Made in Africaby Rob Cockcroft / 08.10.2013
Brad Ogbonna is Nigerian-American travel, lifestyle, fashion and portraiture photographer currently based in Brooklyn, New York. He has worked for publications such as Vice, Spin and GOOD magazines. After releasing his first book entitled ‘Jislike’ which covered his customary return to Nigeria after his father’s funeral, he was asked to be part of the Studio Africa project in which he filmed music videos for Nigerian music producer Olubenga, Somalian pop duo Faarow and Mzansi’s Spoek Mathambo. The trip also culminated in a dope photographic series which forms part of a larger collection of travel works called ‘Places’. We got a chance to chat to him about his connection to Nigeria, poverty porn and his stop in Johannesburg.
Please tell us a bit about your background and what got you into photography. When did you realise you wanted to pursue it as a career?
I grew up in the Twin Cities of Minnesota—raised by Nigerian parents. I went to college at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls for International Studies & Political Science. I became interested in photography during my time in college—I think it was around 2008-2009. That was when blogs and blogging were at its zenith. I happened to be studying abroad in Europe so I started taking photos of the new places and people that I met basically to keep a record of my travels. When I returned to Wisconsin/Minnesota I kept on taking photos and developing my own style.
When I moved to NYC in the summer of 2011, I had trouble finding a job or paid internship in my field, but I started getting approached to shoot for different clients. Once I got my first “big” paycheque the prospect of an actual career in photography, at least for the time being, seemed a lot more plausible.
Give us a brief introduction as to how you got involved in the Studio Africa project and the process of filming music videos for Spoek Mathambo, Faarrow and Olubenga.
The good people at VICE contacted me over the summer to see if I’d be interested in working on the Studio Africa project. I wasn’t familiar with the project prior, and so when I was told that they planned to travel to South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria to work on 3 music videos it felt like a dream gig had been realized. I thought the trip was a “maybe” and would be planned for the fall, so I was really surprised when they got back to me the day after we initially spoke and said I’d be traveling less than a week later.
What stands out in your memory from your stop in Johannesburg where you filmed Spoek? The good and the bad.
I had the pleasure of meeting up with Justice and Fhatuwani Mukheli—the guys from I See A Different You. They were really genuine, down-to-earth dudes, and we hit it off right away. They took me out to some of their favourite places in Johannesburg, and after the bars died down we drove around Downtown and I got a chance to see the different parts of the city at their most serene.
I can’t recall anything bad about the trip, besides the fact that I totally underestimated what winter time in Africa was truly capable of. I remember being cold a lot and kicking myself for not checking the weather before I left.
Do you feel that having Nigerian roots makes it necessary to document and share work of other artists in the Diaspora?
Do you believe you have accomplished more being based in the USA than you would have if you were based in Nigeria?
Being based in the USA has allowed me a lot more access to resources and attention than the average person living in Nigeria. I haven’t had any financial backing from my parents or any “oga at the top” either. It’d be hard to accomplish the same in Nigeria. Things aren’t easy there for creatives, and especially ones who do not come from money. Honestly, I don’t think people there would be as receptive to my work.
Do you actively challenge the negative stereotyping of Africa through your photography?
I suppose so. When I shoot, I’m not fixated on challenging a negative stereotype, but I’m definitely shooting what I find to be interesting or appealing. I don’t find the appeal in shooting the very sad and bleak conditions of poverty in Africa just because. However, there have been times when I’ve found something or someone within that poverty that has caught my interest and made me want to pick up my camera.
For instance, I photographed the students, faculty, and campus of my father’s former secondary school in the village that he and my mom grew up in. The conditions of the school were abysmal, and I imagine it’s what a lot of people imagine a school might look like in the small villages of Africa. My intention for taking those photos was not to proliferate the negative stereotype of Africa, but rather to show a contrast between my father’s background versus mine. Secondly, I wanted to express that despite the conditions that the students and teachers were learning/teaching in, they were very resilient and hopeful. Not the “hopeless individuals in dire need of help” many Africans have been depicted as in the past. The photos were apart of a larger narrative that I was trying to convey.
A lot of creatives who live outside of Africa, whether photographers, filmmakers, musicians, are often accused of ‘poverty porn’ when depicting Africa (think the Solange video shot in a township in Cape Town). Does the possibility of attracting that kind of criticism cross your mind?
It’s definitely something that I’ve been mindful about. Even though I was raised by Nigerian parents and have many ties to Nigeria and Africa in general, I don’t live there and any depiction that I have of the places I visit are as an outsider. Since that’s the case, it’s hard not to attract some type of criticism.
When I worked on the Studio Africa project, I was asked to keep the same aesthetic as my ongoing series “Places”. My approach to shooting “Places” has always been to shoot in a broad sense, so I was photographing both people and locations and anything that felt unique to the cities and countries that I was visiting. Being Nigerian definitely makes me more conscious and gives me a duty to be honest about my work. When I’m shooting I’m not focused on just poverty so I feel pretty confident that what I’m creating is not poverty porn.
Do you feel you still have a connection to Nigeria? Do you still call it home?
I definitely still have a connection to Nigeria and it continues to grow. Much of my family still resides there and I’m in better contact with them now that I’ve been traveling there more often and as access to the internet and cellular phones in Nigeria has grown. I still call it home even though I wasn’t born there. It’s where my family is from.
As a freelance photographer you shoot everything from fashion to lifestyle and travel. What’s your favourite kind of photography? If you didn’t have to worry about paying the bills what would you ultimately focus on?
Definitely portraiture and travel photography. Those two things pique my interest the most. I’ve started to dabble in different photographic styles like still-life and studio, and as I learn more about them I’m starting to enjoy it more; but if I could continue to travel and meet and photograph new people I’d be satisfied.
What is your favourite camera and medium?
I really love shooting medium format with the Mamiya 645 and using color film and natural light. That’s my ideal.
Why do you tend to make use of a very shallow depth of field instead of everything being in focus?
I’ve always been into portraits of people. If I were to have everything in focus, the focus wouldn’t be so much on the person. I also have pretty bad eyesight and that makes it hard to manually focus when I’m shooting film, so it’s always been easier for me to shoot subjects in my comfortable range of sight at a low aperture.
Please tell us about your fashion label Ikoyi NYC. What is the meaning behind the name and what does the label stand for?
IKOYI NYC is a pet project between my friend Elise Diebel and I. Ikoyi is an elite neighborhood in Lagos and I dig its aesthetic. It’s a mix of wealth, coolness and progression, and it’s one of those places that are often overlooked when people think of Nigeria and Africa in general. I want to bring that same type of African chicness to the really dark and moody New York fashion scene.
Which fashion labels are you into from around Africa?
LaurenceAirline and Maki Oh.
How’s your social media game? Where can people connect with you?
What’s your take on platforms like Tumblr and Instagram? Have they done anything to raise the bar of photography?
They have both raised the bar of competition and inspiration among creators and have made it easier for people to find a solid following, but they have also made it a lot easier for ideas to be stolen and they’ve become another place for pretenders and imitators to join in on the fun.
What are you currently working on and what have you got planned for the future?
I’m currently learning how to use strobes, different lighting techniques, and develop a style in the studio that still retains my aesthetic. So I’m definitely doing a lot of experimenting in my free time. I’m also trying to learn more about video—both directing and filming. In the near future I have a few more books planned and different video projects.
*Brad Ogbonna travelled to Africa to capture the behind-the-scenes look at Diesel’s Studio Africa initiative. For more information about the campaign please visit www.diesel.com/diesel+edun.*