Novo reveals how a chance meeting with the Vice President led to her becoming his official photographer and also sheds light on the demands of the job
Novo Isioro is a Nigerian documentary photographer, image and reputation consultant as well as photography instructor. She is currently the Special Assistant on Visual Communication and Official Photographer to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.
In this interview, she reveals how a chance meeting with the Vice President led to her becoming his official photographer and also sheds light on the demands of the job and how she battled depression after losing her father on the job, and much more.
Let us into your background and why photography?
I am very Nigerian. I wish I could say where I am from, but because I feel people just have a way of putting you in pigeon hole that identifies you as Igbo, Yoruba, etc. So, I just don’t bother with where I am from. Just know me for who I am and forget about my tribe. We have not gotten to that place yet as a country where your tribe doesn’t matter. For my educational background, I studied French and English at Yaba College of Technology before I proceeded to University of Lomé to study French proper, and then I got a certification in Public Relations and I also studied Entrepreneurial Management at Lagos Business School. Photography is a passion. I have never been one that is idle. Before going for the national youth service in Anambra State, I decided to do something outside the regular things in school and stuff. I actually wanted filmmaking, but then I chose photography. It was meant to be a pass-time because my dream was to be some big executive somewhere in a bank because I did my industrial training in banks. But after service I was critically thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I had options because I had different degrees and I could easily have gotten a job, but for some reasons I didn’t want to. I am very spiritual and I knew photography was what God wanted me to do, but I did not understand how. So, I decided to take a leap. I just gathered some money and bought a camera. Then I started telling my friends that I was into photography; that was how it started. It was good and I went broke a lot of times and people questioned why I was still engaged in photography, and urged me get a job, but I just stayed with it and I was getting jobs here and there. A year after I started, I was basically doing events, weddings and the rest of them, but I was not finding fulfillment in it. So, I went back to the consultation room (prayer room to talk with God) and I asked God what type of photography I should be doing because I was not finding fulfillment in what I was doing. So, He told me to do documentary photography for corporate organisations. So, I started doing documentaries for companies and it was good. I was basically documenting organizational goals, visions, stories and stuff. The journey went on for three years. I did a documentary on the corporate life of a market woman and an African market series. Aljazeera and the BBC saw that online and actually came down to do a documentary on me while I was doing the photo-documentary and that was when I knew that this was where God wanted me to be. It was so big because it was aired everywhere, I was interviewed internationally and I was getting international gig, including the one in Paris and I was wondering at a time where all these were coming from. That was when the Lord said, this was why I told you to stay in photo-documentary. It was a confirmation to this journey. It came with its own challenges, I mean several challenges that I can’t even begin to say now. But it was just me listening and obeying God, staying on the course.
So how did you start working for Vice President Osinbajo?
This is a world class question. I have been working with the Vice President for three years now. Our paths crossed when I was doing photo-documentary for organisations. I met him through my father’s friend. He never knew nor met my father before. I did a job for someone he knows my father and the person called and said, ‘Novo, come and shoot this event’ and this was shortly after his swearing-in. The person didn’t even tell me the VP was going to be there; I wasn’t even going to be paid for the job. Recall that I said I don’t do events any more, but that was a special offer and the man insisted I must do the job. This was on a Sunday and I went and behold I saw the VP and I was like, is that not the VP? But then I continued with my job and he by himself came and said young lady, let me see what you are doing. I was shocked, but then I showed him the photographs and he said very good. So, at the end of the day while I was leaving, he called me and asked, what do you really do? You know he is interested in young people. When he says he is interested in young people it is not just for the cameras, it is actually true because that was how I met him. So, I told him I was into documentary photography and he said ‘Wow, it sounds interesting, tell me more about it.’ So, I told him about my experience and things I have done and I told him where he can look me up and stuff. He then said, oh I have a documenting team in my office and I think there is something missing, you should join the team because I think there is something you can do for us. He didn’t have to see beyond one or two pictures that I showed him on my camera, he just believed that I could do it. That is one of the reasons I keep pushing myself everyday on this job. Because, I didn’t have to merit the job, I didn’t have to line up in the office and try to see him, it is just that the opportunity came and he believed straight up and he said come to Abuja. I was based in Lagos, he was the one that fixed up the appointment and said in two weeks come to Abuja and let’s see what you can offer. That was how I came, I worked super hard just as I have always worked. So, that is the journey and the story of how I met the VP and started working for him. So, when young people say you need to know people, my story is not like that. I didn’t have to know anybody, I wasn’t even introduced to him.
