“Despite the odds, I am still standing tall, I am still the Banke Alakiya people used to know and I am not tired but still relevant in society.”
The story of celebrity photographer and CEO of Photo-Plus International Communications, Banke Alakiya is indeed inspiring. At the tender age of five, she was sexually abused! By age 19, she got pregnant and was thrown out of the house by her parents. However, in a world where many would plunge into despondency, Alakiya held up her chin, confronted her challenges and forged ahead, establishing a thriving career in photography. Today, Alakiya has photographed the high and mighty across the globe including the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II, former American President, George W. Bush and first African woman to emerge Miss World, Agbani Darego among others.
A graduate of Marketing, Alakiya clocked 50 last year and she celebrated it in grand style, with a shindig that attracted the creme de la creme of society. In this chat, Alakiya opens up on how she climbed the steep slope of success to achieve her dreams. Enjoy it.
A while ago, you had a glamorous party to commemorate your 50th birthday. How does it feel turning 50?
It’s fantastic and I feel fulfilled. Two things I am happy about are that, despite the odds and challenges, I was able to call people to come and celebrate with me. Despite the odds, I am still standing tall, I am still the Banke Alakiya people used to know and I am not tired but still relevant in the society and I will continue to be relevant because of who I am. God created me very unique.
You’ve photographed the high and mighty, what has been your happiest moment as a society photographer?
That was the day I went to London to cover the Miss World pageant in 2002. Agbani Darego won in 2001. And in 2002, she was to relinquish her crown in Abuja, which was the venue. All accreditation had been done but unfortunately, there were riots in Kaduna and the event had to be moved quickly to the UK. At Ovation, my colleagues said ‘Bank, you have all the accreditation, go to the embassy and apply. If they give you visa, we are sure that Dele Momodu will get ticket for you. Lo and behold, when I got to the embassy, I was told to get money for two years’ visa while I was only asking for six months. So, I rallied round and paid. I was asked why I was going to the UK and I explained the sudden shift of Miss World to the UK due to the riots hence I had to travel to cover it at very short notice. So, the embassy staff asked if I had my magazine and fortunately I had it. I gave him and he said, ‘can I see your name on the masthead?’ I showed him my name and a picture of Agbani Darego and me and he was blown away! I became an instant celeb. Then he told me to come back the next day for my visa and I was like wow! They also gave visas to two of my colleagues because of my goodwill. That was my first time in London and it was cold, and unfortunately for me, I wore only a skirt and blouse; it wasn’t funny but it was an interesting experience and I felt fulfilled. Another moment was when I was still working with Ovation and the Queen of England came to Nigeria. I was the official photographer assigned from Ovation magazine to cover the event. And it was a fantastic moment. I got to meet the queen and I was like wow!
What was the experience like growing up in a polygamous home and how many wives did your dad have?
Dad had eight wives and it was like a war zone; everybody wanted to outsmart the other. I was like ‘why are we like this?’ My mum was very transparent. In all that she has gone through in the marriage, she still says that it is because she is transparent that her kids are progressing; she never struggles for earthly things. We are 26 kids. Two are late now. We have a referee, two teams and a linesman (laughter). My mum had seven kids. I was daughter number two coming from my mum.
Could you recount your growing up and your earliest influences?
My influences were not much because like I said, I always hid myself. I was a very quiet kid and I minded my business. My parents had good influence over me even though they did not have much. My father was not wealthy but he was not poor. He owned the building we all lived in, and he has like three houses in Lagos, and my dad was very handsome; tall and dark and I always told him that ‘even if you don’t want, women will come after you’ (laughter).
Considering your experience, would you allow any of your kids to go into polygamy?
Well, you see, with the way things are going right now, I am in the class of people who would say that a man should not marry (only) one woman (laughter).
Why shouldn’t men marry more women? We have excess women that are ripe for marriage. People are going to crucify me for this but I don’t care what people say. I think so but I’m not imposing it.
Child abuse is quite rampant today. What is your take?
I want every woman out there to be careful. Child abuse is rampant. I went through it at age five, but victims hardly confide in people because they will tag you as not well brought up. That was the situation I faced back then. Mothers should please take their time to have minimal children that they can adequately cater for, and monitor especially the girl child. They should not leave any of their daughters to uncles, cousins, aunties, brothers or whatever. If you are going to have one child, please give that child 100 per cent guidance. That is what she needs so that she would be proud she has a great mother. Mothers should be minimal in the number of kids they have because when they go astray, you won’t even know where they are. Imagine, expecting a 16-year-old child to bring food to your table; that is abuse.
Tell us about your teenage years?
I started work as early as 16. It was because my dad had plenty wives and I think he didn’t believe in female education. My elder sister wasn’t encouraged with education either. I was the second daughter but I knew the importance of education. I started working because I didn’t want to go beg any man. Fortunately, I found work at age 16 as soon as I finished my secondary school. I was working as a front desk officer at a popular hotel, and fortunately for me, the owner of the place had interest in me and took me like his daughter. He guarded me jealously. He always wanted me to be wherever he was and took me as his daughter. Along the line, he traveled and I met this guy, a contractor with the hotel. I was a child then. That was how I had my first child at 19. My parents were not supportive. They said I should go and meet the guy that impregnated me, so I moved out because it’s a shame for me to be pregnant and still staying with my family. It was rough. Sometimes I came back to collect foodstuff from my mum because I was not working. The guy was not supportive either. We eventually broke up when I left because I knew it was not where I should be. I needed to forge ahead. Maybe, he was ready to marry but I wasn’t. I wanted more; I wanted challenges. Pregnancy was not what I wanted for myself, I wanted education. But I was like ‘now that you have a child, why can’t you acquire some skills first before you go for education?’ If you have skills you would be able to fend for yourself and your child’. The experience was horrible. There was the stigma to contend with. In fact, it is up to you to tell yourself that ‘this is not the end of your life’. The people that stigmatised me then, where are they today? For you to survive, you must tell yourself that it (the challenge) will pass. It cannot be permanent.
