By Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye
The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to businesses, jobs, healthcare, education, and tourism, among others. But for Bayo Omoboriowo, a graduate of Pure and Applied Chemistry from the University of Lagos, an indigene of Ekiti State, and President Muhammadu Buhari’s personal photographer for the past six years, it was the biggest blessing from God. It was an opportunity for him to tour the 36 states, go into villages, nooks and crannies meandering through tough terrains to bring to the fore Nigeria’s rich culture, historic sites and document them.
In collaboration with JT Agency, a media agency projecting positive narratives to the world, he visited and captured 60 beautiful and captivating images including Iyi Nzu Waterfall and Awhum Waterfall in Enugu State. They have tagged this project “36in36 project” as they prepare to present its outcome on September 30th at the State House Conference Center, Abuja as part of activities to mark Nigeria at 60.
In this interview on the sidelines of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), New York, Omoboriowo, who is releasing his third book as the President’s photographer spoke on his experiences and why he embarked on telling Nigeria’s story.
You recently toured the 36 states. What was the purpose of that and what were your findings?
Well, as a creative photographer that I am, over the years, it has always been about making a difference and adding value. Value in the sense that, for everywhere I go, I always look out for the problems, and I try to find solutions to them. Having worked with the President over the years, I’ve seen different dimensions to our country in close proximity, I’ve seen challenges, I’ve seen opportunities, a potpourri of so many things. In addition to seeing these dimensions to our country, I also feel the pain of the ordinary Nigerian. Every time I’m asking myself, what more can I do as a photographer? What more can I do? Even with the privilege of being, you know, close to the seat of power? And I saw a gap in our national values. Nigeria is a beautiful country. There are many challenges. Of course, there are many things we are dealing with as a nation, but having travelled to over 60 countries in the world, I have seen that so many countries in the world that we all adore because of their beauty also have challenges. But in the midst of us trying to deal with our own issues, we overlook the greatness of our country.
Have we undervalued the potential we have as a people?
Well, like they say, what you focus on becomes your focus. If we focus so much on the negative, that will become our reality. So for me, this was the driving force. How do we begin to shape a different narrative? How do we begin to focus the attention of Nigerians on the greatness of our nation? We have vast opportunities and potential. We have beautiful landscapes, we have lovely monuments, we have beautiful culture, our art is spectacular, our people are awesome, beautiful, amazing, enterprising, energetic, loving, caring. This, for me, was the real Nigeria I knew. And then I asked myself, “how can we go back to retell our story?” How can we begin to project the greatness of Nigeria to Nigerians and to the world at large? Because if the world only sees Nigeria as a problematic country, if the world only sees Nigeria as a country struggling with so many challenges, they will never want to associate with us. Nobody wants to associate with what you have condemned; everybody wants to connect with greatness. So how do we begin to call the attention of the world to where we are so that they can begin to support us to get to where we want to be. And for me, it is through our art and our culture, agriculture.
Based on these realisations, I went on a journey through the 36 states of Nigeria to discover the hidden gems of Nigeria, to discover the hidden potential, to discover tourist places, to discover monuments, to discover waterfalls, to discover caves with all their histories, their glory, their beauty. I asked myself, how do I add value, not just to photograph the president but to also celebrate my country? And so far, so good. I’ve seen that Nigeria is an amazing country. I’ve travelled so far and wide, but I believe so much in Nigeria, I believe so much in the greatness Nigeria holds, I believe so much in the future of Nigeria, I am saying, we are not yet there but we have to get there. Because no matter how much we pay attention to oil, we pay attention to whatever other opportunities Nigeria has, her greatest opportunity lies in culture and tourism.
What did I discover? I discovered caves with years of history. And you needed to see the challenges we had to overcome, to access these locations. We saw waterfalls that we had to walk for over two hours to assess. We saw so many things. This is what we pay to go and see in Dubai, in America, in the UK, but ours have been left in their raw state. And why did I do this? Because it’s time to bring the attention of the world to say, come and invest in Nigeria, come and support Nigeria to polish its potential and make it more beautiful for the world.
How did you find the time to do this considering your very busy schedule?
Even though COVID-19 was a challenge for everyone around the world, as it slowed down a lot of businesses and official duties, even in the Villa, I was able to use this period to move around after asking for the President’s permission to go ahead. I never saw it as a disadvantage, but rather COVID-19 was one of the biggest blessings God ever gave me. I maximized the opportunity of COVID-19. I said to Mr. President, sir, I need to do this. I need to go and tell the country’s story. He gave me his blessing. And you know, it was so challenging. It was a lot of risk. There were times I was in a near-death situation. I went through a whole lot, even in the midst of insecurity, I was scared but I kept going forward. I knew that I wasn’t going to give up. Somebody must take the risk. Somebody must tell the story and I know that Nigeria needs my talent. So yeah, it was amazing.
Touring 36 states in Nigeria is no mean feat. Who did you collaborate with and what was the nature of the partnership?
