SIR Inyene is a 24 year old Photographer with a special interest in Street and Documentary Photography. He shares with us his journey as a documentary photographer.
By Ayandola Ayanleke
Tell us about yourself. What is your name and what do you do?
My name is Eti-Inyene Godwin Akpan, popularly known as SIR Inyene. I am a 24 year-old counselor and a photographer with a special interest in Street and Documentary Photography. I am a member of the African Photo Journalism Database (APJD). I am also the Convener of Photo Waka NG; a group of passionate and enthusiastic people driven by a united interest to document & tell stories of everyday people and everyday life in Nigeria using photographs. We achieve this by organizing photo walks in various states in Nigeria one step at a time and which have recorded tremendous turnouts and impacts.
Presently, I am serving as the official Documentary Photographer and Media Associate (photography) for the Social Good Lagos. This is an international NGO that addresses issues on zero hunger, to climate action, sustainable tourism, peace & justice for all, and the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The Social Good Lagos is closely monitored by the United Nations Foundation.
Take us through your journey into photography. How and when did you start?
I have always loved taking pictures. I grew up with two amazing elder sisters who loved taking pictures and I somewhat became their personal photographer. I would take like a hundred and they would delete about 99 and give me a ton of honestly legitimate reasons why they did not like it. I did not realize it was a learning process for me. I gradually fell in love with photography but for a while it remained a latent sort of passion.
Three years ago, one of my sisters suggested I go into photography. At this time, I could spot an excellent image but I rejected the idea. I was scared of becoming a full-time photographer. I felt the field was populated, I felt I couldn’t make any impact as a photographer, I assumed there was no money to make, I worried about the costs of gears and when I was going to be able to afford a camera. “So you expect me to be carrying camera around?” I said to her.
Last year, I discovered I was taking pictures with my phone of everywhere I went to, people I was meeting and so on – telling stories with my pictures and sharing them online. But I was clueless, honestly. Until I was contacted by the wife of one of my online mentors, Mr. Segun Abiona, who asked me to meet her husband as he had requested to see him.
He said to me, “People are going to school to learn what you are doing. You have to take it seriously.” For a number of hours, he took his time to open my eyes to how much I could actually do with my work and changed my perspective completely. He hammered a lot on consistency and using social media as a tool to gain more visibility.
My big break came with an image I captured of the Cathedral at Marina with my Samsung phone and it went viral. Subsequently, I began to receive calls to cover events. But at this time, I had no camera. I had no laptop; I was editing pictures using my phone. In the beginning, the amounts I was being paid were way below what I was spending on renting camera equipment and other expenses in covering the events but I persevered because I was passionate about it.
Fast forward to date, I have worked with brands like Coca-Cola, The Obasanjo Presidential Library, Stanbic IBTC Bank, AKWAABA African Travel Market, Sterling Bank and Social Prefect Tours just to mention a few.
What inspired your journey into documentary photography or has that always been the plan?
I love storytelling. And I get upset when I see terrible picture attempts at capturing stories. I just didn’t want to capture fancy images. I wanted to use them to retell stories, change stereotypes and open up new perspectives. Africa is the best untold secret; and it is my job as a visual storyteller to portray the ‘untold secret’ in Africa to the world.
I truly did not know photography was that broad. It was when I started that I discovered how vast it was. Initially, I wanted to focus on Phone Photography but my mentor encouraged me to not be narrow- minded or limit myself.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered since you started?
My first major hurdle was getting a camera. At the start of this year I lost my phone which was my major photography tool. I was offline for about three weeks. But a good friend, Seya, came in on time with a substitute. It was also the first time I could really see how much impact my images were having for my audience. Because when I came back online, I saw messages from different people of how they have missed my pictures and how my pictures have impacted them.
There is also the security challenge of documenting the streets. The culture, the society and the security agencies are really not fully informed about what we do, I believe. I have been accosted by the Police twice while working on projects around town. I have a number of colleagues and friends who have been occasionally harassed by security officials and even local touts/area boys in the course of their work. It can be daunting. But one thing it has really taught me is how to interact, be calm and talk my way out of tight situations.
