Its gallery is on the penultimate floor of the building on which it sits. A brown-tiled staircase with stainless rails leads from the parking basement up to the glossy wooden door that was its entrance.
The photography institute, which also doubles as a photo studio, is stationed in an expanse of hall space measuring about 500 square metres partitioned in seven, most of which houses the gallery fitted with lights of various sorts.
On entry, one is ushered into the reception, to the right of which is a balcony from where a double-lane tarred road is visible. The street then stretches along and blends into the background of the beautiful undulation of rusty brown roofs sheltering bungalows and two-story buildings that extend uphill to form a nucleated residential settlement.
To the left of the reception is a long hallway on the walls of which alluring portraits and paintings could be seen bearing images that showcase the beauty of Africa’s heritage and its women alike. Ending this hall is an office.
At its entry point, there is a massive printing machine, a workstation, and a bookshelf hosting a stack of fashion magazines as similarly seen in other halls of the gallery. Towards its rear is an operator post-processing a slew of images—editing out blemishes for the portraits ahead of print and fine-tuning their colour blend to make particular shades stand out and others become less obvious in a way that dictates the visual focus of unsuspecting observers.
In the studio were strobes, light modifiers, computers, lounge chairs, and a half-rolled-up paper backdrop aligned to the right in a way that offers a glimpse of the historical Ogun river through the window behind. Hakeem Salaam’s Whyte Project Photography Institute at JT Ayorinde Building, 34/36 Tororo Road, Abeokuta is a sight to behold.
The institute, to him, is the product of several years of brainstorming on how to assist young and vibrant creatives across Africa to gain exposure through project-based courses that also grant access to the works of accomplished photographers from across the continent and beyond.
In this interview, Salaam discusses his career, building his WhyteProject Institute, and his plans for the brand.
So, what about WhyteProject Institute? How come?
We started drawing up plans in 2014 but, for some reason, we couldn’t pull through with the idea. It was early 2000 that we considered an expansion where we get to have a gallery space, an academy, and a studio. The business has been in existence for quite a while. We incorporated the company in 2008. We started out at Festac as a photo laboratory which we later closed down for certain reasons. I left the job I was doing then to concentrate on photography. This particular project started in 2014 when I wrote the first business plan, the idea of which was to do it either in Lagos or Abuja. We had an elaborate plan that had me seek help from investors which wasn’t forthcoming. But I felt I could start something with personal funds. 2020 came; everything was on standstill and I understood I didn’t have to be in a particular location to get certain things done. I started planning to find befitting space until I found where we’re now.
You have a studio and an academy. Tell us about this combo and how it’s going to work.
On top of the ladder is the academy, then the gallery, the studio, and the print bureau where you get to print and finish your photos. The academy is to train photographers from the scratch. We look to build our trainees and ensure our programmes are project-based, teaching the ability to see, identify, and capture an image in a manner that an observer of the photograph is not left in doubt of the message. We’re going to be doing a lot of visual literacy and technical sessions as regards understanding the dynamics of the camera itself. We’ll teach lighting and how to use and modify it. At the end of every academic session, we’ll have an exhibition, where those who eventually graduate from here can always come back to showcase their work. We have a place for other photographers who have been yearning for an exhibition space. I realized that photographers don’t have as much exposure when it comes to exhibiting their works as other players in the art space.
The studio will be open to the public but be for the students that are coming in here so they will have the opportunity to practice what they’re being taught. The project is going to be rooted in strong theories, and then we’ll teach them how to put the theories into practice. What we look to achieve is to ensure there are no boundaries.
Is there a separate building for the classrooms is it’s going to be stand-around sessions?
No boundaries. Classrooms are to be embedded. We look to teach in batches of six or ten, ensuring each student has the personal attention of tutors since learning paces differ. I have people I’m partnering with and instructors from within and outside Nigeria. I have colleagues in South Africa as well who are already part of the programme.
You spoke of the difficulty surmounted in sourcing investor funds. How do you look to recoup the monies as the business expands and optimize the monetization aspect of running a brand this big?
Everything you see is personal funding, being that we’re in an industry that is still considered emerging. Photography in Nigeria continues to gain momentum by the day but many still see it as a pastime. The students are going to be paying—it’s not free. Printing for the exhibition is going to be paid for too. And the studio is going to be open to the public. Return on investment is not something we’re going to worry about. That’s guaranteed.
At what point did you venture into photography?
I started shooting back when I was in university, ’88; ’89. My first encounter was with a point-and-shoot camera. Two of my friends and I decided to borrow a Canon camera. We bought a film and loaded it. Of the 36 exposures, I shot 24 and they shot 12. That’s, how the interest started. I left university, bought my first camera in 1994, it was a Pentax. I started shooting before I got employed in the Lagos civil service. I kept the interest going. Then I bought my DSLR, 2004/2005. In 2007, I started my lab while still working. It was in 2009 I left government service to pursue photography.
