Filmed and Edited: Josh Hallam
To many, British-Nigerian ‘Storyteller’ Keleenna Onyeaka’s route into photography may seem somewhat enigmatic. A banker and writer by day, Keleenna first stumbled upon his love of photography by capturing portraits on his iPhone.
Unperturbed by an initial lack of professional experience, Keleenna has been open about spending many hours outside of work hours learning about the craft of photography, understanding how to manipulate light, and how to get the best out of a digital camera. Graduating to a DSLR, Keleenna’s journey into photography recently led him to take a slightly different approach to experiencing the vibrancy of Lagos on his most recent trip to Nigeria, organically capturing movement within the city, the ‘Lagos hustle, and everything in between. Being an annual visitor to Lagos, it has been interesting for those close to Keleenna to hear him speak about being able to view the city through a different lens.
On his return to London, Keleenna showcased a selection of the best of his Lagos visuals. Guap caught up with Keleenna after the exhibition to find out how he felt things went and where he expects his photography journey to take him to in the future.
Who is Keleenna?
Breaking it down – I currently work in a bank, I take pictures, and I write for a business outlet in Nigeria. I guess I would call myself a storyteller; I love telling stories and I’d say that that’s the common theme that runs throughout everything that I do.
What inspired you to first pick up the camera?
We live in very interesting times and in truth you can get a camera anywhere. However, the first camera that I picked up was actually my iPhone camera. I would find myself taking random pictures on the street of things that just told stories to me. I would look at things and try and decipher what happened there – it was a natural passion and interest. One day in August I decided that I wanted to capture pictures more clearly and to have a bit more flexibility in the way in which I captured images, so I invested in a DSLR. 100s of hours of Youtube later, here I am. It really felt like a natural progression and like it just made sense.
To take things deeper and to repeat myself a little, anyone that knows me knows I like to tell stories. ‘Photography’ – even if you look at the definition of the word – means “to tell a story through light”. A photo is a way to tell a story in a still image. As they say – a picture is worth a thousand words.
What does creativity mean to you?
It’s funny – I have a love-hate relationship with the word, the whole idea of ‘being creative’. It is very much at times a buzzword; it’s sexy – everyone wants to say that they are ‘creative’ in some aspect. That’s not to say that it is a bad thing, but it can place a lot of people in a box – it implies that you are either creative or you are not. I actually believe that everyone is creative. This is because creativity is just about expression and a desire to look at things differently and to present it to people in a different way. Creativity is a form of expression, sharing with others and even a form of advancement. For example, you can look at architecture as a way of expressing creativity; even more and more social issues are being pushed through creative outlets. Creativity just means more to certain people.
How do you feel your own identity speaks through your photography?
Part of the main reason why I am interested in photography is down to my Black-British (African) heritage, however one may wish to spin it. Everything that has happened in my life to bring me to where I am today has been heavily influenced by Africa, being Nigerian, or being Igbo – both through my upbringing and through spending a lot of time in Nigeria as a child. The reality of Nigeria as a country doesn’t seem so far from my own reality. I think for a lot of people who don’t get to spend as much time in Africa, their portrayal of Africa can be quite dramatic – it is sad; it is happy; it is sexy – but it is not necessarily their own reality as they do not get to see it face to face. For me, as I have seen it and because I can see that the beauty in it is real, it influences me when I’m shooting.
When I was shooting in Nigeria on this recent trip, I kept thinking to myself – ‘how do I keep the authenticity whilst still trying to express the beauty of Lagos?’ There’s a difference between when I shoot here in the UK and when I shoot in Nigeria. The expectations of photographers are still the same – they know how quickly edits can be done and turned around and therefore have the same demands – but from a content perspective, the stories that I can capture there make more sense to me, because of my upbringing. In a way, I’ve seen it all before so I already have the context; I’m just capturing what I know.
I’d also add that, as an African man taking photographs in Africa – because of what the media has done – I feel that there is even more of a weight or expectation on you to do the continent justice morally and ethically. You want to capture the story, but you want to do it properly. The way that I see street photography is very candid – I am capturing what I see; there is no agenda behind the use of subjects or anything like that.
For me, when putting together this exhibition, there were some pictures I even had to take out that I just wasn’t comfortable with portraying; whereas others may be. I think the first thing you need to do is to establish your moral gauge – and even then you may be challenged as art is subject. Even on the day of the exhibition, someone did challenge me on one of my pictures and that’s fine – I enjoy those conversations and explaining what my perspective was in capturing the image. But the way in which my work was going to be perceived was something that I was definitely conscious of.
What came first, the content or the exhibition concept?
To do the question justice, I feel like I should give you some proper background. So a few months ago here in Shoreditch, I went to an exhibition showcasing some Lagos photography. It was a really interesting exhibition; good bar, good vibes, food, drinks, and great imagery. It was a really relaxed environment where I was able to speak to a lot of cool people – if you don’t have anything else to talk about, you can always speak about what you’ve come here to see. That was when I first decided that I too was going to do my own exhibition; if you told me that I was going to do it within three months of going to that exhibition though, I would have told you: ‘no way’.
