Exclusive Interview: Niyi Okeowo, Photographer and Graphic Designer

Niyi Okeowo is an ace photographer and self-taught graphic designer. As a teenager, he learnt graphic design off the internet through tutorial videos and lots of practice. In the early days of his photography career, he spent a few months under renowned Nigerian photographer Obi Somto. Now in his 20s, he has attracted a lot of attention with his work and he is already considered one of the best around. He has worked with big brands such as Ndani TV and Guarantee Trust Bank. He is also one of the photographers of Trip City Visuals.

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Give us a little background on yourself and what you are about.

I am a graphic designer and photographer based in Lagos, Nigeria. I am the youngest child of my parents and I have a degree in Mass Communication from Covenant University. I am excited about creating new things and art in general. I always like my work to move people but without attraction to myself. I want every work to have a life of its own. Let it draw all the attention. Let it be about the work and not the artist especially when the themes are centred on social issues.

What inspired you into photography and how long have you been in it?

I’ll say it’s been 2 years I think. I guess the need to just turn my ideas into images. It’s a special kind of feeling when you can transfer thoughts from your mind and turn them into visual and expressive art forms for people to see and appreciate.

What has the photography journey been like from when you started it to this point? Can you walk us through the growth process?

I’m still learning, but yeah it’s been great so far, just consuming information and observing how those before me have done it. I mean it’s challenging sometimes, because there are ideas I would like to explore, but it boils down to timing and how people will receive the message.

What has been your greatest challenge in photography and how have you been able to overcome/manage it properly?

Definitely has to be finding people you can continue to work with, like forming a team. It’s hard finding people you can easily collaborate with and bounce ideas off. There are a lot of creatives out there, but it’s been hard finding that one person or group of people that can connect with my ideas and create something special with. Like the way John Lennon had Paul McCarthney and how Drake has Noah Shebib, finding that one person who completes my creative process has been really challenging.

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What do you think makes your work stand out? What is so different/unique about it?

I won’t necessarily call my work different, but since we are going there, probably the way I bend the textures and colours when I take pictures. I see a lot of my ideas in colours, like bright unconventional colours and gradients that make it look like a happy mistake. I tend to experiment a lot, so there are cases where you see close to 5 variations of the same image.

Do other African photographers inspire you? If yes, which ones? If not, why not/how come?

Yes. Definitely. Obi Somto, Jimi Agboola, Ty Bello , Aham Ibeleme, Emmanuel Oyeleke, August Udoh, Jayy Olowu, Lubee Abubakar, Romeo Shagba and more.

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 What kind of stories do you try to tell with your photography?

Basically everyday stories like pain, sadness, happiness, and more. Human emotions in general. I have a lot more stories I’m trying to tell, but I just don’t have the right resources and the right people to work with on the project yet.

What is your creative process like (before a shoot)?

I always approach every shoot with an open mind, and I say that literally. Every shoot I have done, I approached with an open mind. You have to leave a lot of room for the unknown. There are a lot of happy mistakes that can happen while shooting. Sometimes, it is a bit unprofessional to approach a shoot without a proper plan, but so far it has worked for me well enough.

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Do you think photographers command enough respect in your country (Nigeria) and Africa generally? If not, why is that and how do you think that can be changed?

No. I don’t know why, but we see art as that lazy profession and lazy subject. We have not learnt to appreciate art and photography in these parts I guess. Creatives get a lot of insults for just being who they are and asking for what they ask for when it comes to being paid. Clients would rather pay a musician millions to perform for minutes. When it’s time to pay that photographer or creative who has spent his lifetime creating something special, they almost always say things like “I could have done it myself”. I think it will change over time. As the creative industry continues to grow, more and more people will value creatives because art is something that will stand the test of time.

You are also a graphic designer. How do you combine both careers?

In my opinion, they both need each other to work. You need pictures to create artworks and graphic materials. So, it’s easier for me because I am the artist and the photographer at the same time. I know how I want my pictures to come out before working on them in post.

Do you think African companies take branding seriously enough?

Sadly, they don’t. It’s all a case of the big companies not employing the right middleman. By middleman I mean the person who manages the expectations of both the creative and the company. Most companies just bring their ideas and pay some designer to bring it to life, and the designer can’t really give his own opinion because he is being paid to keep his opinion to himself. The companies that get their branding right usually have a middle man managing the relationship between the company and the agency/designer.

Have you been able to change the mentality/approach of any of your clients? How did you do it?

Anytime I work with a client, I like to think of it as my own work. Would I want to do something cheap and collect my money or would I want to make it the best I think it can be? With this in mind, I try to find the balance between the client’s ideas and mine. So far, it has worked for me. That usually translates to successful campaigns that show clients the importance of proper branding. The more successful a particular campaign is, the more seriously they take branding.

Do you picture your design before you make it or the inspiration just flows? What’s your creative process for designing?

It’s always that eureka moment for me. I try not to plan it, unless it’s a client’s brief. I just wing it and wait for the inspiration to come.

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Have your ever tried to put a spotlight on social issues with your art? If yes, tell us about it.

Yes, I have. Most of what I do is based on social issues like poverty, rape, racism and other issues.

In all of your art, whether photography or graphic design, is there always an emotion in your audience you try to elicit or a nerve that you try to hit? What do you hope people take away from your photography or design?

I’ll say sadness. I love taking pictures that make the audience ask questions like “why did he do that? Why does she look so sad and depressed?” I tend to switch from colourful images to very dark images so it’s usually mixed feelings.

Any advice for budding African photographers/designers/creative people generally?

You can do it. Do not give up on your dreams just because things aren’t currently working out. Just keep working and soon, all your hard work and smart work will pay off. In doing everything, never relegate passion to the background because of money. Let that fire keep burning.

In your opinion, how can photography be used to shape positive outcomes for the continent and the future generally?

I believe visuals are very powerful for shaping perception and putting a spotlight on issues. Also, visuals help to track progress and growth. I believe that with the right application, photography can be a useful tool in bringing attention to the problems of Africa that we don’t talk about. We can spark discourse with just one picture and even put pressure on governments to do better in certain areas through photography. We can elicit emotions through our pictures and projects which can lead to growth. One picture can be the catalyst for many positive things.

Do you agree that Africa is rising? If yes, what have you seen in your field that has convinced you that Africa is indeed rising?

Yes. Definitely. Africa is rising. You can see the signs and the growth. From the perspective of my field, I have seen different creatives spark action through their photographs by making people talk. The growth of the industry in Africa is exciting and this can only be good for economies on the continent. More people are being expressive and trying new things. On the one hand, it means we will no longer have so many square pegs in round holes, and on the other hand, it means more people are empowered to contribute to the economy.

How do you think creatives such as yourself can use art to drive positive change in Africa?

I can see how much recognition creatives are starting to get. The attention is a good thing. People now pay attention to creatives and it has put us in a unique position where we can be influential. This means that we must shoulder some of the responsibility of change by shaping perception with our art and inspiring people through the things we do. Even when we are putting the spotlight on social issues, something that may not go down well with some, we are contributing to better societies if you consider the bigger picture.

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