And why did you move from Lagos to Ogun?
Doing business is interesting. COVID taught us that one’s physical location shouldn’t be a barrier. Moving to Abeokuta was an easy decision for us because, in Lagos, we didn’t have walk-in customers so to say. We have clients whose houses we had to visit to make portraits all over Nigeria, moving from Lagos. And the clients are still there. What we’re doing in Abeokuta shows we can always bring services to clients. Changing location doesn’t really affect the business. Also, Abeokuta is opening up, not just Abeokuta but the country as well. Now, one can quickly move from here to Lagos by train. The roads are getting better, so you can commute from Lagos to Abeokuta in one hour, unlike before. There’s also the serenity to Abeokuta that drives creativity. There are rocks and streams. You get to tell stories in pictures with what’s around you.
But there’s a body of water in Lagos; Lekki and its luxury buildings. Talking about the environment influencing the creative process and Ogun as an ideal location, don’t you think that’s relative?
I’m from Lagos. When it comes to beauty, if you remove the water and buildings, there’s nothing left. Behind my studio is Ogun River. Moving down the road, you see Olumo Rock. You see rustic roofs and hills and serious undulations of buildings. That’s a natural beauty. Unlike when you get to Lagos and everything is almost flat. You think here in geometry, unlike Lagos. I’ve had the privilege of traveling around the whole country, from 2014 to 2019, to take pictures. I saw the beauty of which Abeokuta is one.
Did you have to undertake training at some point?
No, I’m self-tutored.
So, what was it about childhood that had you do photography?
I’ve been a very inquisitive person who loves nature. I grew up in a village, in Epe. I enjoyed the adventure, doing domestic crafts like basket weaving. I learned by observing. I taught myself to fish and paddle canoe. It’s dangerous. I taught myself to farm. Exploration is what led me to photography. I was curious. Seeing the magnification of tiny objects interested me. There are patterns and textures to them.
And how did your education play into the picture?
I started primary in 1972, left in ’78 after which my mother thought I wasn’t good enough to do secondary school. She kept me back, having me tutored, until 1979. I did secondary school in my village, United Technical College, ’79 to ’84. From 1984, ‘85, ‘86, to ‘87, I was home. In ‘87, I went to the Lagos State Polytechnic for Accountancy, which I didn’t finish, before proceeding to the University of Lagos to study estate management. There were about 33 schools offering Accountancy then, both universities and polytechnics. We were about 2000 in my own school. Multiply that by 33 and you have about 66,000 accountants every year. I considered job placement and decided I had to look for something that’s not as crowded, hence Estate Management. We were 33 then in my department and, as we speak, the number of estate surveyors in Nigeria is still less than 10,000. That’s why lawyers and accountants now dabble into estate surveying and valuation. The profession itself doesn’t have enough practitioners.
So I graduated in 1992 and worked briefly with private sector companies, estate firms. That’s between ‘93 and ‘95. By ’95, I decided I was going to start working for myself. I would later be employed as a level 8 officer in the civil service, land bureau. By ’99, I was level 13, due for 14. I disengaged in 2010 at level 14. All that time, I was practicing photography as a hobbyist.
You’ve done both fashion and nature photography. How would you describe your style and niche?
I love details, be it colour or skin texture. I try not to box myself into any genre. You saw one of the pictures and admired the realism of it. I don’t move away from things being real. Shooting landscape, I still love to retain that artistic element to it. I’ve shot fashion, landscape, macro, and won awards.
Do you also paint? I saw the portrait of a black woman with Afro hair drumming. Looks painted.
It’s actually a photograph. I painted the woman but I can’t call myself a painter. Mine is a result of brain waves. I started that kind of thing with my toothbrush. I got some paints but couldn’t find an artist brush. There was no brush pallet too, so dug the toothbrush in the paint and created it after which I took pictures. I showed it to a friend and they bought it. I call them human canvass. It was born out of curiosity.
How much do your works cost?
It depends on what goes into it and the value I place on it. There are times when you place so much value that you don’t find a willing buyer. What that means is you’re inclined to hold it. There are works I could let go for N500,000 and others for N50 or N150. In the last exhibition I did, I sold about 11 works for N250,000 each. The advantage of this is that some are of an open edition and others are closed. The open edition is unlimited print. You can reprint. For closed edition, there’s a limited number of it you can produce. The closer you get to hitting that figure, the more expensive that piece becomes. The former is everywhere while the latter is more costly.
The intrinsic value of artworks is based on perception. Artists might place a premium on a piece quite differently from the value collectors attach to the same. How do you bridge the gap?
Art is a luxury commodity only sold to people who appreciate its value, not something that every Dick, Tom, and Harry can dabble in. If you want to have it, you have to be ready to pay. There’s no compulsion to it. You don’t need to market them. When collectors see it, they know what they’re looking for.
