Have you ever gone through something, and years later, you experienced another thing that justifies what you previously encountered? I am sure you can relate if you have lived on earth long enough. This is because dots make sense when we connect them backwards but never forward. Life is a journey, and we must live it to unravel its adventures, drama, pains and gains. Sad right? That is life for you.
Photo by KC Nwakalor
Many photographers (myself included) often fall into the trap of thinking that their lives only began when they picked up the camera– well, that's far from the truth. In this article, I want us to go on a solemn journey to unravel the various aspects of your life that you can infuse into your work to find a deeper meaning and an enduring sense of purpose in your creative practice.
I do not believe in the 'aspire-to-perspire' motivational speaker's jargon. Hence, I will draw from my personal experience and hope it triggers you to think the right thoughts that can make you a better photographer and all-around human being.
The Why. In January 2019, I received an email that I had been selected to attend New York Portfolio Review, a reputable yearly photography workshop hosted in the heart of New York City by The New York Times Lens Column, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and United Photo Industries. I was very excited, but soon after, I became anxious about two things– how I would fund the trip and whether my work was good enough to be presented in front of top photo editors. I finally self-sourced the funds for the trip and was in New York with global colleagues.
On the first day, during my interactions with various reviewers that I had been assigned to, I noticed that one word was ubiquitously used– why. Virtually every question began with a 'why'. Why do you do photography? Why are you working on this project? Why did you photograph like this? Why this and why that. I soon realized that your work's rationale was more significant than the powerfully composed photographs.
This rude awakening is all too uncommon among African photographers, most of whom (myself included) were self-taught and began photography as an entrepreneurial pursuit.
Sadly, entrepreneurship is not a good enough "why" to practice documentary photography or photojournalism. It comes off as a soulless and exploitative trade that feeds off the trauma and stories of others for personal gain– it lacked a heart.
I soon began a self-discovery journey (connecting the dots) to uncover why I did photography in the first place. I did it remarkably well because my images had a plausible soul– I hadn't discovered why yet.
Photo by KC Nwakalor
Finding your purpose. This is a great place to start your self-discovery. Who are you? What are your values? Before you became a photographer, who were you? I had to go back in time to find answers to these questions. I started by understanding my upbringing, family, neighbourhood, and all the tiny fragments that made up who I was.
I soon understood that I was more than just a photographer; even if I became a doctor or a pastor, I would have been driven by the same values that drive my photography. I have always been kind-hearted. As a child, when we had fights, I would only hit people in parts of their bodies where I wouldn't hurt them– regardless of how angry I was. I often sided with vulnerable people. I remember I almost fought a security official that manhandled a female student during an exam rush at the university. I have always been a responsible son who looked after my parents, siblings and friends– I had a heart for my people.
Personality-wise, I am an astute lover of truth, knowledge and reality. It is so bad that I can not enjoy the same movies with my wife; she likes comedy and all the fun stuff. In contrast, I know a movie is for me if it starts with the text "Based on a true life story…."
When I first picked up the camera, I photographed anywhere a photographer was needed. I did weddings, events, portraits, fashion, product and even baby photoshoots. The more I tried various genres of photography, the more I saw what aligned most with my purpose.
I started seeing how my values inclined with documentary photography and photojournalism– visually telling truthful stories of vulnerable people respectfully.
Your Work. After returning from New York, I had to go through the images I have taken in the past, both from my personal work and commissioned assignments. I started analyzing these images and gradually began seeing a pattern. Without even knowing it, I was drawn to specific stories, a particular editing and composition style and angles.
At this point, the process of connecting the dots was underway. Retracing the patterns in my past work showed a key indicator for my interest, at least based on available historical data.
Once I analyzed where I was coming from, who I was and where I was heading, it expedited the dot connection process's crystallization.
Photo by KC Nwakalor
In 2017, I began my documentary photography career by travelling to hard-to-reach communities with an NGO that empowered everyday citizens in marginalized communities with information to hold their government to account. Using compelling visual stories on both social media platforms, the organization mounted substantial pressure on the government officials responsible for delivering health, education, water and sanitation projects within these communities to act. You can read about their work here.
I was inspired by the issues we were tackling, and I just wanted to be part of the solution, and the camera gave me that opportunity.
Could my background in biology have made me interested in health and environmental issues? Affirmative. I have always been a science head. Working on a story about sickle cell disease or malaria means I can understand the scientific workings of genotype and plasmodium. This knowledge can be instrumental in asking the right questions and capturing the right photos.
Why socio-economic issues, though? One of the first projects I worked on was on unemployment– the uncompleted work is lying fallow on my hard drive. I wanted to capture how hard it was for an average Nigerian graduate to get a job or earn an honest living. I followed a young man who graduated top of his class and had many academic accolades and no job. I have had my fair share of instability. In 2005 I had no place to call home, and I lived from one aunt's house to the next until I moved to Abuja to pursue a university education. All I am saying is that I have been unemployed and relatively homeless. As a result of these life experiences and more, I am often drawn to similar stories because they remind me of myself.
Are you looking for a project to work on? What have you been through that you would like to change or raise awareness about? Now that you have a camera– a powerful tool, what are you going to do about all the things you have experienced? Personal stories are not easy; they are demanding because it costs time, money and challenging emotions– and these resources are scarce.
Photo by KC Nwakalor
By connecting the dots, you start seeing that no experience has been in vain. You will start noticing that you are on a continuous journey– you don't just stop in one career to begin the next. You only transition from one thing to another, carrying all you have learned.
Photographers, or individuals that understand this, tend to have a more positive outlook toward life and, as such, make better long-term decisions.
So I am speaking to you today. I want you to critically analyze your journey, connecting your background, personality, education and all life experiences by tracing the thread that runs through them. Connecting these dots can help you find a deeper meaning to your practice, becoming a visual storyteller that is not moved by trends but by your God-given purpose. If you need more insight, I talked about creative self-discovery in my latest class on Skillshare, teaching photographers how to develop a distinctive photographic style and stand out from the crowd. You can check it out here.
Remember, you are more than just a photographer; you are/ can be many things.
I sincerely want to hear from you. Kindly share your thoughts about this piece; I will be on the lookout in the comment section.
The Photographer's Toolbox is a monthly creative practice experience-sharing series hosted by Documentary Photographer & Producer KC Nwakalor.