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Against Sexism, Female Photographers Push Back with Skill

Against Sexism, Female Photographers Push Back with Skill

This photo by Nengi Nelson, shot with her Canon EOS M50, was a finalist for the 2020 Unsplash Awards' Current Affairs category.

When Nengi Nelson became an assistant to a male wildlife photographer, she carefully learned the ropes, paying attention to his approach. Soon she started seeking a new direction, to realize her own vision. In 2015, a friend gifted her a Rebel T3i, setting her on course for “a beautiful journey” into portrait and documentary photography.

In October 2020, Nelson took to the streets to document the #EndSARS protests, with her Canon EOS M50. One of her images would later be a finalist for the Unsplash Awards, in the current affairs category. But before she got that shot, while she was in the midst of the crowd, trying to focus on angles, one of the young men protesting injustice reached out from behind and touched her inappropriately. When she turned around to identify who had done that, she found a group of men mocking her and making vulgar jokes about her body.

“I know for certain that a man would not have experienced that,” she tells me. “I have often presented myself in ways that do not allow for unnecessary remarks about my body and talent. But when it happens, I shut it down immediately.”

By then, she had begun to experience more problems related to her sex. “I was worried about my safety when I started shooting events, and they would mostly run late into the night,” she says.

, Against Sexism, Female Photographers Push Back with Skill
L-R: Nengi Nelson and Kathryn Kubiangha.

In Nigeria, photography is dominated by men, as is the case globally. According to Sam I Am, an international production and photography agency, 85% of photographers are male. Among the clientele of top talent agencies, women account for less than 25%.

Historically, with men behind the lens, photography has also treated women with a voyeuristic gaze, as proven by The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women, which documents and examines photographs of African women shot between 1870 and 1970. While more women are now behind the lens, the culture of erasure persists. For women working in the Nigerian industry, there are frequent reminders that they are not welcome, from both their own clients and their colleagues.

Kathryn Kubiangha, a 19-year-old Tourism Studies undergrad at the University of Calabar, took interest in photography from images on Instagram. After finishing secondary school, she paid for an online professional course and was gifted an entry-level Canon DSLR camera. But in one of her earliest work environments as a photojournalist, she was made uncomfortable by her co-workers.

“I had mostly male colleagues,” she remembers, “and I experienced a lot of unwarranted sexual advances and harassment from some of them.”

 

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A post shared by Kathryn Kubiangha (@the.coltan)

Kubiangha recalls an experience at an event: “You, a male photographer, goes for an event, sees a female photographer there, and the first thing you do is to move to her and tell her what she should or should not snap, which angle she should take the pictures at because, ‘Look at me, I’m a man. I must know the job better than her.’ Very stupid behaviour.”

Another unpleasant experience was in Port Harcourt, where older men at a ceremony kept asking her if she knew what she was doing, making comments about how the event organisers should have hired a man instead.

“I am especially annoyed when I constantly have to explain myself and refute claims that I am not qualified enough for the job just because I am female,” Kubiangha says. “Really, things like this happen often enough that I’m barely fazed by it anymore. How I handle the sexism for the most part is that I just try to be extremely professional. I basically just ignore any remarks not directly related to how the job is being executed.”

More female photographers—including Dr. Shola Balogun, 28; Nifemi Oluwadare, 26; Iyesogie Ogieriakhi, 23; Toluwanimi Kunle-Ajagbe, 23; and Joy Ndukwe, 25—shared their experiences with Folio Nigeria.

, Against Sexism, Female Photographers Push Back with Skill
L-R: Iyesogie Ogierhaki, Shola Balogun, and Nifemi Oluwadara.

They all entered the industry in different ways. Dr. Balogun, a high-profile wedding and portrait photographer, was in her second year of medical school at the University of Ibadan, in 2010, when her father gifted her a pocket camera. She walked around the campus taking random pictures of everything, “from rotten mangoes to dew on blades of grass to portraits of random strangers.”

At the time, she had no commercial motives; she did not even know of the existence of a photography industry. “I was just happy to be creating my own version of art,” she recalls.

Oluwadare, a portrait, event, and documentary photographer, was influenced by a friend from church. “I fell in love with how he took pictures back then,” she says, “the zeal, the different postures just to get the perfect shot.”

