When she was asked about what kind of photography she does, she answered saying “limitless photography”. How audaciously witty, that! Well, she’s determined to serve Africa and Nigeria to us in ways never seen before. Let’s meet Tolani Alli, the “limitless” photographer, in this interview with Tribune Nigeria.
TOLANI ALLI is a documentary photographer with a difference. Passionate about capturing images that would stand out even to the trained eye, she has travelled the world seeking knowledge about how to better her expertise at documenting events and scenarios. After being nominated at the recently concluded Future Awards, ROTIMI IGE caught up with her where she revealed her passion for wanting to tell African stories with her pictures, her recent encounter with former US president, Barack Obama’s personal photographer, Pete Souza, her routine as the personal photographer to the Oyo State governor, among other topics.
You were nominated for the Future Awards last year. Tell us about that and your reaction when you got the nomination.
It felt really good honestly. I had reached that point where one wonders if one has done enough. It was hard to measure how well I was doing and whether my work was making an impact. The Future Awards nomination was an affirmation that I was doing something right and more importantly being recognised for creating quality imagery. It made the tears and sweat worth every drop.
What changed for you after the event?
I felt charged to do more. Seeing other young people celebrated for making a difference in Nigeria by eminent personalities like the Vice-President, state governors and ministers was both empowering and amazing. The defining moment for me was when I exchanged pleasantries with the VP and he said Tolani, “I was just asking Novo when are you guys going to take over in the photography field”; and I said to him, “Sir, We’re taking over, they just don’t know it yet”. He gave me a thumbs up with a huge smile on his face – That memory still motivates me. I think deep down he already knew that, but on a serious note, my hunger is insatiable. You can do so much more than you are.I am grateful for the opportunity and truly excited for what this year brings.
Last year, you were the only black woman at Foundation Workshop and World Press Photo and Noor and Danish School of Media and Journalism Photography Projects Workshop. What spurred you to attend?
My curiosity to know everything about photography pushes me to constantly seek knowledge. I am truly fascinated with the processes that go into capturing a moment with a photograph. My mind is constantly clouded with it – I could literally drink, sleep and eat photography. Kobe (Bryant) used to spend 10-12 hours of each day learning and constantly practicing to get better. I am arguably his biggest fan on this side of the equator; and that fandom comes from my respect for his approach. You look at Kobe Bryant and yes, I know all my friends reading this will say I am obsessed with Kobe…Okay, I might be, but what I admire about him and what illustrates my approach is a love and embrace of the process. I don’t like complacency. You have to continue to strive hard and improve, no matter how great people say you are. It’s not about accolades, it’s about the work, what you create is undeniable and ultimately your legacy. Did you feel the world? Did the world feel you? Did you fill the world up with something special? Attending the conference was about caucusing with the masters in photography. I fearlessly go after any opportunity to learn from the best. What some don’t realise is that, a lot mentally goes into creating an image that tells a story and even more for images that will stand the test of time; and I am passionate about doing it extremely well.
Last week, Pete Souza, the official photographer of former US President, Barack Obama, was the keynote speaker at Mystic Seminars. You and another Nigerian were the only attendees that were black and also served as Africa’s representatives. What lessons did you bring from that event?
Mystic Seminars are held every year and this is the 14th year running. It’s a gathering where amazing photographers come to get better. The other Nigerian you are referencing is Jide Alakija, someone I respect very much. It was also an opportunity to meet several photographers whose work I had looked up to. My most important lesson was humility. Pete Souza and I exchanged signed copies of each other’s book and it turned out I was the only photographer there who did that. Ignoring an offer from one of his aides to help him to carry it, he moved around with the book himself. I was elated but humbled at the same time. Other photographers commended and complimented me for allowing them see Nigeria for the better through my lens. This reinforced my belief that Nigeria has a lot to offer and as a youth, we must rise to the occasion. From one-on-one conversations with Pete, I learned personal lessons on the challenges of the job, what it takes to excel and how to follow in his steps given my present circumstances. As was his usual custom, he explained ways I could do better and various bodies of work I should be developing in my craft. From the group photograph, it was intriguing to see that the only two black people also happened to be Nigerians..as well all know, ‘Naija no dey carry last’.
The saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words”. How true is this for Tolani?
Always true. One of the determinants of success in terms of a good photo is when the viewer can understand its message without a caption or an explanation;
The Photo of Martin Luther King at Capitol Hill
The photo of The Obamas, The Bush Family, John Lewis and so many leaders marching across the Selma bridge in March 2015
The Aerial shot of the APC Presidential Campaign in Ibadan in 2015
The Photo of President Buhari in Kano in 2015 and More Recently 2017.
