Obi Somto, through his photography, shows he is both boldness and unconventionality personified, writes Karen Eloke Young
On one sunny afternoon, Obi Somto was casually exercising his bowels an Abuja hotel room toilet when he made a wild decision that changed the course of his career forever. With a daring click of his camera, he captured himself naked from the waist down at the most intimate moment in a photograph that evokes both shock and curiosity.
What possessed this young photographer to disregard the rules of propriety?
His reason is one that is astounding in its simplicity. "I was taking a s**t," he begins. "I was in a hotel room in Abuja, I went there for work and after I was done with work I was in my room bored, taking a s**t and I was with my camera and so I thought I should shoot myself doing this. I got up, set up my camera and sat back down on the can and took the shot."
If there are still lingering doubts that Somto is not the average, run-of-the mill photographer the above response definitely erases it. But this photograph - dubbed by many as "Man on the Can" - is not his only praiseworthy photograph. He also has several others under his belt. He has shot notable people in the society like President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, Tuface Idibia, Asa, Ramsey Nouah, Dr Sid, Ice Prince, Eva Alordiah, Desmond Elliot, Sound Sultan, Banky W, D'Prince, MI, and Ruggedman, to name a few.
Surprisingly, this very creative photographer did not study any professional courses in photography. He simply became one. A graduate of banking and finance from Babcock University, this young man, who describes himself as "super human" claims that art runs deep in his blood.
"I've always been the artistic type, I could draw, paint -the whole works," he recalls. "Growing up I used to enjoy taking pictures. If you go through the photos in my family home, I'm missing in most of them because I was always the one behind the camera. But photography didn't get serious for me until [when I was in] my final year in university. I bought a DSLR Camera, because I wanted to document my last days in school. I started putting pictures up on Facebook and a lot of people liked them."
And with this, what started as just a fun hobby to while away the time gradually metamorphosed into an impressive career.
"After school when I went for my youth service it continued - I really enjoy taking pictures - and then during my service year people started calling me and offering me money to take pictures for them. And I thought 'oh really?' I went on a little hiatus around Nigeria taking pictures and people wanted to pay for them. It started as a fun hobby but after my youth service I just kept on doing it as a profession. To be honest, it was not a conscious decision."
For the past two years, Somto's camera has helped him turn his gaze inward, it is as though his camera searches for clues to symbolic meanings in the ordinary and the overlooked - a mechanic perched atop a car tyre, a little boy sitting alone in a rural neighbourhood, three children playing on the beach - whatever the moment, like a third eye his lens gives him access to another more profound level of existence.
How he is able to capture these ordinary moments and reveal something extraordinary is one that he says just comes to him. "There is a photograph of three kids on the beach that I shot, that one just happened. I was at some beach in the Lekki area shooting for work and I noticed these three kids, they were happy and they had dreadlocks and all and I just got the urge to capture it and I did. The picture was one I really liked."
What is remarkable about Somto's photographs is a suggestion of the artist's intimate connection with his subjects; this vibe comes through powerfully in his work.
He is one who sees life in a way that very few do, and this peculiarity is easily noticed upon meeting him. Easily provoked to laughter, every moment of this interview with him elicited guffaws at intervals.
But despite his seemingly easy-going and carefree attitude Somto is one that takes his work very seriously. This is obvious from his explanation of his workflow.
"I'll paint you an ideal scenario of what I love to do during a shoot - a proper shoot and what happens in reality sometimes. For example, if I want to do a shoot, I always first do some research.
"For personal work obviously there's no pressure so I have all the time in the world to do what I want to do. I research on the streets; I draw out a plan, put a mood-board together and get ready for the shoot. It takes time; sometimes it takes me about a month to plan one shoot, when it would take way less than that amount of time to do a work shoot."
Obviously, his personal shoots allow him more freedom to channel his creativity.
"I enjoy and prefer my personal shoots obviously because I put a lot of time into it. But this happens for some commercial work sometimes - it all depends on the client. Some clients know exactly what they want and no time is wasted in getting the shoot done."
In between giving his all to doing photography he admits rather self-consciously that he still harbours the dream of exploring other forms of art.
"Even before I started photography I've been walking the path of art, I stopped sketching when I finished secondary school in 2004, I started doing computer graphics but since that time till I've always wanted to get back into drawing. I've purchased a couple of drawing pads and I keep telling myself I'll draw. I cleaned up my room my room recently and I found about five drawing pads all empty." He punctuates this revelation with a self-deprecating smile playing around his lips.
"I think eventually I will get back to drawing and painting, but on the side. I like to draw sketches with pencil and paper."
Although this hints at a wish to wander away from photography into the realm of other forms of expression, photography will always be his first love.
But will the prevailing attitude towards photography in Nigeria encourage him to remain in the profession?
While he is aware of the changes that need to be made in the attitude of the typical Nigerian towards photography, he believes that over the years there has been a marked improvement.
"In my opinion most Nigerians still do not really appreciate photography as an art. That's the major challenge, and believe me, it's a serious problem. They feel like anyone can pick up a camera and take pictures. They don't understand that it takes a whole lot more than that. Photography is art and it should be appreciated.
Although I must think things are getting better, a few years ago photographers in Nigeria didn't have it this good but we are getting there."
One cannot help but agree with him. Since the likes of George Osodi, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, TY Bello, Jide Adeniyi-Jones and so many other talented photographers came on the scene, photographers in Nigeria have been able to slowly ascend to celebrity-like status, one that in all honesty Obi Somto has managed to attain in an amazingly a short amount of time.
But then again, it is popularly said that fortune always favours the bold, and Obi Somto is boldness and unconventionality personified.