I collaborated with JT Agency to do this because I really couldn’t have done this alone. It culminated into a book. I needed a team of people that were going to look, curate and edit the pictures, write on the different sites we visited for the book, and produce the graphic design. We went with a 10-man team, from design, to project implementation, to writing, to project coordination, and everything. And this is different from the transportation team. This collaboration was huge and with the help of the agency, I had the best of young people come together and join me to make my dream of projecting Nigeria to the world a reality.
When will this be unveiled and what impact do you hope this will make?
This will be unveiled on the 30th of September. And it is going to be unveiled with an Art and Cultural Festival in the Presidential Villa. We are transforming the Presidential Villa into a beautiful cultural village. We are bringing in dances, we’re bringing in culture, we are bringing in caves, we are bringing a waterfall. We are bringing in exhibitions, we’re bringing in food, we are bringing in fashion, we are bringing everything about Nigeria into the Presidential Villa and it’s going to be a VIP experience. We are going to be doing augmented reality, virtual reality, and all of that. And really, it’s a festival to show that Nigeria is still a beautiful country, it is a festival to tell the Nigerian story. And it’s really going to be a good one. Because a whole lot of teams have been working together, practising, moving a lot of artworks from different states to Abuja to make this a success.
Why is the unveiling on 30th September? Is it part of the Nigeria at 60 celebration?
Yes. It’s part of Nigeria at 60 Independence celebration and one of the most beautiful elements of this is that we will be setting a Guinness Book World Record for the world’s biggest photo book. 60 images 60 pages, 60, 60 square metres of Nigeria at 60.
Aside from the collaboration with this media agency and the blessing of Mr. President, how much support did you get from the government?
The government across both federal and states were really very helpful. The groundwork and transportation, especially within states, was aided by the various state governments with support from the Nigerian Police Force. The Police’ involvement is one which I’ll always be grateful for. We reached out to every state and they supported us. They made available transportation and logistics. I will also thank the Commissioners for Tourism and Information in each state, they made access to most of the places we visited very easy. They were always on ground to welcome us, take us round many of these places. You know the most interesting thing about this tour was that there were some states we went to and the people didn’t even know what they had. So our visit brought this to the fore and so they ended up being so grateful and thanking us for doing this and calling their attention to what they had.
How did you discover these places if the indigenes were not aware?
So, because we had informed them ahead that we were coming and we had convinced them of the greatness of the vision, they were forced to look inwards and look out for what they had to showcase. It became a case of no one wants to slack. So a lot of them had to go back to research about their own states, to start making findings. We also did digital research. We went online reading about some places through the domestic travels of a lot of Nigerians who have travelled to some places, and they had shared some of experiences of these places. So we had to do all of this research to map out, like what are the things that Nigerians are also talking about? How do we use our professional skill to document these places?
What did you learn on this journey?
What I learnt is that this is not just a story or just a book. 36in36 is not just another Nigerian story. It is a mission which is to begin to make Nigerians be more conscious of what we have as a people, make them more conscious of our domestic tourism potential, make them more conscious of our culture. Our culture must not be ignored. That is what the world wants to see. So, if I go anywhere out of the country, and I’m dressed in a particular way that is very indigenous to us, the foreigner wants to know where my fabric comes from. So we should not ignore what we have. Because what we have is what the world is looking for.
The world is not coming to Nigeria to come see some high-rise buildings. They have those already. What we have that the world is looking for is our culture, and our art. And that’s why they keep coming to take our art and culture away. Art and culture is what will sell Nigeria. Art and Culture is what will promote Nigeria. Nigeria’s art and culture is what will increase our GDP and so let’s begin to pay attention to what we have as a people in the area of art and culture. And that’s what 36in36 is trying to do.
What is that really special site that stood out for you and you want Nigerians to look forward to in this book?
Well, I’ll just say, you should wait till the 30th of September to see it. The truth is that one of the most amazing things I realised is, it’s not that people don’t know. That’s not what we’re trying to say. We’re trying to say, attention is not being paid to it. There are a lot of things people of my own generation don’t know. How many have really visited the number of sites we have in this country that we were opportune to capture in this book? You will be amazed that we have beautiful sites more than what we pay to go see in Dubai and other places.
One of the places we visited that left me in awe is Iyi Nzu Waterfall in Enugu. It was discovered in 2017 or thereabouts. This is one of my most treasured images that I made on that trip. And the one in Cross River State, ‘Agbokim waterfalls.’ Now a lot of these things, a lot of people don’t know. There is even a beautiful sight in Niger State, very close to Abuja, 45 minutes away from Abuja. One of the most beautiful water structures, they call it an Impressive dam, it is a dam covered in a bush, nobody knows it.
Very few people have ever been there. And it’s just 45 minutes from Abuja. And so what we did was to bring everything to the attention of Nigerians, bring it to the attention of the world and say see what we have. But look at where we are in the images captured in the book and see how you can support us to make all of these things more glorious and attract tourists to our country and help boost our income.