Simi Vijay: Using His Lens as Tool for Social Change

Olusimi Vijay Afun-Ogidan

Olusimi Vijay Afun-Ogidan, popularly known by the brand name, Simi Vijay, is part of a new generation of visual journalists in Nigeria. Fascinated by photography as a child, he replaced his engineering degree with a camera and hasn’t looked back. His passion for photography has taken him on a journey of self and sociocultural discovery to many parts of the world. He currently lives in New York, after relocating to get formal training as a Visual Journalist. As a freelance photographer, Simi Vijay uses his visual narrative story telling skills to inform on the intersectionality of history, socialisation, gender, identity and culture. He talks about this and more in this interview with MARY NNAH

What were your childhood experiences like?

I was born in Ilorin, but spent my toddler years in Ibadan, before eventually settling in Kaduna. Childhood was beautiful, fun and carefree. Kaduna was a melting pot of people from all parts of Nigeria, and even the world, so I had friends from various ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. I also grew up in a mixed culture home, as my dad is from Ilesha in Osun State and my mom from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh in India. It wasn’t all play though, having an Indian mother meant I lived the Tiger Mom tough love experience. Her balance of smothering love and strict discipline pushed me to achieve at whatever I set out to do whether academic or creative.


Tell us about your first introduction to photography. What drew you into this world?

My dad had this Yashica camera, which as the young inquisitive boy that I was, I would sneak into his room and fiddle with, sometimes taking pictures of things I saw from the balcony of our second floor apartment. That was my first exposure to the world of photography. My 10-year-old self was fascinated by how a click of a button could capture a moment for posterity. But of course, I wasn’t allowed to tinker around with my dad’s precious camera and got scolded when caught. It wasn’t until university that my curiosity in photography was rekindled. In 2007, I went on a road trip from Kaduna to Calabar for the Christmas carnival. It was such an enlightening experience seeing the diversity our country had to offer. I took pictures non-stop. Somehow, that was my eureka moment. I realised that I wanted to be more than just an engineer – I wanted to capture the world around me and use these visuals to tell a story. 


Did you at any time study photography?

I initially had no formal training in photography. I studied Electronics Engineering at the Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa University (ATBU) Bauchi. I was self-taught from the start of my photography career in 2012 until 2018 when I registered for a course in Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. The programme exposed me to a global body of work from outstanding photographers, showed me the power of visual content to shape a narrative and taught me that I could do so much more to influence positive social impact from behind a lens. Coming from a self-taught background, it was a great opportunity to formalise my skills in archival ideas, mixed media, printing, sequencing, and pitching for proposals and grants. I would say that in my early photography days, I learned a lot from my peers- Aisha Augie-Kuta (studio lighting techniques), Ademola Olaniran (studio lighting and portraiture) and Tom Saater (composition, framing and human story-telling). It was a steep learning curve, but well worth it. 


What influenced your relocation to New York?

While in Nigeria I had worked hard to build my client base and establish a brand for Simi Vijay Photography. In many ways I had achieved this. I had carved out a niche for myself as a documentary photographer in Nigeria, providing photography, videography and branding visibility to a range of clients; from international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as USAID, UNICEF, UNFPA, FHI360, embassies, to philanthropic organisations- Rotary International, Abuja, Tulsi Chanrai Foundation, Nigeria, to fashion and lifestyle events- the Abuja Music and Runway annual event, to private sector companies- Nigeria Export Import Bank, Julius Berger Construction Company, Reliance Hospital, etc. I also worked with print and online media providing image content to the Financial Nigeria magazine, Metropole Magazine, among others. I combined photography and graphic design services to deliver coffee table books. However, I felt that I could deliver more value if I got formal training to refine my skills and technique. I also wanted to slightly pivot to an investigative photography angle. For this, I knew I would need technical knowledge on journalistic practice in order to translate visual media into compelling stories. I chose New York because I wanted to go to one of the top institutes for photojournalism – the International Center of Photography. And why not New York? One of the greatest cities in the world, known for its diverse and vibrant art and culture scene.


How was your education experience in New York?

