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FIRST CLASS: How Omoregie Osakpolor Documented The Violent Tribulations Of Pensioners In Nigeria

Solomon Elusoji  
Updated June 25, 2022
Omoregie Osakpolor says patience and consistency are the keys to his success. Illustration: Benjamin Oluwatoyin
Omoregie Osakpolor says patience and consistency are the keys to his success. Illustration: Benjamin Oluwatoyin

 

Omoregie Osakpolor is a documentary photographer who believes art can be used to change society. Nominated for the Future Africa Awards in 2017, his work has been exhibited in Austria, the United States and featured in international publications such as CNN Africa. His latest documentary film, Nation Forgotten, focuses on the dark lives of pensioners in Nigeria, their struggles and aspirations. In this interview, Omoregie talks about how he stumbled into photography, his love for activism and how difficult it was to make a film about senior citizens.


First Class is a column about extraordinary Nigerians aged 35 years and below. It collects their thoughts on what it takes to thrive as a young person in Nigeria. 

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SE: How did you become a documentary photographer?

OO: Growing up, I’ve always loved activism. It’s something I’ve been drawn to. I had so many dreams about changing Nigeria. And I was deeply influenced by Wole Soyinka. It was because of him I studied English and Literature at the University of Benin. I thought I was going to be a writer. But after university, that thought wasn’t as strong as it used to be. At that point, I was thinking of working at an Ad Agency. When I started NYSC, I pushed to serve at an Agency, but it didn’t work out. I was posted to a school to teach Creative Writing. I did that for one year. I later got an offer from an Ad Agency, but I chose to continue teaching. I was teaching primary school students in Lekki. On the side, I used to do freelance writing and editing. 

Meanwhile, my love for photography was getting stronger. We went to NYSC camp months after we had been posted because of Ebola. It was at NYSC camp I touched a camera for the first time – December 2014 – under the Skills Acquisition & Entreprenuership Department (SAED) program. It was pretty cool. After the camping experience, I decided to give photography a shot. 

What appealed to you about photography?

The reason I wanted to write was to express my thoughts on societal issues – politics and culture. And I felt I could do the things I wanted to do with writing, with photography. I loved photography but I didn’t know much about it. I just knew I wanted it to be an extension of what I do with my writing. I didn’t want to be a wedding or fashion photographer. 

I had my first basic digital photography training under SAED. Two hours a week, every Thursday. I did that for two months. I was always on my phone, searching for the best photographers and looking for their websites and watching tutorials on YouTube. 

So, when service ended, I didn’t feel like going into advertising anymore. The urge to photograph became stronger. All the money I saved during the service year was poured into photography. I saved virtually everything – about N100,000 – for photography equipment. That meant I denied myself so many things. I only got a pair of trousers all through the year. Then I got my camera in 2015, a Nikon D3100. I still have the lens, which I used to document the coronation of the Oba of Benin – and that work opened so many doors for me.

How did you get the Coronation gig?

I didn’t get it. In 2015, I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I was still an amateur; I was shooting weddings, birthdays and burials. But I wasn’t really happy. I was broke. And the photography work was just to get by. Then in 2016, before the coronation, I attended a workshop organised by the Nlele Institute. That was where I got a clearer picture of what I wanted to do with photography. The training changed my mindset and approach towards photography, to start thinking about it as anthropology, about studying human behaviour. Few months later, the coronation was held and I went to Benin. I was still an amateur, to be honest. 

When I went there, I couldn’t get the kind of access I wanted, because I wasn’t known. I was just another person with a camera. So I tried to document it from the point of view of the audience. In the end, the work went viral, because I was posting online as I was photographing. Everyone thought I was THE photographer, but I wasn’t. And it opened a lot of doors for me.

Has photography given you something writing couldn’t have given you?

That’s kind of tricky. I don’t think I’ve worked on my writing the same way I have on photography. You only get better at something you are obsessed with. Maybe if I had taken my writing more seriously . . . but I think photography would have still given me more. It’s easier to push photography and film, especially in Nigeria, than to push writing. 

Nation Forgotten is your latest documentary. How did the project come alive?

It was from a poem I wrote during my service year. And the poem was about my father. My father happens to be a retired customs officer. After retirement, his gratuity was held for a long time. He was fully paid his gratuity after 13 years of retirement. He was forcefully retired after 32 years and that had a toll on my father. At some point, while I was in school, he couldn’t send me school fees because there was no money. He had retired. It was my brothers who took care of the expenses. He would call and explain the situation and that was the first time I started to know what it was like to be a pensioner in Nigeria. 

After my service year, I went home and saw the situation and it dawned on me that this is what pensioners go through in Nigeria. Before then, the only thing I knew about pensioners was that they don’t pay them. That was when I wrote the poem.

When I started photography, I felt like I could make this a visual story. I felt that it would be more powerful as a visual story than just one poem. Then I started researching pensioners and realised there was a diversity of stories. That was how I started the story. 

