Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Abuja
Bayo Omoboriowo, a graduate of Pure and Applied Chemistry from the University of Lagos and a native of Ekiti State, has been President Muhammadu Buhari’s personal photographer for the past four years.
In this interview with Sunday Sun, he disclosed that his decision to start documenting political leaders the way international photo-journalists do, was the day his path to destiny begun with his working in the Presidential Villa.
He spoke about his life as Buhari’s photographer and how it all begun. Excepts:
How is life as the president’s photographer?
Basically, people get it confused and think it is super complicated, it really isn’t. Over the last four years we have been able to establish a process. For one, the president has a daily schedule unlike some other political office holders who just come in the morning and say, we are going to this place today and that throws them off balance. We don’t experience that because the president has a schedule and he follows it strictly. There are days things come up impromptu which explains why you must take the principle of being prepared at all times seriously. I have a camera in the office, at home and in the car. So, no matter where I am and if it happens that I am called for an assignment few minutes to the time, I can easily get my camera and run for it. Probably because of his military background, the president is very coordinated, he doesn’t really entertain sudden changes in his scheduling, rather following it to the letter and that helps us a lot. Yes, there are things that are major and happens in short notice, but there is zero margin for error. There is nothing like I forgot my memory card in the face of very critical imagery or my battery was not charged. I had to learn all these here on getting to the Presidential Villa. The last four years has been a learning process. I tell people that this is like a school and I came to really learn. People tell me oh, it’s so beautiful working with the president, you must have made a lot of money and connections, how do you feel? I have met people, people I never thought I could, before now I never met the local government chairman or councilor where I lived in Lagos, how much more having a relationship with and coming into the Presidential Villa. Working directly with the president is a big deal to me and I don’t take it for granted. That is why I give him so much respect. For me, the greatest value is the knowledge I have acquired working with the president, I can’t buy it with money. I don’t think any organisation can give me that knowledge – people relationship, people management, communication, respect, managing different cultures. A Yoruba guy that came from Lagos, having to deal with northern people. Respect for structure, respect for time. You can’t be five minutes late and the president is already in a meeting and he notices those things. I think I have only been late once. I was not actually late, I was not just allowed in until a particular time and when he saw me, he said, Bayo, this is so unlike you, you never came late. I must admit it is not easy keeping to the president’s time, being diligent and hardworking. I’m glad he respects the fact that I have given my best to my craft as a photographer and I don’t think that for granted.
So, how do you find time for your family in the midst of this tight schedule?
It’s really difficult and to be honest it has its own down side. Because even when you are not working, that is, carrying camera, you are literally on stand-by. I missed my only sister’s wedding because we were in Jordan on an official trip and my wife had to travel with the kids without me being there and several family milestones. Even when I have to leave the president to attend to family matters, my mind is usually not at rest. I see it as a sacrifice, I see it as a price one must pay. The truth is, somebody has to do the job and to be that person out of over 190 million people is an honour. So, the way I see it, for every glory you must pay a price and the time to pay that price is now. I didn’t come to the Presidency because I was jobless. I had a good job. I finished top in the University of Lagos, I studied Pure and Applied chemistry and I was doing very well. I chose to be here because I felt there was a gap. The way political leaders are being documented prior to now wasn’t impressive to me. I compared the way our media here documented presidents with the way their counterparts in other parts of the world document their leaders and I said to myself, something is wrong. I was a brilliant photographer, but I was doing weddings and other social events, but I was not into photo-journalism. My colleagues that were as brilliant as I was, I mean who were into creative photography were also not doing photo-journalism. Then we saw photo-journalism as being for unserious photographers or those who want to make ends meet. But I told myself, you know what? I will go into that field and make a difference and I think I have been able to make some significant difference. I chose to pay that price because I wanted to add value and I am glad I have been able to do just that.
So, for our curious readers, what sort of a man is President Buhari, having worked with him so closely?
I try not to talk politics, but one thing I can say about the president without mincing word is that he is a very respectable man, he is a man of honour, he is very genuine. He is genuine in his intentions about this country, he has a good heart and an agenda to make Nigeria great. Being with him at a close range, I have seen him make some moves, I have heard him speak and I have seen his action and I can say unequivocally that he is genuine. He is integrity personified. He is also very fatherly, I have seen him play with his children and grand-children. He is very jovial and hilarious. I have seen people after meeting with him and they come out and they will ask, is that the president they talk about? What they say about him in the media is different from what we experience. I feel people have not connected with the reality of his personality and that is why people have talked badly about him. But to me, he is excellent, he might not be perfect, I mean I’m sure he himself will be the first to admit that he is not perfect. He respects excellence, he doesn’t believe in eye-service, he doesn’t believe in hear-say, he doesn’t believe in you jumping around just to impress him. That is why he is open in the way he relates to people.