As a documentary photographer, I have come to love the more, understand people the more, make more friends, and my social skills have improved positively. Being in the field as a Documentary photographer has taught me that there are really no ‘strangers’; only if we can find a common ground with them and literally speak the language they can understand.
Generally, a lot of people do not see or appreciate the work we put in creating photographs. They see photography as just pressing the shutter and that is why they under price and some steal photographer’s works. Photography is more than just pressing the shutter button. Buying a standard photography gadgets cost millions of naira, going for trainings, maintenance, and the likes cost money. Another thing is that the copyrights of photographers are not really known and respected in this part of the world.
What is something you know today that you wish your younger self knew?
Do not compare. I remember thinking that my work may not have been making any impact as much as those ones receiving lots of Instagram likes and the rest. But it’s not always about that.
I would also not have let fear hold me back for so long.
What message(s) is your photography trying to portray?
Those stereotypes are real and it is the job of my arts in whatever form, to correct these stereotypes. I don’t just want my photographs to be attractive to the human eyes alone; I want them to be consistent in evoking feelings and connecting with whoever sees it; thereby inspiring positive change.
What advice(s) do you have for a potential or start-up documentary photographer?
Start! That is, regardless of your equipment or gadgets. If you fail, do not tag yourself a failure. Learn through the process and grow.
Focus on what makes you alive and if it is documentary photography, focus on it and find ways to make money from it.
Never forget why you started. There are lots of daunting hurdles that can easily change your focus but if you keep your why close to your heart, you will always find a way around your hurdles. Be consistent because it pays in the long run.
Build on quality relationships.
How do you think photography contributes to the travel and tourism industry in Nigeria?
I think that they go hand in hand, very closely. Photography, travel, and tourism are like the spirit, body, and soul of a human; no one can function very well without the other.
I noticed last year that a lot of tour operators in the country did not have quality pictures on their social media handles and pictures are very vital in showcasing tourist locations around the country in a manner that attracts tourists.
I had reached out to some of them and offered free photography services as a test to show them how vital high quality images were. After working with some of them last year, they recorded increased interest in their businesses. And those who did not take up my offer, one came back expressing regret for not being part in my initial free offer. It got to a point that I was working for more than three different traveling agencies to not just capture beautiful tourist sites, but to document the entire tour in amazing pictures, and I was being paid to do that.
Some people that know how I started normally call me the person that initiated the idea of making Tour Operators in Nigeria have a professional photographer on their tours. And I am glad to see most Tour Operators in Nigeria appreciating the importance of quality pictures.
What are your thoughts on the travel and tourism industry in Nigeria?
It is rich with high potentials but it takes someone who can see beyond now to see how much beauty our culture carries. However we need better media channels to tell the right stories about our culture and tourist opportunities to the world. Photographs, stories, everything, we need to change the manner in which we are being portrayed. Nigeria is so blessed with amazing sites to behold, great landscapes, rich culture, and our kinds of food is just one of the things I believe the world needs to know more of what we have.
I also do believe that the government should play a better role in the travel and tourism industry in Nigeria. Like I said earlier, it is a sector in Nigeria that has a very huge potential, yet still lacking. Although, I have to give recognition as there are people like Mr Ikechi Uko; the Founder of AKWAABA Travel Tourism Market, Chiamaka of Social Prefect tours, Mide of The DARE Experience, Nnenna of Nene-Uwe Hub, Atabo of Come Make We Go NG, amongst others, who are doing great job in promoting Nigerian and African tourism industry.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.
Eti-Inyene Akpan popularly known as SIR INYENE, is a multi-award winning Visual Storyteller with a difference, and one who is passionate about capacity building for budding photographers in Africa.He is the Chief Executive Officer at The SIR Inyene Company; a renowned media house located in Lagos, Nigeria. He is also the Founder/Executive Director of Africa's largest photo community; PhotoWaka Africa. Between 2018-2020, he served as the Lead Photographer for Social Good Lagos; a sub-community of the United Nations Foundation. He is also a member of the African Photojournalism Database (APJD) and Professional Photographers of America (PPA).