The Photograph of Governor Ajimobi, Former Governor Alao Akala and Senator Teslim Folarin – November 2017.
These photos became powerful messages once they hit the eyes of the viewers.
What makes a good picture?
One that can be understood without a caption or explanation and most importantly photos that strike and create important conversations. The photos mentioned above created conversations, they were the main subject and debate of mainstream articles and it also shaped opinions and narratives.
What kind of photography do you do?
I do limitless photography (laughs) but if you need a label, call me a Documentary Photographer.
What projects do you have for 2018?
Too many to share, but one of the important motivation behind a project I’m working on this year is to change the way Nigeria is seen globally and internationally. I believe photography has the power to do just that. You’ll be surprised how many people see our photos. The message we send out should be positive because people outside continue to shape our narrative and we should be doing it ourselves. So many people want to come here and experience what makes this nation special but sometimes they don’t. I think images play a role… I’d like to be a game changer to that effect and I’m looking forward to driving projects that do illuminate a glowing narrative..that’s a side of the story that matters and should be told fearlessly. For now, I’ll just say “Look out World”.
How would you describe the public acceptance of a professional female photographer?
My photography is better appreciated now than when I first started. One of the best portrait photographers is a woman – Ty Bello; one of the best kid portrait photographers is a woman – Ria Solanke; one of the best kids party photographer is a woman – Toun Okunnu; one of the best wedding photographer leading the new tribe is a woman – Gazmadu ; six women today are changing the face of personal photography in politics and society today – Myself, Novo Isioro, Haye Okoh, Benita Nnachortam, Adesuwa Iyare and Nguher Zaki.
Even though we are not heard from as much as we’d like to be, I would say professional female photographers are dominating the arena. I like to believe it’s definitely about our abilities rather than gender. Since we sometimes have to fight twice as hard as our male colleagues, going the extra mile to prove ourselves and show that we can handle it, often exposes us to harassment. But like Maya Angelou still we rise!
Equipments for your craft doesn’t come cheap. For aspiring photographers, how would you advise they start?
My advice is to start with what you have. Just start, both Rome and Lagos weren’t built in a day. Eventually, there comes a time when all the effort you’ve put in will be rewarded and that job, corporate deal or wedding will pay for more gear than you can ever dream of. I remember starting with a nikon D3000 camera and a 18-35mm lens; then I saved up money to buy a flash and continued until what I now call mine. I still don’t have all the gear I want but I constantly save to get the best. I do the best I can with what I have. Never let your lack of equipment limit your potential.
Having travelled the world and gathered exposure, what will you identify as challenges posed to female photographers especially in Nigeria given their little number?
Compared with other places I have been, female photographers aren’t heard of as much as we’d like to be. It is sometimes difficult to get our works published or exhibited. In some cases we weren’t even taken seriously, but that’s changing quickly. Honestly, I would love to see more women get the big jobs.
Any personal challenges in your line of work?
Where do I even start? Some of them we have already talked about but there are countless more. I see each challenge as a class in the school of life. I learn from them. Challenges make me better,.after all it’s not just about how one acts in the face of comfort but adversity as well. Each challenge has prepared me for the greater opportunities that will come my way.
You are the personal photographer to the Governor of Oyo State and you document almost everything about him in pictures. Is he photogenic or did you train him?
(Laughs) He’s perhaps one of the most photogenic governors in the country but he wass not a fan of photography, initially. He goes to sometimes extreme lengths to avoid being photographed especially while working. At the beginning it was almost always a steely, “It’s not necessary” or “you don’t need to be here”. It may come as a surprise that he doesn’t always attach high importance to pictures, but he has come a long way. Except for official ceremonial photographs, it is never easy to get him in a candid photograph. It is a hard job to capture those moments but because he is the first governor ever to have a second term in office in Oyo State, I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments – it is right in from of me. If I am paying attention, which usually I am, a lot of what he does is history. All that history easily disappears after you leave office. Suddenly, there is nothing to serve as memory for you; but what will forever remain after you’re gone are photographs that will tell your story – and most importantly images that engrain your legacy into the hearts and minds of people. My job is to create those photos. So, if it’s your daily work routine or getting into your car or time spent with your family – every photo is critical. Someday, I hope others will look at my photos and use it as a guide in understanding the continual evolution of governance in Oyo State. My pictures, thankfully, are telling stories and detailing history.
What would you want to be remembered for?
The lady with the hat who changed the game, changed the way the world saw Africa through her lens and never settled for anything less than greatness.
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