Monday, 16 March 2009

A life of picture-ing

FLOODS of cheerful sunshine welcome me to the home of Uche Okpa-Iroha, which also doubles, as his studio. Plenty of sunlight gain admittance through the wide gap between the window panes. This mid day, Uche’s eyes are heavy. His hair is tousled. He runs his finger through them and heaves, “God!… I’m tired.”
He’d worked so hard the previous day, and now, needs a shower and a few hours of sleep. But he cannot have anyone of them, now. He has loads of shots to edit.
He sits behind an armchair in his studio, stretches the stiffness out of his shoulders. This act exhausts him, every bit the more. He yawns. Suddenly, he zeroes in on a shot, and breathes, “photography is politics.”
An image he likes so much comes up, it is something he imagines of the world. A private fiction, so to say.
“Just look at these shots,” Uche says in a calm voice.
“Political statements about abandonment,” he whispers, in a pitch that seems to rival the earlier. “Good shots are memories of hope.”
Silence follows. After a few minutes, Uche gasps. His heart thumps audibly, as the afternoon sun begins to wear him down.
“I must finish this work today before I take any rest,” he smiles, almost aloud.

AT a first glance, Uche, born on January 2, 1972 in Enugu, Enugu State in the eastern part of Nigeria, appears simple and shy looking. But he is not.
Though an unassuming person, Uche, who holds a Bachelors of Technology degree in Food Science and Technology in 1997 from the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, weaves intensely passionate stories with his shots.
“My main vision as a photographer is to raise awareness with the public and policy makers on issues that affect the local people and the environment,” he says.
Uche stares at the images that flash through on his slide, and sings: “My main area is making portraits of ‘street’ people and reportage. What goes on in the street; everyday people interest me.”
He adds, “a lot is going on in the country and we can’t shy away from the economic situation… you know, photography is the ‘no comment’ tv. Portraits have narrativity about them — time and immortality.”
His adventure in the arts was not by chance. His family is an arts’ one. His cousin, Uche James Iroha, is an award-winning photographer, who only recently, was given the Prince Claus Award.

Okpa-Iroha started photography in London, when Depth of Field (DOF) came for a show in South London Gallery in Peckham. Since 2004, he has been on it. By 2005, he was back in Nigeria.
He says, “the show was inspiring. It was a turning point. The following day, I bought my camera, tripod stand and started photography.”
When he came back, he needed a platform, and luckily for him, FootballWorlds at the popular Maracana Stadium, Ajegunle, organised by the Goethe Institut and conducted by Berlin-based Akinbode Akinbiyi came in handy.
Uche, a founding member of the Nigerian photography collective known as Blackbox, says, “as a photographer, you have to negotiate your space. That avenue, three weeks of photographing football, gave us opportunity to mingle and we were able to get what we wanted.”
Fourteen people were involved in the workshop; one relocated to Abuja, leaving 13 people, who formed the group, which subsequently has been reduced to nine members.
The group had its first major show titled Lagos: Nocturnal Vibrations in 2007.
For Uche, who learnt from his cousin, Uche James-Iroha, there is need for more platforms for photographers to express themselves. “Photographers are partners of government in reporting issues that are affecting the society.”
He says the artist can survive in the society as long as he “earnestly improves his/her creativity and also go for residency to widen the intellect.”

UCHE has participated in a lot of shows and competitions since he took up photography professionally. He was the first runner-up at the maiden edition of Life in My City, 2007 art exhibition and competition — held in Enugu and organised by Rocana Nigeria Limited in partnership with the Alliance Francaise, Enugu, with the work Late Nite Callers.
He has also shown his works in a series of other shows within and outside Nigeria such as the First African Photo Contest, Terifa, Spain, 2008; Paris-Lagos Exchange Project (a photography workshop and exhibition), Lagos, 2008; Loving Lagos show, Berlin, Germany, 2008. He is also a contributor to the new and updated book about the city of Lagos, Lagos - The City At Work. He is also a kidney-health campaigner.

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