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I’m a natural light photographer – Tam Fiofori

By Morenike Taire

He is referred to as one of the pioneers of the lens profession. He is, Tam Fiofori, a fascinating sort of artist/journalist, a veteran, who has written about art, music and culture almost as prolifically as he has photographed them. But only almost. Up close, Tam Fiofori has a grasp of sociology, poetry, filmmaking, philosophy and all kinds of other endeavours, and this makes him a photo-archivist of unusual relevance.

Only last month, he exhibited alongside other veterans and youngsters at a well attended show. But now, he is set to do it again and this time, a solo show. His upcoming exhibition appropriately entitled 1979 is to show in December. Indeed, Fiofori has had a romance with history over the years. A foundation member of Photographers Association of Nigeria, PAN, he once cited the historic documentary photographs of Oba Ovonramwen in leg chains guarded by bare-foot native policemen under the supervision of the colonialists who sent him on board a ship to his exile in Calabar.

The photographs, said to have been shot by Jonathan Adagogo Green, otherwise known as J.A. Green, an Ijaw man, Fiofori recalled: “were prominently published in the leading newspapers and periodicals in Britain and Europe.” Green, he explained, also shot subsequent images of powerful kings and chiefs of the Niger Delta as well as still-documentaries on the culture and environment of the region. Fiofori argues that the non-visibility of photography as being the perception today is the creation of the agencies of government responsible to use photography as a component in enhancing cultural development. All these and many more, he revealed in this chat.

The oba of Benin coronation, one of Tam Fiofori's slides in the solo exhibition , 1979

LET’s start from our classic argument and ask: as a veteran, is photography an art or a science?

It can be both. If you look at the history of photography the whole idea really is to have light play on celluloid and create an image. That was analogue photography, but these days we now have digital photography using hardware and software.

So, doesn’t this detract from the value?

On one level it has become obvious now that though the digital camera makes it possible for people without special artistic talent to produce what seemingly are good photos, but if you don’t have the talent and the craft what you will produce are snapshots as opposed to photographs. Technically high level snapshots, but still snapshots.

Are such pictures not better off viewed on a computer or Facebook?

Somewhere along the line we have to be talking about the separation between snapshots and photographs. In a sense it cheapens the profession. It’s now like : “anyone can take a photograph” as opposed to: “anyone can take a snapshot”
How can I translate that? Has photography lost its  essence?

Photography can never loose its essence because it’s important in documenting all aspects of our lives be it in science, history, fashion, sports.

What we are saying is that we might stop seeing craft in photography in these days of fast consumption, mass IT means of sending messages, so that what really should pass as snapshots get accepted because there really isn’t anything in its place.

As an art, can photography compete with any other visual form, and on what basis?

It has now been fully accepted worldwide that photography is an art. The only problem it faces is that of sales. When you have a painting or sculpture it’s one of a kind, but with a photo there’s the possibility of reproduction. On that basis there’s still a question mark on the archival and commercial value of photography. That is why some photographers now have limited editions. This gives the collector more confidence.

What of on an aesthetic level? If you have a photograph and painting on your wall, do they have the same aesthetic appeal?

I don’t want to ruffle feathers, but truth be told, Nigerian artists are virtually painting photographs. The days before the camera was invented artists would take their easel, go to the countryside and when the light is right, paint masterpieces. Today if you had a photographer who understands light and added embellishment through Photoshop, when he produces a photograph it would match any paintings.

That’s interesting. Recently, I saw someone paint on velvet, but we never thought we’d get to the day when we’d see photography on anything other than paper…

The other day I went to a chap who is forward looking in terms of reproducing photographs and he showed me some new surfaces he just brought from abroad. Soon in Nigeria we will soon begin to print on metal.

What would be the value of that?
If you print a black and white photograph on metal it will give it this silver shade and you know black and white has this element of silver and it enhances this special shade. These are the kind of things people want to achieve using special types of paper and computer print.

One of the most fascinating things about your own work is the diversity. You’ve done portraits to acclaim, you’ve done scenery, landscape, lifestyle.  Ho w do you do all these?

I’m basically a documentary photographer. You should be able to work in all spheres. In the 70s there was a lot of demand for photography at the advertising companies and I also got to know people who were into fashion. Nigeria was trying to establish itself in terms of indigenous textiles and fashion and so, I found myself going to Bar Beach or Ikoyi Park to photograph models.

But I was shooting them in naturalistic outdoor situations. I’m an available light photographer . I have never used flash and I don’t believe in using flash. Most of my work is outdoors and even when indoors I know the kind of film to use to push it and how to play with the light to get a representative image of what the ambience was.

I’ve also always had  keen interest in photographing sports and ceremonies. Great ceremonies like the coronation of Oba of Benin in 1979. Documentary photography embraces all aspects of living and culture. You have to have a bit of everything.

Tell us about your upcoming solo exhibition. You had a group education not so long ago.

I’m now interested in doing solos. I had a two man exhibition in the South of France in 2007 with John Osodi, then came back and a month later had my first solo. It was called “Plantain Peel”, a study of rural women entrepreneurs. I documented a big plantain market in Bayelsa to show people the entrepreneurship of these women.

I was able to discover a woman who sold 7,200 bunches of plantain every market day- about half a million naira every market day. Her grandmother sold plantain, her mother sold plantain.. And we sit down in the cities and talk of women entrepreneurs and she had never got a grant. That market is more than 50 years old. Some of us go off the beaten track if we must discover things that are happening to highlight them.

My next exhibition is titled “1979″. 1979 for me was very important because that was when the current Oba of Benin was coronated and it was a grand affair. That same year was the one when Nigeria was going to return to civilian rule and the big players were out there. Awolowo’s last campaign was held at the TBS and it was fascinating to see the rapport, the magic between Awolowo the great orator and his supporters.

I have photos of president-to-be, Shagari sitting on a tattered chair at the old Ikeja airport looking like any other Nigerian and Zik, the great orator defending his status. I see this exhibition showing works done exactly 30 years ago as a peep into history and culture.


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