The first project I did as a photographer and thoroughly enjoyed is a landscape project I called Beautiful Nigeria. It was meant to showcase Nigeria’s beauty. I visited the 36 states photographing landscapes. On awards, I’ve lost count. I’d have to go through my archives.
And have you had to put together an exhibition?
Yes, I did an exhibition in South Africa. I’ve gone to the US, Europe, and other parts of Africa to shoot for clients on commission. Right now, I’m in active collaboration with Canon in a partnership that has been on for over two years now. It started when they wanted to use my image to brand one of their products. In 2020, they launched a new camera and I was called. The relationship is still there.
It couldn’t have been all easy-peasy. Of course apart from the logistic challenges with which many Nigerian brands grapple, what market roadblocks did you have to surmount?
Like in other businesses, there is a market. You have people who are qualified and those who aren’t. I’m a member of the Nigerian Institution of Estate Surveyor and Valuers. Within that space, we have intruders, with accountants and lawyers getting involved. There are so many others that are not even educated. So while you have professional quacks, you have uneducated quacks. In photography that is less organized, as long as I can afford a camera, I’m a photographer. Clients sometimes fail to distinguish between these two because some don’t even know what they want. It is the responsibility of some of us to let the client know what they’re looking for and what we have to offer.
What’s your assessment of Nigeria’s fashion industry with regard to the place of photography?
The fashion industry is growing very fast. But because of the gap between the demand for apparel and supply, where there’s a supply shortage, a lot of photographers are not interested in doing photo shoots for marketing campaigns before sales. To [Nigerian] fashion designers, photography is just to bolster sales. There’s the branding side in the case of Gucci where they do shoots and hire models to push designs because there are competing brands.
What do we have in Nigeria? We don’t even have many recognised fashion outlets. Put a typical Nigerian tailor here and, after three to four days, they are yet to deliver. I gave one a piece of cloth. It’s three months now and he’s yet to deliver. That’s because he has so much to do. His hands are full. Hence, he won’t pay a lot of attention to branding.
And If I were in their shoes, I’ll do the same. If my store capacity is 1000 over a certain period and demand is at 2000, what time do I have for branding? Any effort to that effect would only be to pictorially preserve the work I’ve done, not for sales. In that situation, if photography comes with a huge budget, the designer will forgo it because the usage is for the archive which doesn’t bring money. These are some of the challenges that fashion photographers are facing in Nigeria.
How about the runway shows?
How often do we have those? How often do we have fashion week in Nigeria and where are the people supporting such events? It’s an industry that is still growing. But if that’s where you want to pitch your tent as a photographer, I’ll advise that you add some other genre to it so you’re not left behind.
What’s your creative process like?
I think, write down ideas for a project on my note or iPad. I decide if it’s a solo thing or it will involve collaboration. If it does, I let them know. I read books and images come to mind. I watch TV, see things, and get inspired. I have conversations from where concepts come. I was talking to a friend who said some people are below the radar. That was a trigger. I started asking who they are. I got here and the first thing I saw was the roofs; the undulation; the landscape. Inspiration is everywhere.
90 percent of the time, my images are straight from the camera. What I try to do is ensure that we put in the spadework before firing the first shot. The amount of time you put into planning might have taken care of the whole post-processing work. It’s like the drummer girl, which I printed straight from the camera. The only thing I did is convert it to the format my printer can take. Also, art is subjective as you said earlier. There are times that you think, if you change the colour of an image, it would better portray the artwork you have In mind. That’s not a lot of processing. Some people, what they do in post-processing is to sit back and create a different project. That’s photo manipulation. For me, the outcome is predetermined. You might have a bit of deviation but not enough to derail from what you planned.
At your level in photography, would you say you’ve arrived?
No, nobody ever does. It’s a journey and I make bold to say that because photography is not a static science. If you say you’ve arrived, good luck to you. In another year or two, don’t be surprised to find that you’ve lost all your clients. I collaborate. It’s an ongoing thing. If you shoot fashion, you collaborate all the time. For arts, you also do. It could be with other photographers or models as long as you’re not paying money for some services you’re getting.
You’re a well-traveled Nigerian. How does insecurity affect your operations?
Anywhere you have insecurity, particularly for those of us who are outdoor photographers, it has a negative impact. I was meant to have started the second phase of my Beautiful Nigeria project which focuses on the people. I couldn’t because going to the north or east isn’t something I can contemplate at the moment. I’m not saying every part of these places is problematic but if you don’t go, you won’t know.
I did a project for the army, going to the northeast where the carnage is happening. I was there in 2017, 2018, 2019.
I was there consistently, going in and out. The outcome of that is the Nigeria Army 8th Division Gallery in Sokoto. We did the installation in 2020. It encompassed about 300 works. I did a project on vitiligo in 2016, exhibited it at Ake Festival in 2019. I did another on tribal marks. I shot albinos but didn’t do any full project on it. That story was over-flogged. I also did a project in South Africa called Foreigners on Longstreet, named after a street in Capetown.
Project-based photography, for me, holds a special allure.
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