So, I went to Dapo Ojo, the owner of CPL (Colour Place Limited) at Jibowu, Lagos, where I trained to be a photographer. Yabatech was just down the road, so when I saw my mates going to school, I’d tell myself that ‘one day, I’d join them’. I had two years intensive training in photography at CPL. After two years, Ojo asked me ‘do you want to continue with us or do you want to be independent?’ And I chose the latter. By that time, people had started knowing me for my job and were invited me to functions. People like Aunty Yinka Williams, Mrs. Olulade and Mrs. Oki were people that patronised me.
What were your challenges when you quit CPL?
I started looking for jobs. If I heard that some people wanted to do birthday party or wedding, I would approach them. I was going around and selling myself. And then it happened; I got pregnant again and had a second child! When I knew I was already pregnant, it was very challenging. I kept asking myself ‘how are you going to combine work with this pregnancy?’
It wasn’t easy but I pulled through. I couldn’t afford to buy a camera. I had to go to my dad for a loan and he asked ‘when are you going to pay?’ But I promised to pay. Fortunately, he borrowed me some money and I bought my first camera. I was so proud of myself. Another challenge was getting an office for a studio and to serve as a contact point with my clients.
You were just 21 when you chose to be independent. Weren’t you scared?
I was 21 going 22. The reason I wanted to be independent was because if I’d started on salary, I might not be able to fend for my child and myself. I wanted money that could sustain my baby and me, yet save some money towards my education, but that did not happen. I had three children before getting admission to LASU (laughter). I did GCE at an old age. What even prompted me was that I had a friend who asked me ‘which school did you attend?’ And I told him ‘secondary school’ and he said ‘ha, you didn’t go to university? You are beautiful but you will be even more beautiful if you had a degree’. I said ‘really?’ That was how I went to sit for GCE in 2000 and I did it twice, combining work with motherhood, and eventually, I got admission.
What were your challenges as a single mum?
It is a matter of contentment. I was content because through my efforts in photography, I was able to train my children. It’s been fantastic. I was struggling to pay school fees and a lot of times I owed, but I would tell them I was coming back, which I did. By and large, I’m grateful to God for good health and for giving me the ability to face those challenges squarely, not minding what people said. There was a time I had an assignment; I took a night bus to Abuja and went by road to Kaduna in the morning, and after taking pictures, I returned to Abuja, stayed at the park waiting for the night bus. I spent two nights on the road and it was hectic. The reason was the money they were going to pay me was going to pay my rent and my children’s school fees (laughter).
Has it always been your dream to be a photographer?
When I started photography, people said, ‘why photography? Why not fashion design? I knew many fashion designers but I chose photography because I’ve always loved to be behind the camera right from when I was young. I would ask myself, ‘what are they looking at (behind the camera)?’ I wanted to see the beautiful things they were shooting, so when it dawned on me that I couldn’t go to school, I had to go for photography.
It has always been my dream to be a photographer.
Dele Momodu seems to have been very influential in your career. How did you meet him?
It was at a function; one of my clients, may her soul rest in peace, Fadike Folawiyo was getting married. She had been giving me jobs before and then her wedding came along and she gave me the contract. Ovation magazine was at the wedding and I think the publisher saw my dexterity and he asked if I would like to join them. I did not answer him immediately. It was later I joined them, in 2001. In fact, the move collapsed my studio because the job was vey demanding. However, it was fantastic traveling around the world, meeting presidents and the Queen, among a host of others. I was attached to Agbani Darego. When former President George Bush visited, I was there and had a one-on-one contact with him.
When you look back to that pregnant 19-year-old who was rejected and frustrated, did you believe you were going to be this big?
Nobody knows tomorrow. When I was young, I never knew I was going to come this far. It is just about being who you are and being dedicated to what you do. If I had not been dedicated when I started out, I wouldn’t have come this far, because Ovation magazine wouldn’t have sighted me. It was a great experience working with Ovation magazine.
At 50, you seem ageless, what is the secret?
That is not true (laughter). I am 50 and I love it. Like I said, I don’t keep negative memories and I love to look good. You will definitely look good when you are rich, but you don’t need to be very rich
to look good. With the little amount you have, you can achieve a lot; and don’t look down on people unless you are admiring their shoes (laughter). I’ve seen so many things in life. I’ve seen people rise from grass to grace and then crash from grace to grass.
You are a beautiful woman; tell us about the man in your life?
Ahh! I’m not lucky with men. And the reason is that when a woman is very transparent, men don’t like her. They love women that will love them up and lock them up. It’s only when they want people to see them that they open them up again. In my own case, I’m too transparent; I call a spade a spade, but people advised me that it’s not always good to be transparent, but I think it’s good.
Could you describe your ideal man?
He must be a responsible person. It is not the physical appearance that really matters. At my level now, I want a man that can take me around the world and make me experience all the youthful experiences I missed. I am not very choosy (laughter). I want a mature man that knows his onions. At this stage, I can’t marry a man who is still struggling; I want a man who will pamper me.