Keleenna Onyeaka is the Photographer Capturing African City Dwellers

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Keleenna Onyeaka is a self-taught photographer and visual artist based in London. Following his second solo street photography exhibition titled A Glimpse of Port Harcourt, we caught up with him to reflect on his journey in photography.

Our conversation, loosely edited for clarity, follows below.

When did you start taking pictures?

Funny enough, I only got into photography as a serious hobby last year (August 2018) when I decided to buy my first DSLR. I’ve always been a visually stimulated person I literally watch a movie or video before bed every night without fail and have a huge collection of photobooks. But I used to limit myself as a consumer of visual stories and almost came to accept that I wouldn’t have a conventional creative outlet. This all changed when I stumbled across a YouTube video on photography around June 2018; it sparked the geeky side of me which loves to learn as it introduced me to the technical side of photography. The video taught me that I could learn how to photograph the same way I learned to speak French or do algebra and subsequently, I spent hours watching YouTube videos about photography, cameras, and lights. I even watched a 9-hour university lecture as well as watching a lot of videos on photography and cameras. It was such a relief especially as I am a very intellectually curious person and I felt like I had learned a new language in which I could engage and express this curiosity and so once I had learned enough of the language I decided to buy a camera.

What inspired you to start taking pictures that documented life in certain places? 

People. I just find people extremely complicated, powerful and interesting and at the same time, I find the amount of information that is contained in photographs fascinating. Again, I see photography as a language another form of communication in which we can tell fiction and non-fictional stories as well as explore the past, present, and future. In 2017 I moved to Lagos to work and I had just bought an iPhone 7, the first time I was up to date with the latest phone and subsequently phone camera. I had been to Lagos many times before this, but this time it was 100% my decision and was at a point in time where I was considering moving back home. So powered with this new camera I felt it was important that I documented what life is really like in Lagos and not just the glitz and glamour or the extreme poverty, but just the everyday life the stuff you see but don’t look at it. I did this so that whenever I was back in London I could reconnect with Lagos and have that data point before making that decision to move back or not. There was one image in particular that really took me back because it showed an everyday scene in such a poetic way. Three individuals (maybe sisters) all representing different stages of life and showcasing different emotions. When I look at the picture I find myself trying to decode what it tells me about the subjects and the environment, and how the two co-exist. It was this picture that made me appreciate the art of documentation and to actually realise that art is a form of documentation.

How do you balance work as an investment banker with your avid interest in photography? 

Lack of sleep… No, jokes aside, it’s not easy. I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices socially, but the reality is that without banking I wouldn’t be the photographer or artist I am today for multiple reasons. Investment banking has taught me about the power of hard work and project management. I would say taking pictures is 60% of being a conscious photographer the rest involves research on the subject matter, solidifying what your objectives are and what is wrong with those objectives, planning how to get your work out there and a lot of self-reflection. At the same time, my job is also a source of inspiration, going to the same office every day looking at the same screen and working with the same people filters through to my photography work because it builds up a hunger to see different things and to see them differently. So in a weird way being a banker has influenced part of my creative process making the two often feel intertwined. But from a practical standpoint, technology has been a massive help, offering the ability to edit pictures on the bus to work, etc. It helps me squeeze in pockets of productivity whenever free time pops up.

Your upcoming exhibition is solely focused on the city of Port Harcourt. What about the city speaks to you? What informed your decision to spotlight the city? 

I’ve lived in and around a number of cities throughout my life namely Birmingham, London, New York, and Lagos and they have all contributed to my appreciation and understanding of how much of a melting pot a city can be. As I said, I find people extremely interesting and you can find all kinds of people in a city. When you live in a city I think you imprint part of who you are on the city and at the same time the city imprints part of what it is made up of on you and when this exchange is happening across millions of people at the same time a city really becomes a platform where anything and everything can happen. When we talk about Africa, straight away, the granularity of the continent is lost, we start with a continent and then delve into the regions before touching on the country and a few major cities. By focusing on one city and confessing that I can only showcase a glimpse of that city for me is part of how we can correct/challenge the notion that Africa is a single entity.

After a Glimpse of Lagos, I felt like I needed to showcase a city that isn’t spotlighted that much outside of Nigeria. Port Harcourt is a city I had heard a lot of amazing and scary things about and historically it is a very important city from an economic standpoint (even before the discovery of crude oil). On a personal level, I actually spent a lot of time in Port Harcourt as a child because my grandparents lived there, and so for me going to Port Harcourt served as an opportunity to reappreciate the city and witness first hand how accurate what I had been told about the city was. What really spoke to me about Port Harcourt was just the resilience of the people especially when you think about all the issues that oil has had on the city and nearby regions you can hardly tell when connecting with people out there.

The series started with A Glimpse of Lagos. How did this come about and what led you to focus on that city? What were you seeking to do the series? Where next? 

A Glimpse of Lagos actually started out as a response to an exhibition I had seen last year, funny enough. It was at the same Juju’s bar that A Glimpse of Port Harcourt is on display. I had just started out in photography and went to the exhibition literally as a fanboy. For me, the combination of Lagos, the place I believe opened up my visual curiosity, and photography was too good to be true.

The brief was: “[The artist] paints a vivid picture of daily life through the eyes of the various musicians, workers, gangsters and hawkers that form the beating heart of this rapidly expanding metropolis.” I spoke to the artist (a white man) and told him I would love to one day do the same thing, as much as I felt some type of way about somebody else documenting everyday life about a people he can only understand on a limited extent, I commended him for doing what we maybe hadn’t done ourselves. But I was really disheartened when the one piece of advice he gave me was to get a fixer – someone who can organise locals so that you can create the images you want.

In short, this wasn’t daily life as shown by Lagos, this was daily life as shown by the artist, and don’t get me wrong the pictures were exceptional, but this is what drove me to do A Glimpse of Lagos as a response to this advice because you don’t need a fixer to create interesting visual stories in an African city, you just need to look. After that exhibition and the feedback I got, I realised that like it or not, those of us in the diaspora will always seek ways to reconnect home and so I felt like I could take on that task of creating a platform through photography where people can reconnect, but I feel confident in my position to do so because I represent both sides and I am very much aware of the responsibility that this comes with.

What informs the pictures you take? Is there a trigger or do you just seek to capture as much as you can?  

I feel like there’s a sixth sense at play before I pull click the shutter. When I’m really in the zone, I feel quite connected with my surroundings and in a way, I can kind of sense when an interesting story is about to unfold. It can be something as subtle as two people walking from opposite directions but you can anticipate at some point they are going to interact and when you take into account the two subjects and the environment you can quickly get a feel of whether an interesting visual story is about to take place. From there the important part is ensuring my camera settings are good and I correctly time the moment I press the shutter button and find a composition that really documents what just happened in a complete, interesting and engaging way.

Are there other photographers who catch your fancy or whose work you enjoy?

Yeah, I would consider myself a diverse photographer and sometimes I get inspired by a range of photographers from street to fine art portraiture, especially coming out of the continent. But if I’m to focus on street/documentary photography I would list Fan Ho, Alan Schaller, Neil Kenlock, Yagazie Emezi, Benard Kalu and Nana Kofi Acquah.

Is your art political? When you take pictures, are there implicit statements attached to them?

Not really, there are few images that I think serve as a statement beyond just the documentary aspect of a street photo, but for the most part, the goal of my street photography is to start a conversation

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