The execution came after the coronation, so I didn’t have much experience. What I did was to start attending meetings with pensioners. I went to search for where the Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP) was having their meeting in Marina and observed their activities. That helped me to know how to approach the project. 

By 2017, I started reaching out to friends who gave me their parents’ contacts. I travelled to Owerri, where I made the first images for the project. I came back to Lagos broke. Over the years, that pattern continued. I would go to the field when I had some money.

Once, I travelled to Yenagoa but I couldn’t do anything. Because people were afraid to talk to me. Some people would ask me to come, but on getting there, they would say they were no longer interested because they were afraid of what could happen to them if they spoke their mind in front of the camera. I tried to return to Yenagoa – a day before I was to travel, I got a call from my fixer who happens to work in the Bayelsa pension board. She was scared and begged me not to come because word had gotten out a journalist was coming to talk to pensioners, and that it was dangerous. 

After that call, I knew I had to continue with the project. But funding wasn’t easy because I had to travel across different states.

Did you try to apply for grants?

All the grants I applied for, I didn’t get them. It was discouraging. So at some point, I just decided to do it myself and get it out there. And I started making some money too from some commercial jobs, so it got easier to fund it. Then it wasn’t just about the money, it was about getting people to talk about their experience. Because there was so much fear. I think I had more ‘Nos’ from many pensioners than the ones I featured on the documentary. That tells you how the Nigerian system works – that you could be so oppressed you don’t want to talk about your oppressor for fear of getting further oppression. You find an 80-year-old man scared of the state. At first, I was angry – why would an 80-year-old man be afraid of dying; but I think no matter your age, everybody still wants to enjoy life.

What next for the film?

It’s not done yet. I want to use different media to push it out. What we have now is the film. There’s a photography aspect. The next phase is to look at the Next-of-Kin of dead pensioners. Then I hope to document more protests. I hope to have a travelling exhibition of the work, after which there will be a photo-book. Then there can be an online forum through which pensioners can vent their frustrations.

What do you consider the biggest factor that has helped you to be successful?

I’ll say patience and consistency. It’s crazy being an independent documentary photographer in Nigeria. You don’t get grants or training. I don’t think I have any professional training; it’s just me learning through crash courses, three-day workshops, online resources. So there’s no support from anywhere. But overtime, I’ve tried to understand myself better. I knew what I wanted. So what has helped me is being patient with myself and continuing in that line. I had every reason to have stopped every project I’ve worked on. But I didn’t let those difficulties stop me. 

What are some of the mistakes you’ve made?

If I had known, I would have gone to a photography school in South Africa. Even though I couldn’t afford it at the time, my brother could have helped. But I didn’t know much about what was required to do photography. If I had gone to a proper photography school, that would have opened me to more opportunities and platforms. There are so many things I do now, using trial and error. While that is good – artists are supposed to experiment – I believe it’s not the best way to go. 

Also, I should have learnt more photography tools. For example, the moment I stopped shooting weddings, I abandoned Photoshop. I thought I didn’t need it anymore. So, for someone starting, I’ll say ‘learn everything you can, they will be useful later’.

And, of course, jumping into photography without a job. I don’t have any office experience. If you can, get a job, get a 9-5, learn your photography by the side; when you are comfortable enough, then you can go in full-time. It doesn’t make economic sense to do documentary photography full time while starting out – you are just setting yourself up for depression. I was able to pull through, thanks to my close friends and family members. But everybody can’t be that lucky or strong-headed like me. 

Do you ever think of leaving Nigeria, long term?

I’m at a point in my career now that I need growth, new forms of knowledge. And I don’t want to make the mistake I made earlier in my career, where I felt I could just coast through things. And I am becoming a bit more business-minded. So, I’m at a point where I need to leave Nigeria for a period of time, just for the purpose of study. Nigeria is my canvas, I can’t function anywhere like I would here. But it just makes sense for me to go out there and get more knowledge. I don’t want to migrate permanently.

That means you have a lot of belief in Nigeria?

If I don’t believe in Nigeria, I don’t think I’ll be doing all I’m doing. It’s much easier for me to do something else. If I had stayed as a copywriter, I could have been a big boy. But I feel like God created me for this. That’s why, for a long time, I didn’t learn the business aspect of photography. I’m just learning to learn the business aspect.

Do you consider that as a mistake?

Yes, it’s a mistake. I didn’t learn the business aspect of it, because I was so concerned about passion. So this is how I see art – a photographer is like a medical doctor to society; you diagnose society’s ailments. By doing that, you are trying to cure society’s sickness. The kind of work I do, that’s what I believe it is. 

Who would you recommend as a First-Class Nigerian?

Logor Muyiwa and Neec Nonso.


First Class is a column about extraordinary Nigerians aged 35 years and below. It collects their thoughts on what it takes to thrive as a young person in Nigeria. 

Do you know someone who fits the bill? Recommend a name here.

Sign up to receive the latest installment of exclusive First Class interviews in your email.