On 3 July 2003, the Internet woke up to one of the most vibrant and explosive displays of culture on social media. It was an Instagram reel of the annual Ojude Oba festival in Ijebu-Ode, a town in Ogun State, Southwestern Nigeria. The man of the moment was none other than Niyi Fagbemi, through whose lens the ancient festival was captured.
A visit to Niyi Fagbemi’s Instagram page is like viewing an exhibition of Africa’s sights and sounds—some popular, and some, hidden gems.
Whether it’s the misty mountains of the Obudu Cattle Ranch, in Cross River State, or the myriad of colourful canopies in the Mangrove Forest in Yankari, Bauchi State, or the display of traditional festivals across different parts of Nigeria, each post serves as an auditory and visual ticket to the fascinating and less-talked about beauty of Africa.
“There is a narrative for Nigeria and Africa as a whole that has been put out, not by Africans. We need to come out and put out that story and change the narrative ourselves, which is already happening.”
His Instagram bio simply reads, “Filmmaker, Photographer, Engineer.” While he may have had a formal education in engineering, having studied mechanical engineering at Covenant University, in Otta, Ogun State, everything related to his art was and still is self taught.
He didn’t become interested in photography until his third year in university, when he picked up a camera for the first time. “That camera belonged to my uncle. I used it just once, but it was really fascinating that you can turn objects from what we see to something which can be printed out. It was intriguing.”
Afterwards, he found himself taking pictures for his twin sister, who was an influencer. “Those little activities were actually what increased my interests in terms of photography.”
Before photography took the spotlight, Niyi occupied a role as a project engineer at one of the top International Oil Companies (IOCs) in Lagos, immediately after graduating from university.
Photography, at that time, was more of a side passion, but in 2020, he decided to explore it as a path to his future. He took an internship with Ademola Olaniran, the official photographer to the present governor of Lagos State, His Excellency, Babajide Sanwo-Olu. This experience opened his eyes to the incredible demand for quality photography services. He saw how much people were willing to invest in their cherished moments, and courageously embraced his passion for photography.
Over the span of just two years, his work started to captivate audiences and gain recognition. While the prospect of delving into videography seemed intimidating, he knew he had the resilience to conquer new challenges.
“Initially when I started photography, I hated videos because I saw it as a lot of work. My mistake was in not trying it before forming a perception. My perception was based on what I had seen. If I had tried it out, I would have realised it wasn’t as difficult as it looked.” Niyi learnt a key lesson. “The moment you can actually try something out and put your mind to it, you would learn about it and with time develop the skills needed.”
In 2021, Niyi began to put more effort into shooting and editing videos, and he was posting short videos to social media. He also used his savings from the stipends he had been receiving from his photography, to buy a drone. Not being boxed by a formal education in film making and editing has also allowed him to push his creativity beyond boundaries.
Although he has done some considerable work in documenting different parts of Nigeria, he doesn’t think he has done up to 10%, but he envisions that within the next three to five years, he would have finished documenting Nigeria and some parts of Africa. “There is really so much to tell and more stories keep unfolding as time goes on.”
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While he acknowledges Nigeria is blessed, there is much to be desired in terms of portraying how blessed the country is. This is part of what drives Niyi to embark on filmmaking travels to various destinations in the country. He doesn’t have a particular pattern or route to follow, but allows himself to be led by his inspiration.
“I usually do not wake up to say on a certain day I will visit one state, on another day, I will visit a different state. For me, it’s more of inspiration. I wake up and see a lot of photos—phone photos, phone videos. Other times I could be reading lots of articles and come across a place. I would check it up on Google and would wonder why I couldn’t find pictures of the places I had just read about.”
At the heart of capturing all these places on film, is the commitment to authenticity. “As a storyteller, you should tell authentic stories. Whenever I go to a place, I do not say one thing happened to me, and then I go and say an entirely different thing happened to me and it was really nice. I try as much as possible to tell the exact story. I do not paint things for what they are not. It is the authenticity that actually matters.”
Funding tops the list of challenges Niyi faces in his line of work. “Funding is one major factor that really needs to change in terms of driving and changing the narratives in Nigeria and also in Africa. Ninety-nine percent of what I do is self-funded. I am not getting paid for it. The Ojude Oba festival was really good. Nobody paid me to go there. Nobody paid me to film it. I did all of that with my personal funds which is similar to what I do with all my trips.”
Another major challenge is the lack of development in the tourism sector. This could be viewed from a variety of angles, including the lack of funding for the sector, and the orientation of the people towards tourism.“If you look at other countries like South Africa and Rwanda, you will notice they have a huge budget for tourism. And they make sure they engage with their local talents to be able to tell their stories. Consequently, this provides jobs and boosts visibility.”
When it comes to orientation, Niyi says there are places he has been to where the locals would refuse him filming them. They do not understand or see the worth in what he is trying to achieve, and who can blame them. There is very little, if any, awareness about the benefits of tourism in such areas, but Niyi remains hopeful. “In terms of tourism readiness, I do not think Nigeria is at that place yet, but we are getting there.”
To be able to boost tourism, addressing our security issues is very vital, though Niyi also believes the media has put out a lot of false perceptions about certain places in Nigeria. “For instance, I can tell the average Nigerian that I am going to Kano State, and the first thing the person will say is, ‘God be with you, please be careful.’ And sometimes they are not wrong because they have a perception based on what they have seen that Kano is a dry land. If you go to Kano, you will see they have high rise buildings. It is the second most populated state in Nigeria, and they are really doing well for themselves. Their GDP is also at the top. If you are comparing Kano to Lagos, the number of affluent people from Kano can also compare to the number of affluent people in Lagos, but people would not really look at it that way.”
No matter where his travels take him, he does his research on the areas he plans to visit. “When working in a particular community, one thing you have to ensure is, you have to respect their culture, respect their religion and also respect their laws and values. The best thing you can do for yourself as a content creator, is to learn about the dos and don’ts.” And while he agrees an Internet search may provide you with the information, it is better to have a contact person in the community.
As more creatives like Niyi Fagbemi keep pushing the boundaries and dispelling the false narratives surrounding Nigeria and Africa at large, he advises those who desire to inhabit the creative space to hold on to the three Cs—consistency, creativity and collaboration.
“Be consistent with your work and take a lot of time to work on your craft. Most of the time, experience is what people are paying for, not necessarily your skill. Your skill is being built by your experience. Also, people do not always want to see what they expect. A lot of people want to see what they do not expect. And lastly, you have to collaborate with a lot of people. I tell people this is very key.
“When you are starting out as a learner in your industry, people aren’t going to reach out to you based on what you’ve done, because you have really not done anything there. So you need to collaborate with a lot of people so you get experience. From there people will ask you for recommendations for jobs, and based on the collaborations you have done with other people, they can either refer you or you just have a little bit of a portfolio to show at that moment.”
For Niyi Fagbemi, “One man can’t really change the whole world, but you can change one person’s world.” And that is what he is working to achieve.