Have you seen him angry before?
He has been angry at me once, but I’m not sure I will call it anger. Maybe he was just surprised at such clumsiness which was not deliberate. It was one incident that I was just trying to run pass him to take pictures because he was ahead of me with another Head of State. Then the visiting President’s wife came from another room suddenly and I was trying to run to the President’s front. I was going to crash the woman down, but for God’s grace, I was on high speed. So, his reaction was shocking and I felt I had done the worse I felt that was the end. Someone said they have never seen him that angry before, but then that was the end of the matter. The second I can remember, it was during a live coverage and there was a security man in front of the president. And the camera was trying to signal to the security man that he was obstructing his shots, but he didn’t see the cameraman, but Mr. President was seeing everything and he had to raise his voice and order the security man to get out of his front and allow the cameraman do his job. He was very furious at that time. But that was the end of the matter. He just wants things to be done the right way and once he expresses himself that ends it.
What was your experience on the campaign train like?
Number one, it was dream come true. When I was younger I used to dream that one day I will tour the whole of Nigeria and document my experiences. I will describe it as interesting, I have been to all 36 states and the FCT. I was dreaming about going to the 36 states, but today, I have travelled round the world, which is a confirmation that dreams can actually come true and God can surpass your dreams. For the campaign train, my hope and aspirations for the country was charged and the excitement about Nigeria was pumped. I have realized that despite our challenges and difference, there are so many good things happening across the country. I am inspired to contribute my quota and ensure this country realises her potentials. I saw different cultures, raw energy, raw passion, people that money was not their motivation to support a candidate, but genuine love. That inspires me to think that integrity, value and the right principles will ginger people to support and fall in love with you and not necessarily paying or seducing them. I saw people who did not mind if they were hit by a car, I saw people jumping on the president’s car, I saw people shedding tears of joy, I saw love, togetherness and I felt that Nigeria can actually be great with the right set of consistent dedicated, truthful, passionate, honest leadership. Going around this country, I saw beauty, culture and a desire for a far better Nigeria.
So, what will you say have been your defining moment on the job?
My defining moment will be seeing first hand how politics is being played. This has defined me in many ways. The fact that what is in the media is different from the reality on ground also amazes me. I have been part of activism in school, I have been a passionate young man with bias for development. I have sacrificed my time and money to pursue what I believe in, which is to see young people get better. At age 18 to 19, I was already organizing major events for students, I have been in the rain seeking sponsorship. I remember in 2001, I went to MTN office soaked in rain just to look for sponsorship to organize a major event for secondary school students. So, I have been passionate about development. But I have come to realise that there is a big difference between reality and the media. I wish anybody that wants to go into politics will have internship in the Villa and learn first-hand how things are done. You will learn from mistakes of leaders because no leader is perfect and then go out there and do things differently. What we learn in school is different from what we meet on the field, which is why we go for internship. You can condemn the president from now till eternity, but the truth is you are not aware of the realities he is dealing with. You can read books and yet you don’t know politics. These are the greatest assets I am taking away from here. You find a way to strike a balance, we are young people and we are the future, it is time to garner this knowledge and practicalise them in no distant future and make Nigeria better. One of the things going for the president is the knowledge he garnered while in the army. Secondly, another defining moment for me are the people I have met and the places I have been to, the exposure I have been lucky to have in all of these countries. I have followed the president to all these countries, I have seen first-hand how things are done and I can tell you categorically, I am cooked.
How does he reacts to media reports that is not in tandem with what is the reality?
One of the biggest asset President Buhari has is his ability to take things lightly. He laughs and shrugs it off and say, well it’s their opinion, they are unaware of the reality. I have never experienced him mad at the media. I feel he is a true leader because you can’t be a leader and not expect people to throw stones at you or you expect accolades all the time. Even when you are right, people have the right to tell you, you are wrong. It’s left to you to decide how to handle it, either you keep tackling them or you remain focused and do the right thing and after a while they will see that you are genuine about your intentions. He has mastered the act of remaining calm, cool and collected in the face of criticisms.
