In 2007, he was selected to be part of the prestigious ‘DOCUMENTA 12’ in Germany and has exhibited his works worldwide.
However, George Osodi road to international acclaim as a photographer was not always paved with gold. In the 90s, he left the comfort zone of a well paying banking job to chart an unfamiliar terrain at that time – photography. For years, he endured the challenges of starting out in something new and being broke. “It felt like I was in the wilderness. I went around for a year taking pictures. But I wasn’t making money; rather I was spending,” he told Sam Umukoro Interview.
Ever focused and passionate about his profession, times and fortune have since changed for Osodi Not only is he one of Nigeria’s most sought after photographers today, he has also achieved global prominence, covering many assignments for local and international organizations. His photographs have also been published in the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Guardian of London, USA Today and CNN.
Indeed, dreams come true, as long as one believes and works towards it, just like Osodi’s interesting journey proves.
Enjoy and be inspired.
Leaving the secured confines of a comfort zone to pursue a dream can sometimes be frustrating and very lonely. One man who is familiar with this journey is award-wining photographer George Osodi.
With an ambition made of steel, Osodi left the comfort of a lucrative bank job to become a photographer. His tenacity of purpose was forged from the moment he failed his first WAEC exams in 1993. When his parents couldn’t afford paying for another examinations fees, he had to become a farmer to raise money to pay the fees. Luckily, he sat for the exams again and passed.
Later, he moved to Lagos and became a waiter in a restaurant, where he discharged his duties with great élan. As fate would have it, a customer who liked his diligence got him a job as a clerk with the now defunct Societe Generale Bank in Nigeria. Osodi lived life to the hilt. He had a beautiful girlfriend and loads of hangers on, who benefitted from his largesse and generosity. Life was indeed good. He lived in a well-furnished flat, had two cars, wore designer suits and was the perfect narrative of an upwardly mobile young man in the 90s. The bubble finally burst when he decided to leave his bank job to become a photographer, especially during a period in Nigeria when it wasn’t fashionable to be one. His girlfriend left him; friends fled from him like Joseph from Poitiphar’s wife. When he was kicked out from his flat because he couldn’t pay his rent, he moved into a room in Ogba, a surburb in Lagos, Nigeria; determined to swim or sink in his newly found love – photography. “I was more interested in doing something that was creative and would engage my intellect. Again, I am a big Fela disciple and was inspired by things happening around me. I wanted to document history. We live in a country where a lot of things happen. So, I felt that photography could be a medium to express some of these issues. I wanted to capture history through images,” he recollected.
To hone his skills, Osodi enrolled in a photography academy in Yaba, Lagos and was encouraged by the proprietor of the academy to read. “I spent money in cyber cafes browsing the Internet overnight. All I did was reading on photography and printing out materials on the subject. I was self-taught. I’d print out these tutorials, go out and practice with my first camera, a Miranda. That is how I learnt photography.”
To sustain his passion for photography and also fend for himself, Osodi sold his suits and furniture. Things took a turn for the worse. He could barely feed himself and afford a meal per day. In the face of such challenges, some would have abandoned their dreams, but not Osodi. Instead he trudged on. “It felt like I was in the wilderness. I went around for a year taking pictures. It was the era of film and photography was expensive. But I wasn’t making money; rather I was spending. Then I ate once a day but was very happy. I will read my photography books, go out and practice. I was always happy whenever the shots came out really good. So, for two years I was in the wilderness not making money. In 1999, I read about this new camera that just came out, Canon 5 D. It was very expensive then, about N120,000 ($800). I sold my car and all the properties I had to buy the camera,” he explained.
Having sold all he had to buy the camera, Osodi resolved to get a job to sustain his passion for photography and eke out a living. After being rejected by other national newspapers, he got employed by the defunct Comet newspapers. “I was hungry and very lonely. And after about three to four years of just carrying my camera about, I told myself I can’t continue like this without making money.”
Between 1999 and 2001, he worked in Comet. Interestingly, it was during that period he took a picture that caught the attention of the then Norwegian Ambassador. That picture, labeled In The Light of The Season, marked the turning point. He got commissioned by the ambassador on photo projects and was also recommended to other embassies and consulates.
He joined the Associated Press News Agency, Lagos, in 2001, where he worked for seven years. Again, his move to AP is another interesting story. In 2001 there was a bomb blast in Ikeja Cantonment, Lagos. It happened on a Sunday, when Osodi was off duty and was visiting a friend at Ijora. When he heard the blast, he knew something newsworthy was happening. So he quickly rushed home to get his camera, arrived the scene of the blast and started taking pictures, despite the danger involved. “I stayed up all night in the cantonment taking shots. While the fire was raging, people were running, houses were being blown off, but I was taking pictures.”
A few months after the incident, Osodi held an exhibition featuring the bomb blast. The Nigerian correspondents of AP saw his work and they invited him to join the agency. “I was the first local Nigerian photographer for AP.”
Always willing to expand the boundaries of his creativity, Osodi left AP in 2008 to become a freelance photographer. He has since covered many assignments for local and international organizations, while his photographs have been published in the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Guardian of London, The Telegraph, The London Times, USA Today, The International Herald Tribune, CNN, BBC Focus on Africa Magazine, Der Spiegel, among others. He has also won numerous awards and exhibited his works worldwide.
Despite all his achievement, Osodi still sees photography as an instrument of social engineering. One issue that burns bright in his heart is the injustice in the Niger Delta region. Small wonder that his collection, Delta Series, captures the horrors, heroes and injustices in the region. “I love to capture issues with my photography. The first project I decided to do was the Niger Delta. I am a Fela disciple and issues around inspire me. So I went back to the Delta to photograph people suffering from oil pollution, how they were coping with the reality of living in that region. Whenever I made some extra money, I went back there to continue work on the project. And whenever I presented these pictures of the Niger Delta to AP, they liked it and jumped at it.”
There is this notion of what is newsworthy in Africa has to be conflicts, wars, famine, poverty, and some of his pictures published by AP seem to fit that narrative. Was he feeding the West pictures true to stereotypes from Africa? “It wasn’t like that for me. I had a style of photography. But we can’t deny that we don’t have problems in Africa. Although I never saw it from that perspective, where I would say, this is a bad image. It is not about bad images, it is about issues that deserve attention,” he emphasised.
But why didn’t he document fashion or other interesting cultural changes happening on the continent? “First of all, the fingers are not equal, so it means that I am not the only photographer from Nigeria. At the same time, everyone has an agenda….”
So what was his agenda? Was it to portray Nigeria in a certain way? “I have an agenda for a better Nigeria, to create a document that would lead to change. We live in a country where documentation is not taken serious.“ he added.
No doubt, 39-year-old Osodi is a successful photographer by any standards. Like the biblical story of the stone the builders rejected, he is now the chief corner stone. For someone who grew up in Benin City, why did he have to come to Lagos to draw inspiration from Fela and not Sir Victor Uwaifo, also an accomplished artist and musician? “As a kid, I listened to Uwaifo. I love his music, but Fela’s music was more radical to me. I don’t like injustice. So when I go out, my mind is set on photographing things that are not right. However I am not just a ‘Niger Delta photographer’. I don’t think anyone has photographed anything in this country more than I have done. I have done so many projects. Right now I am doing a project on Nigerian Monarchs.”