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Iconic photographer, Sunmi Smart-Cole, had wrenched himself from the clutches of obscurity by self-educating himself to relevance. But, nothing prepared him for the fame that would become the theme song of his life, which explains the impressive gathering of the Lagos elite at his exhibition opening on December 1. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

“A lot of people carry cameras and say they are photographers, they are not!” Georges Val, one of France’s leading photographers, was quoted to have said. “But, Sunmi Smart-Cole is a photographer!”

This, of course, is one assertion most of the culture aficionados, who responded en masse to his invitation on Sunday, December 1, would readily agree with. And this is for obvious reasons. Smart-Cole, a stickler for excellence, has by dint of hard work taken the profession to undreamt-of heights.

Through photography, the 78-year-old has made a spectacular ascent up the ladder-rungs of fame, wormed his way into the intimate circles of the country’s Who Is Who and consequently earned himself the enviable laurel as its first celebrity photographer. This should explain why Terra Kulture in Victoria Island, Lagos became the meeting point for his old clients and associates, thanks to that Sunday afternoon’s opening of his ongoing solo exhibition.

The exhibition, which is on until December 14, marks his 43rd year in the profession and is themed Sunmi’s Lens. It had flagged off with his enrolment to study photography in a college in California in June 1976. This was four years after he had returned to the U. S. for his second visit, after a previous visit in 1971 at the invitation of the African-American civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson.

He would hold his first exhibition at Stanford University in California two years later and a second, that same year, back in Nigeria at the National Theatre in Iganmu, Lagos.

Subsequent exhibitions followed on the heels of each other, several of them holding outside the country until he registered his presence in places like Stanford University in the Californian town of Stanford (U. S. A.), the Hotel Africa in the Liberian capital Monrovia, the National Theatre in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), the Municipal Museum in Hong Kong (China), Brasilia (Brazil), the Nigeria High Commission in London (U. K.), the Musee Dapper in Paris (France) and Belgrade (in former Yugoslavia), among others.

And, of course, these exhibitions were based on his impressive portfolio of photographs, which not only document nature’s wow! moments, but also memorable sights of quotidian activities in the streets and nondescript places. Of course, there were also iconic portraits of titanic figures like the former South African president and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, former U. S. president Bill Clinton and photo-ops with the late Cuban president, Fidel Castro as well as the former Nigerian military heads of state, General Muhammadu Buhari and General Ibrahim Babangida. In addition, there were rare shots of the renowned artist Ben Enwonwu at work, the legendary Afrobeat musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Ugandan lawyer, politician, diplomat and model Princess Elizabeth of Toro and the Obi of Onitsha, among others.

Obviously, these photographs were the fallouts of his many travels across five continents and his interactions with crème de la crème of the society. Humour, curiosity, love for humanity, even anger and despair peer out from his many engaging snapshots, which adorn the walls of the new-look Terra Kulture’s upper-floor exhibition hall. It is easily understandable that the galleries walls could hardly accommodate even a selection of his best photographs taken within the past 43 years. Nor could the gallery space accommodate the throng of dignitaries, who included the Vanguard newspaper publisher Chief Sam Amuka-Pemu, a former governor of Cross River State Donald Duke, the industrialist Chief Femi Olopade, Chief Mrs Opral Benson, Chief Femi Adeniyi-Williams, Frank Aig-Imokhuede, Arc. Kitoyi Ibare-Akinsan and Kolade Oshinowo, among others.

Smart-Cole’s renown was burnished by the indelible impressions he had left in the collective consciousness of the readers of The Guardian on Sunday with his engaging front-page photographs. He had first been invited to become The Guardian’s pioneer photo editor in 1983, later became the editor of one of the newspaper’s titles, Lagos Life, and eventually held the position of The Guardian’s managing editor until 1989, after which he became a freelance photographer. He later joined THISDAY, where he ended up as the director of photography.

In an interview with THISDAY’s sister media organisation Arise TV earlier this year, Smart-Cole lifted the veil on his life before photography. He had been a technical illustrator, draughtsman, drummer, teacher and a celebrity barber, he told Arise TV.

Perhaps, what is most inspiring about the septuagenarian photographer’s story was his resilience and the sheer tenacity in the pursuit of his goals. Having no means to fund his secondary education after he had completed his primary education, he took up a job as a teacher in a rural school. The little money he earned from this job helped him buy a transistor radio with which he eventually began to listen to the BBC World Service. Through the station’s news broadcasts, he learnt how to properly pronounce English words he had previously stumbled upon while reading old copies of international magazines like Time, Newsweek and National Geographic as well as such publications as Readers’ Digest.

His proficiency in English had stood him in good stead while mingling freely with the Lagos society’s upper crust. He trained informally as a draughtsman, got a job designing buildings and lost it months later after it was discovered that he had no school certificate. He had intermittently designed concert posters for the legendary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, had a stint as his drummer and joined different jazz and soul bands in the city.

Still, he needed a steady stream of income, hence his decision to set up a barber’s shop. With the initial capital of £20 he got from his friend’s father, he was able to establish Sunmi’s Place which became the favourite barber’s shop for the Lagos elite and expatriate community. His customers were not only serenaded with jazz music and could leaf through copies of his favourite international magazines.

But, fate had yet other plans for him. One of his expatriate customers invited to an event where he met Reverend Jesse Jackson, through whose invitation he had embarked on his first trip to the U. S. to attend a music festival.
It was his second trip to the US the following year that corralled him into the arms of photography after his enrolment at the California-based college.