There have been various versions of how you met the president and started working here. What’s the real story of how you met?
I told you earlier that I studied Pure and Applied Chemistry in the University of Lagos and finished with 4.262 GPA. While I was in the University of Lagos, I use to borrow camera from my friend and started taking pictures at event. I have never been to any school of photography till today. I have only been on hands on person who goes on the Internet and study, borrow camera and practice what I have learnt. I discovered that gradually people started falling in love with my pictures. While I was at my service year, I found myself becoming the official photographer of NYSC, everybody wanted my pictures. I used to borrow cameras and then my friend gave me a small camera, that tiny point and shot camera, from there I was able to buy a camera which I was using temporarily. As a corper, this is why I celebrate NYSC so much, I went to a lab with my corper uniform to print pictures which I was selling at N45 per picture, I am talking about between 2010-2011. The manager of this lab took interest in me and will take me into his office and pick my brain on issues. He will go through my pictures and he will show me his own as well. Gradually, I found out that he inspired me, initially I just saw those moments as just having a nice time discussing with the manager of the lab. One day, he organized an exhibition where top photographers were coming and he invited me to come along with my pictures and exhibit. I was like wow, I asked myself, you mean I that was just starting out in photography was already exhibiting with names I have been hearing about? The likes of George Oshodi etc. Some people actually bought some of my pictures at that exhibition and that was another wow moment for me, that was when I decided to actually take photography seriously. I wanted to work at Chevron and as a matter of fact I was offered a lecturing job at the university after I finished, but after that exhibition I told myself this is where I belong. I tell people that photography chose me. I started from wedding photography and then moved to documentary photography when there was no money in that field. My friends called me and asked; are you sure of what you are doing? I told them that God wants me to leave wedding photography and I am leaving it into documentary photography. It was after a while that I noticed what I told you earlier about the difference between the way our media document our leaders here compared to how their western counterparts do theirs. Internationally, photo-journalists are big guys and I set my eyes on it to be like them. So, I started following campaigns. In 2014, I heard of Fayemi’s campaign, I took my camera and my bag and ran there. I was never invited to cover any of those campaigns. I just remembered that one of those working for him was a brother to my friend and I begged him if he could make it possible for me to be accredited to cover the campaign. I saved all my money to buy that camera similar to what international journalists use. I got there and started taking pictures none of them knew me. I just started documenting him. I even consoled myself that maybe if he wins he might take me as his photographer, but he lost. I felt really bad, I just went back to Lagos. Osun election came, I carried the tag I used for Ekiti elections and went there because I was not working with any media house, so nobody was going to give me any accreditation, but this time around I told myself I will not draw close to Aregbesola, I will just do my work and document as much as I can and I will post on social media at times. I have this amazing picture of him which he has actually asked that I frame for him. I was just running after him, he didn’t know me neither did I know him, so I took amazing pictures of him that nobody has. I was just enjoying the process that I was getting developed as a photo-journalist and he won. Again, I was pained that I was not close to him and I went back home. So, I started going to every political event and taking photographs and building capacity. My point is, I never knew the president from anywhere, nobody introduced me to him, all the governors I have met, I only knew them from a distance, I never related to anyone of them. So, on this fateful day, I was watching the TV at home and I saw an advert for the national convention in Teslim Balogun Stadium, Lagos. So, I told myself, this is another opportunity and I was going to be part of it. I told my friend and he told me they will never allow me in, one I am not working for any known medium, I did not have accreditation, but I said I will go all the same. So, I picked my stuff and my camera and off I went. When I saw the tight security I was almost discouraged, but I was able to beat the first security and sneaked in. Thinking I had succeeded, I never knew there was another layer of security and these guys were scary-looking. So, I called one of my friends working with Core TV then and I pleaded with the person to get me a tag from somebody already inside and he did. That was how I was able to enter inside the stadium and returned the tag. And so when Gen. Buhari came, I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t know anything about politics and governance. I have been taking pictures all day so he wasn’t particularly special. But I noticed when he came everybody started running after him and I followed and took pictures. Then I noticed they stole my iPhone, over N100,000 phone. I was demoralized and pained. So, I told God, please You have to compensate me for this phone that they stole from me. For a job I came to do free-of-charge as a passionate young man, oh God you must reward me. A gentle honest prayer and that was it. Don’t forget I didn’t know Buhari, I didn’t even know who I photographed. So, there was no phone, couldn’t go home and I told myself what am I even going to do at home? I slept on the