It may have seemed silly when Bayo Omoboriowo turned down an offer to teach Chemistry at the University of Lagos just to pursue his passion for photography. Below he talks about how photography found him, his new job as President Muhammadu Buhari’s official photographer at just 28, why he thinks girls and party continue to ruin most guys his age, how he put all he had into his work without any guarantees that he would make money or fame and what makes his work with Buhari very unique…
Did it ever occur to you that photography would take you this far?
Photography wasn’t even in the plan. I tell people in recent times that this was not even a dream. I didn’t sit down and say this was the direction I wanted to go, but one thing I knew then was that I dreamt big and I kept praying about it. I didn’t know how it would happen and I never thought of dining with the presidency, not to say becoming presidential photographer. When I started photography too, I knew I would become successful with it; though many people had gone through this path and they’ve been frustrated out of the profession. Some used more than 20 to 30 years in the profession before they were noticed, but I told myself that at the shortest time I wanted to become one of the most celebrated Nigerian photographers. I never thought it would be this soon. In the history of the world I don’t think someone my age has ever become a presidential photographer and most people don’t know this fact. So, God just knew He had to favour me this way.
How did you develop interest in photography?
Photography found me. I knew I loved to take pictures and thanks to my father who is also a photographer. He is the official photographer of the University of Lagos and his name is Yemi Omoboriowo. But he didn’t influence me directly nor did he teach me to use a camera. In fact, at a point, we could not touch his camera. We are four boys and a girl. But I feel that there is an unconscious way knowing something when you live in its atmosphere. I love to hold a camera and I can stand in front of anybody to take pictures. Anytime we were having church activities at the school fellowship I would be in front of everybody to get a good shot. I didn’t have a camera then, so I got from people around. Most of them were always shy to stand up and I was always helping them out. People began to fall in love with my pictures and were always asking me to take them. Also, I loved the attention too. Though it was just for the fun of it and I was not thinking of becoming a professional, I liked the fact that I was the one taking everyone’s shot and people were rushing to me. It started like that and got bigger when I went for my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). From the moment I stepped into the camp in Rivers State, I was already taking pictures. With over 50 photographers, everybody wanted only my images. Then, my mind started telling me that there was something about photography and me. So, when people complain that they don’t love NYSC I laughed because NYSC was the starting point for me. I was also part of an exhibition in Nigeria alongside the likes of George Osodi in 2010. I just started and I was already exhibiting with internationally acclaimed photographers. In my first year, I sold two of my pictures and I felt good because no one else sold. Since I was already making headway in the first few months of photography, it dawned on me that I can actually achieve something great with it. The early success inspired and encouraged me to take photography seriously.
How true is the story that you were from a very poor home?
Contrary to what was posted on the internet and got circulated, I didn’t come from a very poor background. I went to the best of schools in Nigeria, from nursery to primary and to university. All my education was inside the University of Lagos (Unilag). The thing is that I didn’t come from a home where there was so much money to share. Like I said earlier, my father works in Unilag but things were tough at a point. The most critical episode was the university days. I remember when my father gave me N500 per week in the university. I normally used the money to transport myself, feed, buy school materials, give my friends in need, pay my tithe and offering in church. Those trying times actually made me to think of making money from photography during my undergraduate days. I would love to have something, but didn’t have the money and it was painful. Since people always wanted me to print out pictures for them, I thought that it would be gainful if I start charging them. With that, I would have money to sustain myself in school and it worked.
So, what do you do for the president?
I do everything that has to do with his photography. I just don’t do photograph for official reasons, which is one thing that makes me different. I am trying to tell a story about the president. I want to tell the story of him as an individual, including his lifetime as the President of Nigeria. Mr. President has no time to pose for pictures, so it is what he is that I photograph. I am trying to document him in history in such a way that 50 years after, people can see it and appreciate him and my work. This is like building a story for our children to make reference of.
How did you get the job?
Sincerely, this is a question I try to avoid or don’t like to really talk about at this stage. People don’t know that I had lived a life of sacrifice and I feel that young people most learn this. Everybody wants money, but we need to remove that mindset to move the country forward. If money remains your first priority, you will always go down or remain stagnant. It began with going to Ekiti State to document the former governor, Kayode Fayemi. No one sent me there and I did it with my money. I went from Lagos to Ekiti week in, week out and sometimes I would sleep in a cubicle because I wanted to tell the story of Ekiti State election. When Fayemi lost, I was so depressed but I picked up my pieces and continued. Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola’s election came and I moved to Osun State. I fought for accreditation, but thanks to Red Media who gave me some money to get some of the pictures for their online publication. The money was okay for logistics and a few things. I also documented one of the governorship aspirants in the north too. It was from there Adeola Williams introduced me to President Buhari’s campaign. Another major thing was that they’ve seen the quality and that happens to be my greatest priority on the job. I always think of how to make my picture world class. I started as a wedding photographer, but I told myself that I wanted more than that. I want to document history, pictures that can outlive those in them. I left wedding photography and the lots of money I was making to a place I didn’t know if I would make money or not. It started from campaigns and people were appreciating the pictures. Some were saying that my pictures made them to fall in love with Buhari. One key thing again is humility; the reason I am here today is not because I am the best. I see it that God favoured me and gave me the grace. It is also essential to believe in one’s ability and work hard. I never thought I would be Buhari’s photographer; it wasn’t in my dream and here I am today.