How is it like working in a restricted environment like the Presidential Villa?
Oh my God, the Villa! Apart from the excitement of working in the Number One seat of power in the country, until you are here you will not understand the challenges. It is a tough place. I tell my friends that the Villa is a true representation of Nigeria, all tribes and tongues are here and expectations are high, different characters are found in that space so you can only imagine what it is like. It is exciting, but at the same time it is tough. Just today, somebody said to me, you look tired and I responded, you are not permitted to be tired here, especially when you have come to work like the way this government is working. I actually thought I was coming to chill, but that is not what it is because we work round the clock and all that. It comes with its own ups and downs, challenges, joys and all.
What exactly are the challenges, especially with the VP constantly on the road?
One day I asked him; I said sir, ‘how do you cope, how do you do all this, you work Sunday to Sunday basically. You know we could travel on international trips and come back and still attend programmes in states in one day.’ And he said something to me that I will never forget, he said ‘because I know I am not going to be here forever so I give it my all.’ He said further ‘I just have four years or maybe gracefully eight years, so knowing that I have this limited time to do my work and fix loads of problems I cannot now chill. You can only chill when you have more time, but we don’t have time.’ That really resonated in me and I was like, yeah we really do not have much time. Many people ask me how long are you going to be here and I said I don’t know, I am going to take one day at a time and I am going to give that day my best. So, with that mindset I just continue. So, working in the Villa is unlike working with anybody else in the world, it comes with its own challenges and being a female as well comes with its own extra challenges. I am a male most part of my life. You know women have their regular routine, I don’t have that. So, it is a lot of sacrifice and I am super grateful because this job has confirmed to me that there is nothing really I cannot do, there is nothing I cannot achieve and there’s no excuse for anybody really. Another thing is that in the North, women do not take the front burner and so working in the Villa that is a natural problem because there is the rule that you cannot stand in front of men and my job requires I stand in front of you. I have to walk into some places and in some of those places women are not meant to be there, that is another chapter that you have to confront, but again you have a job to do and with my boss there it’s really no excuse, you just must find a way. Every day you are confronted with the task of proving to yourself first not even them that you can do this. But I tell myself daily, I don’t have to prove a point to anybody, but to myself and my boss. So, I tell myself daily, Novo, you have got to do this, the Lord that brought you here has provided the strength and enablement to do this. The truth is when someone says you can’t go there, you can shoot here nor there, if you retreat you will only kill your spirit, feeling incompetent. So, it’s not about fighting, but about asserting yourself and finding a way to work with people even though they think you can’t do it and do it. It has helped me withstand human criticisms and all.
How do you juggle this job and your personal life?
On this job you really do not have a personal life. You stay over 12 hours in the office, including Sundays, so everyone just gets to understand. I mean I lost my dad on this job while I was working here. He died two years ago on December 21, 2016 while I was preparing for Christmas and the New Year. Before then I was working and he called me and it was normal. He said, Novo call me now and I said I will call you back I am working. I was just like four months into the job and I was still trying to find my feet, trying to understand how to work, the job was pretty much overwhelming when I started and I couldn’t call him, I procrastinated calling him back and the next call I will be getting was that he was dead. That was two weeks after I told him I was going to call him. And that is what the job does to you if you are not careful, it takes you away from everything – that can even give you depression on its own. I tell people that if not for the fact that I am working with the VP, I won’t do this job for anybody. Because, I have found him to be a man who is true to a cause and honestly anyone who is going to listen to me now, might say, oh it’s because you are being paid by him. But the truth is if God blesses you to meet him and work with him, you will realize what I am saying. He just gives you reason to want to continue because as I said for something to cut you off everything you know, family, friends and even your own personal life, even when you are sick you still can’t afford not to go to work. You will ask yourself who is going to do it and even if there are people who are going to do it, are they going to do it like you? Of course not. So, back to my father, I couldn’t call him and that happened. I was so depressed and I felt responsible for his death because my dad and I were so close and I felt that if he had any problem at a time, maybe if he had heard my voice he would have felt better, I mean that’s how we are. But I couldn’t be there for him and that’s what happens to every area of my life, you just lost touch even with yourself, especially if you are really there to work, you just bury yourself into work. But as time goes on you really just have to find a balance. Again the VP as I said is my greatest model and mentor, I see how even with his busy schedule he finds time to see his mum and his brothers. We go to Lagos sometimes and he is stopping by even if it is one hour, to spend time with her and then I say to myself what excuse do you have. If the person you are working for is finding time, so you have to. So, you have to learn from his life that you cannot be too busy for people that matter to you even if it’s one hour. So, I started doing that. After my dad died I told myself I must create time for my mum and try to see her and also call her. I won’t procrastinate on calling her and stuff like that and that has been helping me really to balance life to an extent. Still it won’t be like you will want it to be, like take holidays when you want to or sleep long hours like you will want to. But I am learning especially from his life how to have a work-life balance.
