Victor Adewale is one of a handful of young photographers who openly combine a love for literature and writing in their work. He is known in the Nigerian literary community as one of its unofficial documentarians. He is often sighted at literary festivals in Nigeria taking photos that capture the unique energy of literary gatherings.

Adewale is better known now as a photographer. But I first met him as a fresh-faced undergraduate of Philosophy. Adewale blogged infrequently, under a pseudonym, with very little following. But it was as the lead organizer of a poetry event called GoPoethick that Adewale’s boundless creative energy and knack for community building gained wide attention on campus.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

This was in 2015. In the intervening years, Adewale has drifted across other interests; darting through songwriting and, later, street photography, which he got off the ground from improvising with his phone camera. Today, Adewale’s growing catalogue of images could be thematically cut in a quadrant of urban landscapes, black bodies in relation, as well as live performance sets and personal portraits. In his creative ventures, Adewale has traveled more than 15 cities across Nigeria building an archive that spans everything from the music scene to literary culture.

In this conversation, he shares some of his artistic process, what it means to be a regular fixture at literary festivals, and why literature still matters in the everyday.

 

Tobi Alaaka

Victor, what led you to photography?

Victor Adewale

Maybe the earliest artistic thing I consciously did was to write stories. At about 8 years old, I found a film camera lying around the house where I grew up in. The camera belonged to my dad, and I became hugely attracted to it. My dad promised to get one for me when I graduated secondary school. That was maybe the last we heard of it! In university, I joined a fragmentary community of writers, mostly congregating on Facebook and began to learn new tricks about writing poetry. Some of my regrets, I think, is the sense that I’m a failed poet who turned to photography as a crutch. But I’m proud of my old friends from that period who’ve gone on to be famous poets. It is interesting to see how my adventure in photography has turned out too.

Tobi Alaaka

Can you talk about your transition to photography and how you see your work now?

Victor Adewale

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Much of my creative effort has been about experimenting with form and finding new mediums of expression.  I didn’t set out to photograph some of the people I did in the ways that I did them. I think it’s an elementary requirement for a photographer to be willing to act in the moment. In that sense, I think of my work as documenting events as they unfold, externally in the world, and also within my own sensibility as an artist. For me, photography is an attempt to carry on saying the things I’m unable to do with prose or poetry. Interestingly, when I started making photos, a friend suggested that I should make films too. I thought it was a bad advice and that making film would distract me from what I considered to be the new focus of my work. But then when I tried it out, I found that the two forms rely on the same disposition. I’ve gone on to shoot a few documentaries and music videos and people seem to like them. So, I think of my work as really still in progress.

Tobi Alaaka

What does getting photographed mean to you and some of your subjects

Victor Adewale

I’m personally interested in the diverse ways that humans communicate including non-verbal forms. People want to get photographed for different reasons, but I think helping to communicate the truth about how people feel about themselves is among the more important ones. This involves a level of trust in the photographer and a sense that you’re being portrayed the way that you want. Luckily for me, many of the people I photograph are my friends, and that makes it relatively easy to get the truth of their expression. The process usually starts with a conversation, which helps to build trust and find a common ground between the camera and the subject. The final form of the photograph—what you hold in your hand or peer at on a screen— is often only as important as the process of getting the image done. In that process, communication always help to get in the moment.

Tobi Alaaka

There’s a clause in Sontag’s writing “On Photography” about how the camera both creates beauty and distorts reality. How do you negotiate loss — or fidelity to truth — in moments when the final outcome doesn’t match you  or your subject’s expectation?

Victor Adewale

I’m often underwhelmed by what the camera brings. The camera either seems to have a mind of its own, or maybe it a maestro to pull off a like-for-like representation of a feeling. But I’m learning to be satisfied and to keep on looking. I remember my friend, Ayobami Ogungbe, asked me during a project “What exactly is a candid photograph?” It got me thinking. If someone I am about to photograph acts a certain way or wears a plastic expression, what authority do I have to conclude that they are not candid enough. And how does being candid or not make them more or less worthy of being photographed?

Tobi Alaaka

Are there subjects you tend to photograph repeatedly or return to?

Victor Adewale

Literary festivals remain an enduring source of inspiration for me. All photography is about access, and these venues allow me to be around some of my favorite people. I’ve been a regular at Ake Festival for a few years and feel honored to get commissioned to cover both Lagos poetry festival and KABAFEST in Kaduna. The organizers felt I was best positioned to capture the sensibilities of these events, and that’s a thing of pride for me. Another subject that I find myself poring through is memory. I grew up in Mushin, a neighborhood in Lagos, which would not seem remarkable to be photographed. But lately I’ve been back there more than five times trying to rediscover some of the elements of my childhood and seem to find something interesting every time.

Tobi Alaaka

Speaking of access, you have been known to also photograph popular music celebrities, how does that feed into your work?

Victor Adewale

I’ve been lucky to work with artistes like Brymo and Black Magic, who represent a certain subculture within the new Afrobeat landscape. Afrobeat is growing exponentially around the world, and I’m happy to be part of that in modest ways.

Tobi Alaaka

I’m trying to get to the point of how you think your work matter to the culture at large?  I mean, how does documenting literary festivals, for instance, help to advance literary culture? And as an organizer yourself, do you think of poetry as a form of protest?

Victor Adewale

When I organized GoPoethick back in the day, it was partly from a sense of exclusion from the main events in the campus community. So, in that sense, poetry is protest even if I didn’t think of it in that explicit way. At the time, I could see all the other activities around me. But, I and my friends had no place to be truly expressive in the ways that, I think, only readers of literature can understand. Now as a photographer, I carry this sense with me in shooting literary festivals and their participants. Literary festivals are first an opportunity to celebrate people who have created meaningful work (and often in isolation). Festivals help writers and others in the community to connect, share ideas, and be seen. So, when I shoot writers at literary festivals, or elsewhere, it is with an awareness that the subject matters as a human being but also for the work that they do as a creatives.

Tobi Alaaka

I know you made a lot of silhouettes early on. Now you seem to shoot more brightly colored sets. Is there anything behind that transition?

Victor Adewale

I started out shooting silhouettes because I liked the play on light – and typically sunset – but also because it was accessible and people liked them. I can’t say for sure if moving to bright colors reflect my current mood as well, but much of that transition was influenced by what other photographers are doing and drawing inspiration from their own work.

Tobi Alaaka

This conversation is holding when most cities are still under partial lockdown. We may not have in-person literary festivals now, but we can always carry on reading the books that we love. So what are you reading in this period? Or what books would you want our readers at Brittle Paper to check out?

Victor Adewale

Thanks for this question. I’ll like to share about five books on my current read list. Sacrament of Bodies by Romeo Oriogun; A Stranger’s Pose by Emmanuel Iduma; An American Marriage by Tayari Jones’; Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis; and Nine Lives by El Nukoya.

Tobi Alaaka

Thanks for your time Victor.

Victor Adewale

Thank you, Tobi.