the basis of what we see, and the contact we have with other artists. That also helps their development, their awareness within the sub-continent. That’s the way I see it. 

 

 

6
Photo taken during the 2010 Invisible Borders road trip.

 

 

On Recruiting Invisible Borders Photographers

Every trip is different. It allows different people to participate. There’s a call out, the people respond, and they respond on the basis of their interest. I see it as wanting to be part of a journey, of which sometimes you don’t know the experiences that you will get on the course of the journey. But on the other hand, I think that bringing people, artists, from different parts of the continent together to share their experiences is a wonderful thing. I think that when knowledge is shared, it creates a sort of enrichment that always makes you a better person. I’ve never seen a traveler who lacked knowledge. I’ve never seen a traveler who did not gain knowledge in the course of his travels. You would notice that as you travel from one continent to the other. Even traveling within Nigeria, for example, because of the different kinds of people we have in Nigeria, it just makes you know the other person better. Until you go somewhere, until you do experience something, there’s no way you can begin to talk about it like those who have experienced it. That aspect of different people coming together helps us to be even better artists, and to tell our stories better as a continent.

 

 

4
Photographers taking part in the 2010 Invisible Borders road trip.

 

 

On Recruiting Non-Nigerians for Invisible Borders

I think it just gives the project a better face. It’s not just limited to Nigerians. It’s open to Africans all over the world who are particularly interested in doing that. When that happens, it’s not our [group’s composition] that makes a project more important or better. The only thing is that it means that the project itself is open to the dynamics of life, because life itself cannot remain static. There have to be changes. The project is always ongoing. It’s always different each year. With that kind of thing happening, as far as I’m concerned, just makes it better, makes it more beautiful than making it closed. It allows others to experience what’s even happening among Nigerian artists, for example. It’s just wonderful that entire action can take place. Also, especially, if you’re an African who’s lived so much out of your country, or your continent, I think that it brings you home. But I don’t know. Because for those artists, you really have to ask them how the project in itself has affected them. I think what’s most important is, for them to have shown interest at all means that they were looking for something that they probably didn’t have before.

 

 

On Exhibiting Outside Africa

First and foremost, it tells you what is happening to Nigerian photography, African photography outside of Nigeria, outside of Africa. It means that it connotes, in a way, acceptability of work. Apart from that, it means that our work, whether it was created in Africa or outside of Africa, has also become as important. So in other words, it is noticed. Since it’s noticed, it’s good for first the artist, who is the participant, because it encourages. Because when you do something and you see people showing interest, it means that it encourages you to do more. It encourages you to just want to give more, and to do more, and to improve yourself. For the younger ones, it also helps them to know that first and foremost hard work pays, and that if you can develop yourself, there’s nowhere you cannot get to. If your work has to do with your little space in which you began from, then you begin to move elsewhere. So the younger ones also can see that this is what their forbearers are doing, and that way they’re encouraged also within that space. Now whether you’re exhibited outside Nigeria or at home, for me, it’s the same. An exhibition is an exhibition. But also, I know that certain spaces have got what I call “prestige.” They’ve been there for a long time. That means that Nigerian art, or Nigerian photography, is noticed outside its own particular space, and that is just good for photography in Nigeria. I think it’s good when you are international, and it just means that whatever you are doing is not just appreciated within your space, but appreciated somewhere else. I think it’s good for art.

 

 

11
Photo taken during the Invisible Borders 2010 road trip.

 

 

On Pursuing Photography

I wanted to pursue a career, and as I was looking for a career to pursue, and as I was asking myself a lot of questions, I realized that photography beckoned to me. And as photography beckoned to me, one of the first questions I asked myself was, “Is this something you really want to do, or do you want to do it because of your father?” So as soon as I was able to convince myself, and to understand that that’s what I wanted to pursue as a career, then I went into it. I could separate my father from myself, and that for me was the decisive moment when I made up my mind to become a photographer. Since I knew I wasn’t becoming a photographer because of my father, then it helped me to be able to pursue the career the way I wanted to. Because then I was able to also understand within myself that if my work is not good, they would not say because of my father’s work they will accept my work. If my work is good, it’s good. But nobody’s going to take it because I’m the son of a photographer. No. Nobody would do that. Or at least that’s my belief, my conviction. I knew that it didn’t have to do with my dad. Since I could understand that, it made me a happier person. It made me understand what I wanted to pursue. Then as soon as I decided, I also realized that my dad was quite pleased about it. Although, he gave all of us a free hand to become whatever we wanted to become. But at that point, he was very happy.

 

Initially, I learned the rudiments. I was drawn to black & white photography naturally. Then I began to just do the bread and butter portraits, and get involved in public ceremonies. Gradually, I got a bit tired of that, and I began to look at the artistic side of photography. So with time, I grew from one stage to the other. The different books being read, different understandings from different experiences, questions I asked my dad, questions I asked other photographers, and also one or two workshops here and there – it began to create a defining moment for me. It helped me to begin to see how to get better as a photographer. 