The one-year programme at ICP was truly an intense and challenging experience which pushed me to my limits. Daily classes were full of lessons from renowned experts, discussions with peers, critiques from supervisors and reviews of a range of subject matters. The ICP experience was mind-opening – I learned about the history of visual journalism, new media techniques and strategies for publication and online presence. The diversity of my classmates’ background also made for fun and insightful perspectives. Imagine people from 12 different countries! Sadly, there were only a handful of African photographers’ body of work to study, and we need to change that. Nigeria and Africa in general must create its own narratives. I have to say; just living in New York is an educational experience in itself. I was inspired by young black creatives, taking charge to change the black narrative.


You mentioned earlier that you are learning about the world through your lens and others’ from different cultures and nations. Can you expatiate on this?

Did you know that different cultures around the world see colours differently? In a colour theory class when asked to pick from a palate of several shades of green, none of us picked the same shade. I chose my perception of green based on my latent memory of the Nigerian flag or green I’ve seen in nature. From my classmates I learned a fundamental lesson, which to be honest I’ve always known, but I suppose was not apparent until confronted with it. I learned that their upbringing and societal exposures truly shaped their world views, choice of subject matter and process to create. Each person had their own style of expression and used photography as a form of art to project their voice differently. No one person’s approach was the same. Similarly, I brought my Yoruba, Indian, Hausa, Nigerian, African perspective when expressing my art.  


How easy was it for you to make a 360 degree turn around from engineering to photography?

Honestly, it just happened. But, I did make a conscious effort to follow it through because it was a no brainer at the time. I graduated from university and it was difficult finding a job as an engineer with no experience. It was a time when the need for quality photography was on the rise and what I’d get paid for one or three days of work was more than what I was offered for a month’s salary as an engineer. My entrepreneurial side kicked in and I saw a way to deliver a service doing what I enjoyed while getting paid for it. I took the plunge and built Simi Vijay Photography from there.


Do you remember your first favourite shot? What was it?

My first favourite shot was taken at a small Fulani settlement near Wuye, Abuja. It was of six boys with raised fists, standing on a rock bathed in shadow of a beautiful orange sunset. This picture had strong composition, colour, and an emotional sense. It won second place Nikon’s Choice in the Nikon #IamAlive Photo Competition in August 2015. 


Do you have a role model from this field?

I have had many role models. When I started out, I was intrigued by Steve McCurry’s portraits and images. At the time, I didn’t know about the greats like Cartier Bresson’s, Robert Frank, Robert Capa, Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava, Malik Sidibé, Seydou Keita, Martin Parr, Sebastião Salgado, Dorothy Lange, Ruddy, Roye, Mary Ellen Mark, and many others. While at ICP, I studied their unique storytelling style, and content. I am now inspired by some artists of my days like Dayo Adedayo, Nana Kofi Acquah, Tom Saater, Alec Soth, Holly Andres, Joshua Kissi, Aida Muluneh, Yagazie Emezi, Lucia Buricelli, Peter Fisher, Tolani Alli, Ademola Olaniran, Bayo Omoboriowo, Matt Black, Heather Sten, Malin Fezehai and several others.


What was the best piece of advice you were given starting out?

My answer will sound cliché, but being yourself is probably the best thing you can do, as we all have a unique point of view. Three photographers can stand next to each other and come up with entirely different images. Photograph the things you most care about, use your images to educate and create social impact. These images will be most successful because you are emotionally involved.


What inspires your unique storytelling?

As Ruddy Roye once said, “I shoot because I see”. I am inspired by humanist issues. This helps me create visual stories from the intersectionality of identity, sexuality, and popular subculture.


Your work ranges from photojournalism to portraits, how do you define yourself as a photographer?

I see myself as a preserver of time. Photography can defeat time. I would say I am a documentary photographer. Another favourite quote from Ruddy Roye captures my thoughts on what defines my work: “Images can keep the memory of a loved one alive, hold a moment in history for future generations, and be a witness to tragedy or joy. They can also change behaviour, stimulate the understanding, and create a sense of urgency that will move people to action thus sparking positive change.”

I have always cared most about documenting human interest stories about people and the world they live in, to show others what needs to be seen, and what needs to be known. I hope my image motivates human action.


Which body of work are you most proud of?

Photographing the Black Lives Matter movement during recent protests might be the most important, so far. I am also glad to have supported telling the story of socio-economic development in Nigeria. I worked with UNFPA, UNHCR, WaterAID, UNICEF, and several others, to raise awareness of health, gender and displacement issues. An ongoing body of work is photographing first and second generation Nigerians in America. The project considers how this community maintains a sense of home even as it tries to keep up with American culture and live out the American dream.