Because I know Nigeria, it was then relatively simple to get some really good content. Whilst creating the content, I started to notice a general trend behind the various themes that I was capturing. Sometimes things don’t always flow logically, so with a lot of the pictures I literally just went with it and then noticed connections between them.
Talk us through the journey of bringing an exhibition to life.
My journey was a little unorthodox – I had never done anything like this before, so I had to figure out my ‘why’. Like a lot of things in life, once you have your ‘why’ down to a tee, everything else makes sense. Once you have you why, then it turns to your ‘how’ and your ‘what’. For me, I wanted to pay homage to everyday Lagos life and to the normality of everyday Lagos life.
Once I had my why, my ‘what’ was the content. If you haven’t done anything like this before, you are going to have to learn a lot or if you have people that can help you out, you need to learn from them. For me, everything was being done from scratch. I think the first thing I did was to have a meeting in my flat – obviously, you (Aji) were there; and my two friends that live in the same building were there, and I just said: ‘look guys, these are the photos I have, this is the idea and concept I have, let’s bounce ideas of each other’. I think it’s very important to have a group of people around you who you trust that don’t stifle your vision.
With a strong team you can take your ‘what’ and ‘why’ into something more practical, which is when the real work started. I wanted to be involved in every aspect – cutting wood, spray-painting etc. I basically turned my house into a workshop, God bless my flatmate, Leah. With the kind of photography I have done, I’ve intruded into people’s lives in a way, so I felt that I had the most responsibility to do things justice. I think you need a lot of patience on your first few exhibitions, but it was so much fun.
Why did you choose the categories you chose?
So the two categories I went for were ‘Lagos movement’ – trying to capture the diversity of transportation and people commuting through Lagos; and ‘Lagos hustle’ which was aimed at capturing the diversity of hustles and the way people interacted with their work. With the second one, I’d notice that some people were happy; some people were sad; some people were tired – ‘they can’t come and kill themselves’. Those two themes were only a glimpse of Lagos.
You can’t capture the entirety of Lagos – there’s too much history, too much colour, and too much diversity – so I just wanted to focus on an aspect of it. I thought, what is the main thing I think of when I come to Lagos? To answer my own question: for me, it is diversity and colour. I had a few different bodies of work that I did whilst out here; I did a session in a backyard gym and did a lot of concert photography – these were also things I could have shown. For me, commuting and work are the two things that highlight Lagos’ diversity the most, which is why I went with those. Also, by going for two it meant that I was less likely to dilute the message. It all reiterates the fact that, no matter how hard you try, you will never be able to capture the entirety of the magic that happens in Lagos.
How, for you, does street photography differ to other types of photography that you do and have done?
The way I always describe street photography when people ask me is ‘capturing the candid nature of everyday life’. Like I could just be sat on the tube and my eyes will be shining as I’m just taking in everything that is going on – trying to figure out their story, who they are, how they move etc. etc. For me, street photography is capturing that in a frame, un-tampered.
It actually takes me back to the exhibition in Shoreditch that I was speaking about earlier that I told you helped to inspire me to do mine. I actually managed to speak to the photographer there as I was really impressed. ‘How did you manage to go to Lagos and were so comfortable taking these pictures, especially as a white man?’, I asked him. I was really curious. ‘Oh no, the main thing you need is a fixer’, the man replied.
He then broke things down and explained that a ‘fixer’ is someone you pay to go and get local people, tell them the locations of where to meet at and they will pose for pictures. The whole thing really didn’t sit well with me. I still respected his art and the images were powerful, but to me – it just wasn’t real. Street photography to me was really just ‘point and shoot’. No-one actually objected to having their picture taken. I did have a thing where, afterwards – if I had any pictures showing people’s faces clearly – I would go up to the individual and just explain what I was doing and what the pictures were being used for and check that they were happy with how it looked.
There were some images that were ‘lost gems’ that I just had to delete because people weren’t happy and you just have to deal with it. I guess that’s where ethics and morality come into street photography. Although it’s more real, it’s a bit more intrusive. That’s kind of way I wanted to do my exhibition in my home – after intruding into people’s spaces myself, it felt right to invite people into mine.
What can we expect next from Keleenna?
One thing I will say is that the feedback has been great – I managed to sell a lot of my work and even had friends in America reaching out to see how they could get their hands on some of the art. I definitely want to make the most of it all. I was in my element doing it and I’d definitely like to do something like that again. For my next exhibition I’d like to perhaps collaborate with other photographers, if not doing it solo again.
One point that was missed is the exhibition itself was just a whole vibe – we had food: a cooler of chicken; a cooler of puff-puff; a cooler of giz-dodo. There was Chapman; there were drinks – it really was a vibe. I guess that’s something that I often miss at exhibitions here, they can be quite ‘high society’ and quite stuffy. Our people can appreciate art and still have a good time.
From a photography perspective, it’s just about doing more and doing better. I’m definitely growing as a person – I’m learning way more about myself. Going into photography has also allowed me to meet a whole new world of people – it’s literally unlocked access to a new wave of models, other photographers, music people, and more – it’s great. So I’m really looking to just see how far it all takes me.
You can view more of Keleenna’s work here. A photobook containing a selection of his works from the exhibition will be available from 12 May 2019.
~ Aji Ayorinde // @ajibolajosiah