Mayor Otu, the witty and creative Akwa Ibom son, is unarguably Nigeria’s fastest-rising documentary photographer and storyteller based in Lagos State.
Mayor’s core works and stories which are centred around empathy, social good and changing stereotypes, has been exhibited in Nigeria including The Abuja Photo Festival and has been published by DIPTYK magazine Morocco and various other online platforms across the world.
The content creator, founder ‘Humans of Akwa Ibom, Curator #WalkWithMo who is also a Member of the African Photojournalist Database (APJD) has worked on projects for many organizations and top brands within and outside the country.
“Anytime I’m not on an assignment, I go on the streets documenting ordinary everyday people,” he says about creating his photo projects. They include; Print on Black, Sounds of Drums, Water of Katampe, and The Fibroid Story.
“Learn the basics of whatever you intend to do, don’t jump classes”, he says about the importance of learning, while sharing how he started a career in photography in a chat with Prince Simeon, Lead Blogger of Hypestation Nigeria.
Read the full chat below:
Hypestation Nigeria: What formed your decision to go into photography?
Mayor Otu: I think it was some time in 2012/2013 or so and I was an editor for Degree360magazine, a lifetime/ entertainment magazine in Uyo. It was always difficult to get photographers to turn in images I needed for my columns so I decided to get a hold of the camera and get images so that my job as an editor will be easier. So yeah, it was to get the job done lol.
Hypestation Nigeria: Nice…so at what point did you decide to make it fulltime?
Mayor Otu: I would say I started full-time photographing the end of 2016 and I’ve always enjoyed the creative space and I didn’t want to wait for a job as a Biochemist which may never come considering our country. Like I said after my university education, I started writing for blogs, magazines, became an editor, present programs of television and radio. I did everything, except Biochemistry
Hypestation Nigeria: It’s normal to have setbacks or challenges when setting off in a particular career path…what was yours?
Mayor Otu: Setbacks? I don’t count them as setbacks because without those things, I won’t be here doing what I love doing (smile)
Hypestation Nigeria: Were you self-taught or you learned from a Pro?
Mayor Otu: The first time I held a camera was after I graduated from University. And it was Samuel Udonnah that handed me his camera and showed me where the shutter button was. I did the learning from there by myself. I paid for a few classes with established photographers but they taught me a different thing not how to take photographs. It was basically retouching and how to use photoshop.
Hypestation Nigeria: What would you say to young people about subjecting themselves to learning?
Mayor Otu: You can’t give what you don’t have and the Bible says “Study to show yourself approved. Learn the basics of whatever you intend to do, don’t jump classes. Let’s take photography for example, most young people always just classes trying to learn photoshop instead of Lighting which is the foundation of photography.
Sometimes learning may be free and other times, you may have to pay for it. And there are other options of internships, mentoring etc. make use of these Avenue and equip yourself with the right knowledge
Hypestation Nigeria: Which photographers have you learnt from in the past?
Mayor Otu: I’ve basically learnt directly from 2 photographers Idongesit Usanga of Image Faculty who taught me retouching. The second is August Udoh whom I learnt lighting from and I was his assistant for about one year. But both of them do a different type of photography but I still keep the knowledge with me (smiles).
Also, I’ve invested a lot in lighting tutorials from photographers outside Nigeria. In learning, you have to pick up knowledge from everywhere and put to use the ones that work for you
Hypestation Nigeria: Could you please just give a brief of the experience as his assistant for that period?
Mayor Otu: It was a great experience for me, working on Projects like Artists album Covers, Advertising works, and studio portraits. It was an awesome experience for me because I also learnt about life and business from his business Partner Ayobami Macaulay.
Hypestation Nigeria: We know what photography has become in the past 7years in Nigeria; a billion naira industry and especially for those doing Weddings…how come you didn’t tow that path and went for portraits and documentary?
Mayor Otu: Photography for me is a form of self-expression and I can only achieve that with portrait and documentary photography. I’m a very empathetic person and my love for people drives me to do all I can to bring joy to their faces. With all the money in wedding photography, you still have to follow a script, shoot this, don’t miss that and all of that. But in Documentary, there’s really no script but more about your ability to tell a story
Hypestation Nigeria: How many documentaries have you made to date and the impact?
Mayor Otu: I’ve done a lot of projects, some personal works and others commissioned projects. I’ve done works for Benjamin Olowojebutu Foundation, The Purpose Foundation, etc but my personal project cuts across education, health and water issues. Basically I’m really involved in social issues.
Hypestation Nigeria: Now, one thing that remains baffling is; how do you get the people to pose? What do you tell them the pictures are for? How do you get them to understand you, especially for those who don’t speak English?
Mayor Otu: Through my personal projects, we’ve raised money for women to start a business, get kids back in school and in the case of Rosemary; a girl with one leg and wooden crutches in Makoko. We raised money for her school, food for the family and artificial limp from a foundation. It’s been very impactful.
As regards getting people to pose, I always say this: As photographers, we need to be human beings and not photographers because most times we use our camera to block the humanity in us.
Everyone needs someone they can talk to and I always approach them as a human being, not a photographer. This is the simplest and most effective way to photograph people as a documentary photographer.
And about the language barrier, all humans understand one language no matter their ethnic or religious background; LOVE. People will always know when you really care about them and not just trying to take photos of them. I show love and that bridges the gap.
Hypestation Nigeria: Now, Katampe…how did you feel when taking those pictures, especially with the knowledge of their poor water source?
Mayor Otu: I know it’s hard to detach yourself from the emotions that surround this kind of project as it can get emotional. But I don’t brush it aside, instead, I use the emotions as a source of inspiration to create images that people can relate with even when they are thousands of miles away from the community
Hypestation Nigeria: Reaching out to NGOs on social media by tagging them to see those images, how long did you think it was going to take for them to respond?
Mayor Otu: I don’t know but I knew I wouldn’t stop until we get help to Ruga, Katampe. No matter how long it will take but help will come. That WaterAid responded barely 5 hours after the first post was made showed that it was possible to drive change using the social media
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The moment @victoradewale_ and @ennymarie_star looked at the LCD of my camera. These guys were amazing today, Thank you for using your skills to help humanity. And the Big man @iammuddie was behind the camera. RUGA PROJECT COMING SOON #mayorotu #documentaryphotography #abujadocumentaryphotographer
Hypestation Nigeria: How did you react to that response?
Mayor Otu: I was happy that it came but again the essence wasn’t to only get attention but to get good drinking water to this community. So I will say, the first step was heart-warming
Hypestation Nigeria: You must be fulfilled doing this
Mayor Otu: I won’t trade it for anything else. I live by these words, let me type in CAPS “I GIVE NOT BECAUSE I HAVE A LOT BUT BECAUSE I KNOW WHAT IT FEELS TO HAVE NOTHING”…I believe strongly that when God gets to ask me what I did with the talent he gave me, this will be my testimonies.