 

 

3
Photo taken during the Invisible Borders 2010 road trip.

 

 

On Using Film Versus Digital

I still prefer to work the old way. I like it. One thing I like is just in the way images are made. The extent to which you can stretch your image, it’s limitless. It’s not dependent on the size of your camera. A well-exposed film that is carried properly, you can blow it up to whatever you want. With digital, yes, there are cameras that are great and all that. I still don’t like the quality that I get. This is my own perception. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with digital imaging. I have some cameras, and I take pictures digitally, but I just like the old way. I didn’t have to see my images for me to know I’ve created images. That, I like a lot. That kick you get when you’re in the dark room, or waiting for your film to be processed, and you can shout, “Great, I’ve done it!” You show that while you were taking the picture, you knew you had some kind of argument in your mind. “Oh, I wanted to take at this F stop, but I said ‘No.’ When I took my meter reading, this is what it gave me, but I said ‘No’ because of what this looks like. Let me step down a bit, or increase my exposure.” Then you’re happy. You didn’t have to see your image. I like that. I don’t have a problem with that. I like the convenience of the digital camera. It’s great. It’s good. It’s beautiful. But I just think that it’s still in the developmental stage, and the manufacturers have not finished inventing anything that I want to use for digital imaging. It’s still a process. For the film, yes, finished. It went through different processes, right from the developmental time, on to when the likes of Eastman Kodak came out with this box, up to when Leica came out with the 35 millimeter camera, et cetera, et cetera. Everybody said, “Okay, we can have this. It’s standardized.” But the digital process is still ongoing, and things are still being developed to help the process. The problem also is it’s an expensive process. Because computers will change, storage processes will change. But like they say, if you kept a photograph in your room for 40 years, and you left maybe a CD or a pen drive, your photograph will remain the same for 40 years after. You’re not sure what the storage device will be.

 

 

On Traveling Within Nigeria

I’ve travelled around the country working, so I’ve experienced Nigeria a lot. I love Lagos. I love New York too. New York is just a faster pace of Lagos. When I came to New York, when I was there for two weeks, I really loved it. It was great. It was beautiful. I loved it. It just reminded me of Lagos constantly. Other parts of Nigeria I go to, I think they are a bit slower, quieter. Also, the commercial nature of Lagos gives it a different look, a different energy. It’s just different. You have to keep thinking and be sure that your mind is with you, or else you’re going to be swept up without knowing it.

 

There’s always something new to photograph in any city you go to, whether you are in a city or in a village. Within you, there’s always something new. Even within your house where you have lived for so long, there will always be something new to inspire you as a photographer or an artist, because you always find something different. I mean, when the sunlight just beams into your sitting room or your living area, it gives you a different impression each day. In terms of other cities, Abuja, Jos, Kano, Kaduna, Maiduguri, Abeokuta, several other places. Even my village, my home, I love it as well. All those places inspire me. As an artist, there’s always something new to see. Even the person you photographed over, and over, and over again. If you were to photograph the person the next day, you’ll find something new.

 

 

12
Photo taken during the Invisible Borders 2010 road trip.

 

 

On Collaborating With Other Photographers

I never see my colleague as competition. I see my colleague as my friend, my brother. When I meet my colleague, my colleague is another artist. It’s good, because when you put it like that, there is one goal. For example, Invisible Borders is life you experience as you journey. Invisible Borders was about telling the story of borders that are really invisible, that you don’t see, but they are there. You have to create work constantly that speaks about those borders. Now, that is a universal goal for the group. How you express yourself within the group is left to you as an individual. That makes it even easier. Because what is happening is that first you know what the goal is, and that you are free to express yourself within that context. I don’t think that takes away anything from you. Rather, you’re coming together with others. That just makes it okay, beautiful for you to be able to also express yourself amongst other people. Now, I notice sometimes it could be some kind of challenge, where maybe at the beginning when you start your work it’s very difficult for you to really say, “Okay, this is what I want to pursue.” Then sometimes, you’re also carried away by what the other person is doing. But generally, if only from my own point of view, I realize that because you already have a goal that everybody’s aware of, and I am free to express myself, at that point I just believe that I am free to unleash, to do whatever I feel like doing in the course of the work. The fact that we’re able to join in together, it makes the burden of the work lighter. Because what’s happening is that I’m not taking on the burden of the trip alone. I’m able to laugh with someone, I’m able to share with someone, I’m able to say, “Oh, I’m trying to do this, but I don’t quite get it. Can you please help me?” If I was making the trip alone, I would not be able to share that with a colleague of mine. If I have a problem with my camera, if I have a problem with a setting, I’m just by myself. So such trips help me to share my burden with my colleague, and also share my artistic values with others, and then to also learn from them.

 

 

8
Photo taken during the Invisible Borders 2010 road trip.

 

 

Nigeria, Invisible Borders