And your siblings do you create time for them too?
I am the last of three siblings, so I have two older brothers who are married, meaning they don’t need too much of my time because they are in safe hands. They call me their little mum, they call me wanting to know how I am doing and if I have a problem they will say let’s talk about it.
What other thing are you passionate about aside photography and how do you find time to express it?
I am really passionate about teaching, imparting knowledge because I cannot stand people who don’t know, I mean that in a good way. It is a burden for me and I keep asking why wouldn’t you know and so I try to find time to teach. Before I got here, my company partnered with NYSC in Lagos in 2012, I am still in partnership with them to train young youth corps members. We use to have this two weeks skill acquisition training and I handle photography for Lagos State Camp. We teach all the batches while in camp, we don’t get paid for it, but we just do it as our own part of contributing to preparing them for the world out there. I have a knack for excellence because there are some things really missing in our educational system, we don’t teach people how to use their discretion. I mean these are things you don’t learn in school. There is no course like discretional thinking or excellence and that is what differentiates one person from another. We could study the same course, but it is those little things that differentiate me from the next person. Those are the kind of things I like to teach basically, I teach things that are not conventional. So, I’m into imparting knowledge. My recent programme was a photo exhibition on October 1 called ANISZA, an acronym coined by combining words from Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, depicting unity. It was part of using photography to teach because most young people do not understand our history or where we are coming from as a people and I thought it is the reason they behave the way they do. ANISZA was derived from the first two letters of three indigenous Nigerian languages–Anoko Onu – Igbo word for togetherness; Isokan – Yoruba word for unity; and Zaman Tare – Hausa words for one tribe. Unfortunately, history was at a time taken away from our curriculum and was only recently brought back and even at that it is still on the fence right now. There was so much I didn’t know until I started researching. I wanted to know where we use to be as a nation, how we lived together and the geo-political zones were together achieving so much more. But now, there is so much division. So, I said let me use pictures to tell our story of unity again. Because in this day and age, it is about visuals, colours, pictures and not so much about text because they will not listen. So, that was what we did with ANISZA and it was really successful. We brought students from all over the country, all the states were represented and we hosted and taught them.
How do you relax in the midst of your busy schedule?
There is no relaxation because relaxation could be for me just four hours sleep in the night. I wish there was, but there is none.
What are your plans after this present assignment? For instance, we are Africans, so very soon people will ask when are you getting married? Do you have time for dating?
No, no, no. There is no time for dating, but marriage will come at the right time. I believe in women building themselves and not delving into things when they are not ready. But I am very much ripe for marriage and it will come just like everything came because that is what the Holy Spirit tells me every time, that you didn’t ask for this and it came, and I believe it will come at the right time. I don’t have to know how, but it will come. It will start with me meeting a man and he asking me out and then it will lead to marriage, but I know it will come. So, after the Villa what next? So that is a very huge question. The plans is for me to keep finding ways to evolve. I don’t tie myself around anybody or anything because the moment I find myself doing that I find that it drains me. I have always found ways to evolve and improve myself, so it is going to be a lot of getting back to school, find ways to do more. I have learnt so much here, I will teach my life experience so I will do a lot of speaking and teaching both in Nigeria and outside and encourage more people who want to get here. Of course, spend more time with my family and, of course, as I said marriage will come. You never really know what the future holds, but you just have to position yourself to be able to fit into the future. We will just take it a day at a time.