Chief Executive Officer of Shola Creative Studio, Mr. Shola Balogun, in this interview with Mary Ekah, reveals how he surmounted the odds to become a celebrity photographer, who is reckoned within the entertainment industry
Tell us a bit about Shola Creative Studio?
Shola Creative Studio has existed for about 19 years now. We have been involved majorly in our core area which is photography. We have packaged a lot of things in the area of photography. We have also been involved in youth empowerment, beauty pageants and procurement of ushers for events. We have also worked with a lot of celebrities in Nigeria.
In what sense are you involved in youth empowerment programme?
For a couple of years now, we have organised programmes aimed at empowering the youths by equipping them with basic knowledge of photography. That’s our own little way of giving back to the society whereby we give room to the youths to come and be traiedn in photography for free so they don’t remain idle and eventually get involved in indecent act. And we do this every year.
How long does the training take?
It takes basically two to three weeks during which we teach them basic knowledge in photography and how they can build career in photography. We want to let these youths know that with basic knowledge of photography and good manner of approach, they can make good career in photography. And it will interest you to know that photography sells like hot cake in this part of the world. Every event today cannot hold without photography. So we thought that when we train the youths, they will be able to make money for themselves rather than wait for the government to provide them jobs.
How rewarding is photography as a job?
Photography is very profitable today. In the past, people believed photographers were school dropouts but today it has gone beyond that. I travel abroad every year by virtue of my job as a photographer. I must say that photography is no more a child’s play but a career with prestige.
So how wide and far has photography taken you?
I have been in this profession for long and it has taken me to a lot of places and has also made me meet a lot of people I never expect I could come in contact with. I never believed that I could walk into an embassy and be given a visa as a photographer. I never believed I could have the privilege of working closely with presidents, celebrities, captains of industry, politicians and others by virtue of my job as a photographer. I have won a lot of awards through photography and now people see me as a celebrity just because of snapping pictures. I have travelled far and near and to different countries attending seminars and doing other businesses through my job as a photographer.
How has these experiences shaped your life as a person?
I don’t see things like I used to. Now I value my job as photographer more. In Nigeria we don’t value photography but when we go outside the country, they see us as big. So these experiences have changed my mind-set so much that I see photography beyond the ordinary. It has really transformed my life. People now treat me with great respect. Photography has changed my life; it has added so much value to everything I do now.
How did it start?
I could remember then when I learned photography in 1995. I didn’t even have a camera then. I learned photography from a photo shop on the street through a boss who is now late. And his own photography jobs were mostly on passports, street parties, naming ceremony and other local parties. And then it was black and white. And we used to learn how to wash films in the “dark room”. It was so tedious then producing a picture unlike what it is now. It was a long process. A roll of film was 34 and you can’t develop a roll of film unless it was completely used up. And then we used to go to parties we were not invited to take photographs of people just to use up the film and sometimes those we took pictures would not collect them. After that I had to go about lobbying customers with a colleague. Then we did not have a shop and so I used to hang my camera on my neck then, just to let people know what I was doing so that they would hire me for even passport photograph and it usually took about a month for me to finish a roll of film. And then, a set of passports used to be N50 and clients would give me may be N20 advance and you need like N70 to develop a film for printing so after collecting a N20 advance, I would not pass the area I collected advance from people until I am able to get other customers to complete a roll of film because to develop a roll for film, was N70 then which I can develop only when it is completely used up. Those were the challenges I passed through before I finally got a small shop then. My studio then was very narrow while my generator set was what they call, ‘I better pass my neighbour’. I could remember I bought my first camera for N15, 000 then and it was a manual Canon and that brought a turnaround for me. It was a long journey but thank God.
How did you then evolve from a once local photographer to a world renowned celebrity photographer?
At that point when I started photography as an amateur, I would take people pictures and some don’t come back for the pictures and even when I had used my money to print the pictures, sometimes I would wait for a whole month to get my money. So I stopped doing advance payment jobs. At a point, I started taking pictures for the media, at least to get photo credits on the pages of newspapers. Later on I took pictures of some people which they took to a movie audition and everyone at the audition loved them. And that singular act opened ways for me in the entertainment industry and that was how my fame started. And from then, I started taking pictures for only movie auditions and other arranged photo shoots.
Now a celebrity photographer, what stands you out?
I made myself different because I initiate things on my own. I don’t copy what others do. If any photographer comes to the studio to spy on my instrument I don’t care because even with the same equipment, you cannot achieve what I do. I do my things differently. I also change the style of directing people when taking pictures. Now people come to me to generate content. They just come to me and say, this is the storyline, create something for us and it is done and to their utmost satisfaction. While others would want to create a poster and as soon as they give me the idea of what the poster is all about, I then do photoshoot and generate a content that suits the purpose. This not what any photographer out there could do and so that also makes me totally different from others.
You relocated recently from Adelabu in Surulere to Alaka Estate. What informed the move?
I don’t station myself in one area; I try as much as possible to change my location every five years. When I wanted to relocate to Alaka, I realised there was no photography studio there and that really propelled me to move there. And gradually I started with primary, secondary and then to the movies industry and right now I am dealing with another set of people within the Alaka Estate, which are made up of captains of industry, business mogul and so on, so that in future, if the movie industry does not fetch money again for me, then I can easily switched to the next industry.
What informs your dress sense?
I found out that the way you dress is the way people address you. And most times, photographers dress in a peculiar way – casual in jean and jacket and all that but I love to be different and so I dress corporately most times that people get shocked when I tell them I am a photographer. I am trying to create the impression that a photographer can also dress like an honourable or a senator. And of course a photographer can also be an honourable or a senator. I do my things different by dressing well. People only know who I am when I start doing my job. Besides, I also have people I have trained to work constantly with me in case I just want to sit and watch them work. I constantly train people working under me to do greatly so that when I travel out of the country, my absence doesn’t affect my job. So sometimes, I just want to sit and watch them work so that I can assess their progress.
How affordable are you?
I don’t make myself very expensive. I feel that if you are not a celebrity today you can turn to be one tomorrow, so we try as much as we can to strike the balance between the rich and poor. A lot of people shiver when they hear Shola Creative Studio, thinking I’m too expensive. I’m affordable to anybody. I could take a picture of N1000 and another person comes, with that same camera, I could take it for N50, 000 because I would have considered the quality for the one for 50,000 which entails a lot of work and creativity. Somebody who wants to use a picture for a billboard will have a different quality of picture from someone who wants a picture merely for his/her personal use.
What is your vision for Shola Creative Studio?
I believe I still have a long way to go. And one of my biggest dreams is to establish a photography school. Although we have one in Yaba Collage of Technology (Yabatech) which is under Mass Communication Department, it doesn’t really have that strong touch on photography, so I believe we should have some more in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt so that we can change the face of photography in Nigeria. A lot of people are interested in photography but they don’t know where to go. So in another year, I hope to establish a photography school in different parts of Nigeria where we can then bring in professionals from abroad to train our youths.
What does it take to be a photographer?
It is interest – when you have the interest in it and then devote your time to learn it. There are three groups – basic, amateur and professional. Some people just want to handle the camera, while some want to make money like me. And the professional must know how to do a lot of things. To be a professional photographer today, you must know a lot of things and not just how to handle a camera. You must know how to direct, do lightening, you must know how to edit pictures and all that. So it’s a long training. So what matters is having interest. You don’t need to be forced to learn.