Sunmi Smart-Cole, Nigerian celebrated photographer, is a man whose name rings bell to many. But few people probably did not know that the 78-year-old multi-award winner rose from obscurity to stardom.

Here are five things you should to know about Smart-Cole:

Learnt English through radio

When Sunmi Smart-Cole was born on September 25, 1941, he had no inkling of what fate had in stock for him. With a relatively poor family background, all he could get was a primary school education.

After he completed his primary education, he decided to make the most of his inability to get a secondary school education. With the little money he earned from a working as teacher in a rural school in Port Harcourt, he bought a transistor radio and subsequently started listening to BBC World Service.

With that, he was able to equip himself with sophisticated vocabularies and an English accent that few of his contemporaries who attended higher schools could boast of.

“Every morning, I got up early and tuned the radio, and they read the news every hour on the hour. They had a programme called News of the African World,” he said. “I was in love with the British accent,” he told BBC.

Had a Cambridge University girlfriend

“I had a girlfriend who went to Cambridge. Her father was a professor and her mother a professor. She said she was so surprised about my story and would not have believed it if I did not tell it to her,” he said.

He was sacked for having no school certificate

His grasp of English language would eventually pave way for his rise to fame. Not without a cost though as many firms he attempted to work for rejected him because he had not school certificate.

“He trained as a draughtsman and got a job designing buildings, but was sacked months later when an audit of his personnel file showed that he had no school certificate. Many other organisations refused him employment for the same reason,” BBC wrote.

But that didn’t discourage him.

Sunmi Smart-Cole

He once cut hair for a living

During his visit to Lagos, Nigeria’s economic hub, Smart-Cole decided to set up a barber’s shop and met his friend’s dad to help with the initial capital — a development that did not go down well with his friend’s father.

“He said he had always used me as an example to his sons, that I spoke very well. He told them to emulate me and now I wanted to go and do a low-class job,” he said.

He later got £20 with which he was able to set a barbing business which later became a pristine destination for many popular figures in the city.

Captured Nelson Mandela with no shoes on

Shortly after Smart-Cole set-up his barbing business, he began to swim on fortune when he met Jesse Jackson, a US civil rights activist — a meeting which shot him into the international limelight.

Smart-Cole then considered taking a career in photography by enrolling in a community college in 1976 — a career that has brought him immense fame till date.

From a rookie photographer, Smart-Cole subsequently gained global attention especially for street photographs which captures emotions and moments.

One of his stand-out photos was a shot of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero, tagged: ‘Nelson Mandela at ease’. The picture had shown Mandela in a relatively relaxed state without his shoes on.

Smart-Cole also took other outstanding pictures during his stint at the upper echelons of power — during the Nigeria’s military era. Some of them include a portrait picture of Maryam Babangida, former first lady, with Halima, her daughter, during her one-year-old birthday celebration in 1991.

Fela Kuti’s drummer and musician

Aside his stint in the photography landscape, Smart-Cole was a musician. He was one of the drummers for Fela Kuti, late Nigerian musician and fearless human rights activist, while pushing for a lifeline in Lagos. He was also a member of different jazz and soul bands.

First photographer to circulate Babangida’s coup victory worldwide

Another highlight of his photography journey is his ability to circulate fresh shots across the globe. In 1985, he was the first photographer to circulate a photo of Ibrahim Babangida, former head of state, to the international audience after a military coup victory.



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