How did you feel when you learnt of your appointment?
I didn’t feel anything; I just felt another responsibility has been placed in my hands and it was time for work. The experience so far has been a mix of challenges and fun. People don’t know how much I run around to take pictures without food in my belly. I could go one day without eating because you don’t want to take a break. People also don’t know that sometimes finance is still a problem even as the president’s photographer; the mindset is that he is getting a lot of money from the job. There is so much to be done. You are working in a place where the network is bad and you have to make sure you send pictures to the press in time for publication. Things happen so fast too on the field. You have to be smart and don’t forget that I have loads to carry (instruments).
What kept you going when photography wasn’t paying your bills?
Did I mention the fact that I broke my camera at a point and everything seemed to be over for me? I thought of leaving photography to start lecturing in Unilag because I finished as one the best students in my set and I was invited to be an assistant lecturer. I missed the opportunity and I said I would rather focus on photography and do it excellently. My motivation really was that whatever you do, do it with all your heart. I won’t deceive you; there were challenges, but what kept me going was the fact that if I succeed, it would inspire many people. So, instead of failing and remaining down, I strived to succeed for people to listen to my story and get inspired.
What kind of photography do you do and how does it key into your new role?
I do documentary photography, which I call reality photography. My kind of photography is real; it is not telling the person how he must stand straight or smile. So, I am documenting the President and his administration. What more could a photographer want than being the number one photographer in his country?
Talking about people, who are those people that influenced you directly or indirectly?
I had always looked up to President Barrack Obama’s photographer, Pete Souza. The second person is former Governor of Lagos State, Raji Fashola’s photographer, Lukman Olanipekun. He has been a big support. I have people like Andrew Isiebor , Jide Alakija, TY Bello and Kelechi Amadi Obi, who took the first step that I observed after documenting the former President, Goodluck Jonathan. Amadi-Obi led the foundation and Lukman also documented Fashola, which was a good inspiration too. Until recently, a President’s photographer was not celebrated. They were not even known in Nigeria, but in developed countries it is a big deal.
Are you in any way related to former deputy governor of Ondo State?
No and that is another story. While in the university I searched on Google for my name. It came up on facebook and everything else was Omoboriowo, the politician. It was all about negative things. I felt bad that there was nothing good about the name. I told myself that I was going to change it and if you Google the name now you would see that I have been able to achieve my dream to a large extent.
What would you say to talented young people who have been discouraged by circumstances?
They don’t have any excuse. I have hawked pure water before and faced different challenges. I’ve failed before, but I was determined to succeed. I later graduated with 4.26 CGPA. I studied Applied Chemistry. So, regardless of the condition you are, you can succeed. But are you willing to go an extra mile? This is a nation filled with lazy people, but they don’t know it. They would rather chase girls or go to parties.
You seem to pay so much attention to your looks; why is that?
I want to be looked at and spoken highly of. Also, I don’t appreciate people talking to me rudely. You would get on my nerve once you start talking to me carelessly because I believe everybody deserves to be respected. So, I would rather compose myself in a way that you would respect me. I want people to see me and say “Excuse me please, can you take my picture, please?” That is why I go the extra mile to look good. Being in this position now also makes me to be more conscious of what I wear. How would you expect the president’s photographer to look; unkempt? You need to have a dress sense that people would appreciate. This not about impressing anyone.
What do are those things you still wish to achieve in the profession?
I want to photograph the USA President (Barack Obama) since he is regarded President of the world. I want to be the first Nigerian to achieve that height. Normally, a president would rather want his country man to photograph him. Though it looks almost an impossible task, I want to make history. I plan to be the first Nigerian or African to photograph the president. Also, I would want to ensure that I do my best and I become a respected figure. With my position now, I would work extremely hard to become a model because I feel it would translate to other photographers. The appointment is a big responsibility on my own part; to help others feel valued and treasured. I want to see how many people I can actually support to attain this level in the near future.