Ogieriakhi, on the other hand, loved having pictures of herself taken, and got tired of asking her siblings to do so. She started learning by herself and soon moved to taking pictures of other people.

 

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For Kunle-Ajagbe, her motivation was not necessarily love but a feeling of duty. It was another art form that led her to photography. “I used to write a lot and I never really found pictures to match my writings,” she shares. “On websites that had stock pictures, there were only white people.” In 2017, she decided to help populate the web with images of people who looked like her.

Like Kunle-Ajagbe, Ndukwe was also a writer drawn to photography, as a way to extend her artistic range. Having developed an insatiable desire “to tell more stories,” she felt limited by her primary medium, poetry. In January 2018, she confided in a friend about this hunger for exploration and he suggested photography. After a year of practicing on her phone, an itelS32, she bought herself a camera.

, Against Sexism, Female Photographers Push Back with Skill
L-R: Toluwanimi Kunle Ajagbe and Joy Ndukwe.

But despite their different backgrounds and genres, these women constantly face the perceived awareness, from their clients, that they are doing “a man’s job.”

“Many times,” Dr. Balogun says, “I show up to a shoot and everyone is expressing shock at the fact that I am a woman. I remember always falling ill after shooting a wedding because far be it from me to not shoot like my life depended on it. I reckon now I was subconsciously fighting the bias of being ‘weak.’ I could keep up and I did.”

The situation is angering. “It pisses me off that people do not trust that a lady can handle their job, so they would rather go for a man instead,” Kunle-Ajagbe says.

Oluwadare quickly developed a coping mechanism. “I try not to act too ‘weak,’ as they say,” she explains. “I try to meet up to standard so clients don’t look down on my works simply because I am female.”

While Oluwadare is encouraged by the bond she forms with her clients, others, like Ogieriakhi, have sought kinship in their professional group. “I found a community of other like-minded female photographers and this has been a great support system for me and my growth,” Ogeriakhi says.

, Against Sexism, Female Photographers Push Back with Skill
Danfo bus. Photo by Joy Ndukwe.

In the last 10 years, there have been accomplished female photographers in the Nigerian industry, including TY Bello, Aisha Augie-Kuta, and Mofe Bamuyiwa. The official photographer to former president Goodluck Jonathan, Bello’s power and influence in the industry are unmatched. In 2016, her shoot with the British popstar Tinie Tempah was photobombed by a bread seller named Olajumoke Orisaguna, who was just passing by. The shot catapulted Orisaguna to social media fame, leading to profiles by CNN and BBC News Africa, an appearance on the cover of ThisDAY magazine, and a coveted modelling contract.

Augie-Kuta’s art spans film, photography, and painting. Exploring gender, identity, and culture, her work won her Creative Artist of the Year at the 2011 Future Awards. In 2018, she represented the visual arts sector during Prince Charles’ visit to Lagos.

Bamuyiwa, owner of the famous BMB Studio, is a portrait photographer capturing body positivity, childhood, and family.  In 2018, her photograph of then five-year-old Jare Ijalana, dubbed “the most beautiful girl in the world,” vent viral.

But the successes of Bello, Bamuyiwa, and Augie-Kuta hide another problem: classist sexism. “Nigeria is beginning to embrace that women are great photographers,” Ndukwe says, “but you have to be a big name before they can work with you.”

Kubiangha understands this and is making plans. “I’m delving into videography as well and focusing more on writing,” she tells me. “I think the combination of all three and the ideas I’m going to execute when I get my Tourism degree will create a niche for me. I’m already aiming to be published in at least 10 magazines within the next one year, so in five years, there’s really no telling.”

, Against Sexism, Female Photographers Push Back with Skill
Untitled, 1939-45. From The African Lookbook.

The existence of a work like The African Lookbook, Ndukwe says, “challenges me to tell more stories about women because I am a woman, and a man cannot tell my story from my perspective.”

Kubiangha agrees with her on the importance of centering the agency of the women. “I’m just more inspired to make a conscious effort to document women in my photography,” Kabiangha says, “not for challenging the male gaze but simply showcasing a female perspective and telling certain stories about women from my own point of view.”

For Ndukwe, being a female photographer is a particular responsibility. “It’s up to this generation of women photographers to document women,” she says, “and to do it with empathy, connection, and privilege.”

Edited by Otosirieze Obi-Young.

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