floor in the stadium. I never knew people saw me. So, I stayed overnight, they counted the result and he was declared the winner. I took the pictures of all the process. I told myself maybe if I print these pictures and small album, people will buy and I will make small money. Nobody collected any album from me and I went back home. Don’t forget that I said that in all of these I will post some pictures on social media. Then it was campaign time and a company, Red Media, was contracted to manage social media. The company said we cannot handle social media for the presidential candidate campaign without a photographer that will give us the images that we will use. In the meeting while deliberating on who among the photographers to send, that somebody mentioned Bayo because of what he has been doing. I had won Future award in Red Media years ago and they have been following my work. I went for a three days training there and they have been following my growth process. So, they called me and asked how much I will charge, probably the money was to much for them and they said they cannot pay it. But at the end of it all, it was through them that I came in. So, at the end of the day I told them whatever you are willing to give me I will go ahead and do the job. I chose to look away from the money, to me it was an opportunity for me to follow a presidential candidate and it was a big deal and I saw it as an opportunity to pursue my photo-journalism that has been my dream. There were days I was benched and asked to wait at the airport. I was just a creative photographer and they will prefer a photo-journalist attached to a medium. But a day came when I and the president became connected in Daura. He just started calling my name. He will send somebody to call me when he has visitors because I was always there. So, he started observing the way I was doing my job and gradually, all he wanted to see was Bayo. So, he will say call me Bayo, where is Bayo. So, at that point we started traveling together even as President-elect. So, it’s not about connection, it’s a process that led me to him. I was not even sending the pictures to Buhari’s media team, but to Red Media that was contracted for the job. It was later I got to know that people were telling him about me, how I climb trailer because there was no preference. I use to find a way to do my job and I never knew he was taking notice and that is how at the end of the day, I was made personal photographer to the president.
So, do you still have time to connect with your friends you started out together?
I try to, but the truth is I don’t have friends these days because there is no time. There is little or no social life because 99 per cent of my friends are in Lagos. I basically just come to work and go back home to rest and if I have the time I take my family out.
So, what are your plans after now?
I will like to expand on my drive of what I have been doing for young photographers. I have helped a whole lot of young photographers, I have linked a lot of them to state governors. I am also positioning a lot of them to work with agencies, it’s my own little way of giving back. I recommend them and make sure they go through the process before they are taken on board. And because it is coming from Bayo, none of them has ever regretted any recommendation from me. I will also want to leverage on my own opportunity to help a whole lot of young children in school, the greatest asset I have is that I went to good schools and I have solid eduction background. I will also like to build massive structures to grow the creative industry as well as build international collaborations to help the creative industry in Nigeria.
What’s your relationship like with your parents and siblings?
My mum can call me like 10 times before she can get me, but I try to maintain it because when all is said and done, family is everything. You can’t say you are too busy for family, but in recent times I have tried to at least ensure I call or when they call, I return their calls. I try to support as much as I can.
Have you encountered risks while carrying out your assignment?
The thing is many people don’t understand your intentions and most times they misinterpret them. For example, somebody wants a picture during a visit or at a function with Mr. President, they don’t understand that you are restricted. They conclude you are rude and arrogant. They don’t understand that political system works differently and while they are busy getting angry I can’t tell them why I didn’t act they way they expected me to. There is a level of secrecy and privacy that comes with the subject and you must respect it. Recall during the campaign I was hanging on trailers and there was a particular one in Jos where they had to whisk the president away because the crowd was too much. Everybody just jumped into what was available, to me what was available was to hang in the car for like an hour that was going on top speed. That day I had concluded maybe the end has come, but God saw us through. There are things that happen that you are not even sure how it will end. There is also the risk of probably disappointing the president, the risk of not being available when they need you. I have been in the toilet before and I was called and I had to jump half way when I was not done and quickly dress up to answer the president. Working with the president is also risky because of anything happens we are all gone. While they will be fighting to protect the president, every other person is on his or her own. But it’s a risk worth taking, it is for a good cause, we are here for the country. I have tried my best to be honest with Nigerians with the images of Mr. President. All the images you see of Mr. President are real, nothing is doctored, the president does not act movie for the camera. If you see him carry a baby, he was actually carrying the baby and not for the camera, if you see him on his desk writing, he was actually doing that.