What advice would you give someone who would like to become a photographer today?

Grab a camera and go out there! Use your unique point of view to capture what you really care about. Mistakes are good for you, you learn from them. Don’t be ashamed to be a fly on the wall. In my early days, I shadowed photographers who had more experience – I learned a lot just by watching them engage with their subjects. I also learned the business side of photography by being a second shooter for others. Google is your friend. You can learn so much from the internet. If something looks or sounds interesting then research it, and don’t’ be afraid to put your creative spin on it. 


What advice do you have for photojournalists trying to grow their careers?

It’s the same advice I would give myself: you’ve got to pursue personal projects. You’ve got to find issues or themes that matter to you. That’s when you’ll do your best. You don’t have to go to Borno … it sometimes makes more sense to find something near you, so you can focus your resources, energy, and reporting time on the subject. Look up photographers and their bodies of work from the 1900s to date and get inspired by their personal vision and photography methodologies. Go to art exhibitions, get inspired by nature or even your own struggles. Learn good color grading techniques, printing skills, photo bookmaking techniques, sequencing/photo editing, audio-visual and mixed media methods of presentation, writing for the photojournalist, shooting and editing conventional videos, and virtual reality and augmented reality (AR/VR) videos. In today’s world, it’s not enough to do still photography, being able to capture sound, shoot motion and edit videos will take you farther. If you can’t get work to film or shoot, you can at least get hired to do post-production for other photographers and videographers by using Abode Premiere. 


What are your best pitching tips for young photojournalists without a good base of freelance connections?

Reach out to photo editors of publications you would like to be featured in, and those whose publications fit your story. A surprising number of story pitches fail simply because they’re directed to the wrong publication. Assume they don’t know you or are not familiar with your work, keep it brief and to the point, because they are most likely busy, so don’t take it personal, if they decline. If you don’t hear from a photo editor you’ve pitched to, follow up after a week or two. Don’t give up – pitch to other publications. Don’t wait till you have the go ahead from a publisher. Start working on your concept. Email the editor’s work email not their personal email, know the gender as well. Do your research and have a well-layered story. Make sure your visual approach, unique style and identity comes through in the work you send out. Also target commercial work for companies and international NGOs. Get hold of their communications departments, and pitch how you can help them with human interest stories to promote their brands. Another way is to find strategies to get you noticed by editors – have a strong social media presence, great website or Instagram feed. I know for a fact that major photo editors scout Instagram to find new talent, so have a consistent Instagram portfolio. 


Do you feel you need to have empathy with the people you photograph to get an accurate image?

When people look at photographs, they need to connect to the emotions in the image. So yes, a photographer should equally connect with the subject but must remain objective. Personal opinions and prejudices should never come into play. The subject also has to get interested in you – it works both ways. Humor helps a great deal. Smile a lot and don’t get too carried away with your equipment or the process. Being honest and upfront about who you are and why you’re doing this works most of the time. As a photographer, if you can empathise with your subject and convey it effectively in your image by keeping the story in context, your viewer will see and feel your image.


What makes the difference between a good image and an iconic image?

Although this can be subjective, an iconic image is one that elicits emotion and intrigue regardless of the time period in which the picture was taken. However, it is important to keep in mind that the interpretation of an image can differ depending on the viewer’s outlook on life. For me, an iconic image would capture an instant in time and help future viewers understand what the prevailing sentiment was at the time the image was created. 


What could the future of visual journalism in Nigeria be like?

There is significant scope for visual journalism in Nigeria and across Africa. Our stories have not been told enough through our lens. Nigeria has so much to offer in terms of history, culture, nature, economic trajectory, political evolution and social change, that the opportunity to document these experiences through images is vast. The future of visual journalism in Nigeria can be one where local photographers capture the pluralist image of our society in a manner that is richer in perspective than classic, Western-dominated photojournalism has been up to now. I believe with the evolution of technology, there will be more creative, experimental storytelling methods through virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR). Virtual reality’s journalistic possibilities are vast especially with the recent Corona outbreak – not only in showing the story, but placing the viewer in it. 


If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be doing?

I would probably find a balance between photography and my roots in engineering. I’d work in data analytics, where I can draw on my knack for graphics and visualisation and combine that with my interest in numbers.