SUPER SATURDAY STORY
As a subject, he’s complex but unique as his underwater recreational engagement and photography. But there is more to Bolaji Alonge, a man who has made the world his living room. Ferdinand Ekechukwu writes on how he achieved that
• Bolaji Alonge’s Mission to Connect the World through Photography
A core Lagosian by birth, he has traversed the whole world, hosted people globally, taken them to different places of interest. A global citizen with a local flavour, he knows Lagos like the back of his hand; Bolaji Alonge is very familiar with places like Ikeja, Yaba, Ajah, and Victoria Island.
That, in some way, exposed and provided him the opportunity for what he found himself doing. Without mincing words, he tells you he’s an iconoclast, a nomad having travelled across continents to different parts of the world and in the process taking pictures but primarily, scuba diving. He got certified in Turkey in 2013 by the highest scuba diving body – PADI – Professional Association of Diving Instructors.
Some of the photographs taken from plateau of mountains, some in the glitz of cities and deep inside the forests, while some in the depth of the sea, and in the most unlikely places unknowingly capturing the vastness of the world and exhibit nature in its undiluted form. These photographs cover a period of five years spent by Alonge on his scuba diving and photography adventures.
As at last count he has crisscrossed over 17 countries, including Germany, Netherland, Norway, Sweden, India, Egypt, Belgium, Turkey and Spain, the farthest being Yekaterinburg in Russia, carrying with him a large cache of pictures of places sojourned.
Bolaji says he has a mission: to connect the world together through photography. Little wonder his www.awefirm.org hoists a massive collection of over 50,000 photographs. He had envisaged a situation where young creative photographers from home and abroad come up together in a collaborative effort showcasing photographic materials like never before experienced.
To Alonge, photography wasn’t for business enterprise when he started
“I was born into photography, so to speak,” he says. “I started with my dad in his little dark room. I remember myself and my younger brother being with him inside the little dark room giving one form of assistance or the other.”
His late father, Olu Alonge, was a photographer and had engaged in photography even in his pastime and as a military man then in the Air Force. He went everwhere with his camera.
Growing up as a teenager in the 1990s there was always a camera around the house for young Alonge to play with. “I think I’m more of a self-taught photographer who now brings arts to it. And then I studied Mass Communication; I did photo-journalism course and all of that,” he adds. “Everything just came together. So before the travel started I was always taking pictures; I took pictures of everybody, pictures of my environment and so on.”
Alonge started out scuba diving, in the coast of Lagos Atlantic Ocean, an activity that, aside not being for one lacking in courage or boldness, is not common in Nigeria. “It’s something I have always wanted to do,” he said in an effusive manner. “Of course scuba diving in this part of the world is seen as dangerous; people think of mermaid, and then sharks, like they understand how it is down there.
“But I tell you sharks don’t attack scuba divers actually,” he claims. This somewhat sounds fable. “Start taking note, most of the shark attacks are done on people by the coastline. The water gets warm sometimes and sharks miss their way. And the water gets too warm and they find themselves in this strange environment and it’s not like they are going to attack people. But they are just trying to touch to know what it is and sharks have no hands. It’s only the mouth and it touches the person with the mouth and the leg or arm is gone.”
With varied tact experience to it, he has scuba-dived at world famous sites like the Red Sea, and the Golf Coast of Oman, the country he has stayed in the last three years. “Dive sites around the world drive scuba divers and are different,” he said. “The Red Sea is different from the Mediterranean. The Caribbean has its own difference too.” Talking about scuba diving in the Red Sea, Alonge said, “The Red Sea off the Coast of Egypt is one of the best dive sites in the world, rich with corals and enormous and protected Marine life.”
An experience of a lifetime for him was diving down the historic British Armed Merchant Navy Ship SS Thistlegorm, a sunken World War II Ship filled with trucks, motorcycles, train coaches and ammunition 40 meters down the coast of Sharm El Sheikh, near Ras Muhammad in the Red Sea.
In the course of travelling the world with his then German partner, looking around to discovering esoteric places well enough to scuba dive, Alonge found himself consumed with the art of photography.
“I got to a point in my life where I was left only with the camera. It’s only photography I was left with. And living outside of this country I was just taking pictures. And I have the opportunity to travel,” he explains. “So my aim now is just to bring this back home. This is home. I’m back home now. No matter where I go, this is home. And Lagos is perceived the artists’ hub of Africa.
“And fortunately, I’m from Lagos, so why not show what I’m doing to encourage young Africans. Not every person can read; but everyone can always identify with photos. So I intend to speak more with my photos. This is the aim of the exhibition and it’s going to be in a series of exhibitions, photos, coming up.”
Just recently, after touring the world exploring its vastness and taking it all in with the lens of his camera, Alonge comes home on a solo streak with iconic images that capture the diversity of nature and reflects his artistic inclination. Buoyed by the fascinating images in his cache, it would become necessary that the artist shares with Nigerians and young Africans, these interesting moments of his experience through a photo exhibition tagged, ‘Eyes of a Lagos Boy’.
“The exhibition tells the story of Alonge. The things he has seen and now back home to share with young Africans,” he said. “But again there is still more to life. I intend to come up with different stories of things to talk about in life through photography. But again, it will always be from my eyes and saying it the way it is. Considering Lagos is vibrant. We have near-perfect weather. We have all going on.”
His ‘Eyes of a Lagos Boy’ exhibition showcased 27 selected framed photos with numerous shots running in the background.
The exhibition shows different things from different parts of the world from his perspective, having received divergent views during the exhibition from art aficionados that “you need to make it more African, you need to make it more traditional, you need to make it more this, you need to make it more that,” he noted. It, however, received some high score with Prof. Wole Soyinka suggesting that one of the pictures could have been used for his book cover.
“Right now, there’s huge information highway out there. It has always been. But then Africa’s contribution to this information highway is less than just five per cent. What we are doing we are just getting the small part of it. We are not really in the action. So, what photography does to us is helping us to document history.
“Every picture you take and post out there is out there forever. This kind of thing I did is different. Of course, I see people do photo exhibitions here in Nigeria; this one is a different thing. I mean I look at the walls and I see those pictures sometimes and I wonder: who took these pictures?”
In a way, Alonge’s exhibition appears timely as much as it synchronised with the buzz around activities marking Lagos @50 and he gives credit to Theo Lawson, the Director of Freedom Park, for shaping up the theme of the exhibition.
The week-long photo exhibition at the Freedom Park museum was awe inspiring, just as Alonge had anticipated.
It invoked the spirit of the adventurer and wanderlust in Nigerians and humanity as a whole, just so to encourage those that have not, do not or cannot travel and take photos.
“Not like they are out of this world. But the pictures just represent something for some people. Like some of the Dutch pictures I took; a lady from the Dutch Embassy came and she was looking at it and the first thing she told me was, ‘Wow, these pictures make me homesick!’ And that was my aim!” Alonge pointed out.