Far from the regular label of “a chip-off-the-old-block”, Tobi Smart-Cole’s blossoming career in photography and video art opened a window of conversations on peddling a family trade. Yinka Olatunbosun reports
His father’s name is in itself a top brand in photography. For Tobi Smart Cole, a personal venture into photography is not an attempt at continuing a family tradition. It’s like an expedition to ascertain the shape of the earth some centuries ago where the early discoverers found themselves back at the same port of departure where their voyage had begun.
Tobi, son of the legendary Nigerian photographer, Sunmi Smart-Cole, didn’t set out to be a photographer. Interestingly, his father didn’t try to persuade him to do otherwise. After his secondary school education at the International School, University of Lagos, young Tobi relocated with his family to the United States of America in 2003 and attended Montgomery College. His family moved around various cities while in the US so he had to change schools occasionally. He went from Maryland to New York and returned to Baltimore. Once, he was at the City University of New York which had different campuses with different names. His first choice in course of study at the campus called Queen’s College was Computer Information Systems.
“I was so interested in computers since I was a child and I was very skilled at computers,’’ he recounted. “I believe I have a God-given talent at computers. I changed my major when I got to New York. In America, it is very easy to do that. It is not like Nigeria. You can change as many times as possible. There was even a time when I changed it to Hebrew language and culture,’’ he said.
Till now, he couldn’t fathom why he did so but the repository of knowledge that he possesses is of immeasurable value. For instance, hetook classes in art history and appreciation, which provides a good background for his profession which began officially in 2009, a year after he returned to Nigeria.
At Baltimore City Community College, where he changed his major to Business management and took classes in Business Writing as well as Mathematics, he began his own business of selling computers and mobile phones. For him, the educational system in the US allowed for self-discovery and so did his father.
When a family vacation to UK was planned, Tobi and his brother received the gift of cameras from their father to capture the beautiful moments. Invariably, his father put the work tool in his
hand without much ado.
“I didn’t want to practise photography for personal reasons. It was later on that I developed interest. I made a presentation at school based on the first book that my father wrote. The class seemed very interested in my dad’s work because the collection had a lot of interesting pictures that featured public figures such as Nelson Mandela. The instructor then was very interested in the work and began talking about organizing an exhibition for my dad. But that didn’t happen. Perhaps I didn’t take it very serious, though I told my dad about it,’’ he recalled.
During the UK holiday, he took some interesting pictures of statues at Hyde Park and people at their everyday chores. Even with his professional eye, he assessed his early photography as “very good’’.
Upon his return to Nigeria, he enrolled at the University of Lagos to study Geography and toyed with the idea of photography. He asked his father to lend one of his cameras to him but the father bought a professional camera for him. Seeing that he was unable to use the gadget, he instructed one of his employees to guide his son.
“The camera was a very professional one. While I was learning, I felt this joy inside of me. Mr. Muyiwa, the son of I.K. Dairo, taught me how to use the camera. He is a mentor to a lot of people such as Kelechi Amadi Obi. Right now, he is in the US practising his photography,’’ he revealed.
As a very devout Christian, Tobi prayed to God about his foray into photography. Coupled with his love of nature, he sought a new path for himself. Though his father is usually, if not erroneously, dubbed as a celebrity photographer, his works cover a wide variety of themes. Tobi’s penchant for environmental themes provides a surge of energy running through his latest body of works.
“I see God in nature. There is order and tranquility in nature. I enjoy watching nature; it is like an escape for me from noise and urban civilization. I have been studying the work of Ansel Adams. He took a lot beautiful landscapes pictures in black and white and he was a very good photographer. He is regarded as one of the best photographers,’’ he said.
Some of Tobi’s works had been published in THISDAY and MEDIA REVIEW MAGAZINE. Part of his dream is to see them in National Geographic. Even as a child, he was reading it. He would collect insects and put them in a jar filled with sand. He even kept a chameleon but later released it into the garden.
“Maybe, I couldn’t take care of it,” he said, reflecting on his childhood days. It is inevitable that sometimes, Tobi is judged by his father’s standards. But he is not bothered. Rather, his focus is on developing his video artistry while keeping abreast of the latest trends in photography. He revealed that many international photographers have returned to the use of film photography which has some unique picture quality that digital method cannot match.
After watching his short videos on his mobile device, while crunching the plantain chips served by his pleasant-looking wife, this reporter asked how Tobi is able to cover fresh grounds in nature photography without the attraction of other lucrative aspects of photography.
“Nature photography requires a lot of travelling to get closer to nature. I have not been travelling a lot lately,’’ he said. His new video titled, “Revelation” is an artist’s statement against the gradual cultural erosion caused by urban development. Tobi considers video art as a way of expressing self and communicating artistically just the same way a painter expresses his thoughts through his works.
“Before I went into video art, I was working on project called the Kids’ chef project with Mr. Mike Ijiekpe who is the head of the project. It is about using culinary skills to improve learning in children. The performance of children at examinations has become worse. We are trying to promote the learner-centred pedagogy in Nigerian educational system. Ghana has adopted this method for over three decades so you can see how far behind we are. That was when I started working on videos. I have been doing the editing and I have also been the director of photography for the project,’’ he said.
When Video Art Network and Goethe institute organised a workshop for video artists in Lagos, Tobi was one of the selected participants who tapped freely from the stream of experienced video artists. Right now, he is training over 15 photographers every month on how to refine their skills in communities around his Akute residence.
Tobi believes that art should be a tool for reorientation. Hence, his works are always centred on social issues such as corruption, tribalism, climate change and other issues affecting humanity. “When immigration was at its peak in America from Europe, it became a subject for photographers who documented the poor living conditions of immigrants.
Art helps to draw attention to important issues. I specialise in industrial, architectural and food photography in my commercial work. Since photography has been approved by the government to be taught in schools, I also teach photography in private schools,’’ he said.