by Francesca Uriri
Rising above stereotypes, being inspired by her immediate environment, and making a success out of what many may call an alternative career, is why Aisha Augie-Kuta is the Leading Lady Africa for the week. Enjoy her interview.
How did your love for photography start?
It started when I was a child and I got a gift of a camera from my dad. He loved gadgets and bought things for me from time to time. I would take photographs and he would help me develop them because it was the film camera not the digital ones we have these days. It was so much fun and the passion grew from then on.
There’s a school of thought that believes you can’t learn photography; that you’re either born with the talent or not. Do you agree?
I do not. I think anyone can learn photography but being an exceptional photographer depends on how well you can manipulate light and also your creativity and innovation. What I have realized is that creative people make really good photographers and people willing to learn pick up things along the way to enhance their work. I am constantly learning even from the newbies that I mentor.
What kind of photographs do you take and what influences your style of photography?
I’m inspired by stories, I love documentary photography so in almost all my work there is a story; even if the photographs I put together in a body of work are not connected. I still want to be a photojournalist but time has been a problem for me. I tend to do a lot of fashion, portraiture and I love street and aerial photography.
You are the CEO of Meer Maad Neworks; an interesting name. How did you come about it, and what does the company do?
Hahaha yes, it’s cliche I put together my sons names Sameer and Imaad; I have other registered companies ‘Pixel and Paper Ltd’ and ‘AAK studios’. MeerMaad Network is actually a media consultancy that houses a network of individuals that excel in their fields providing different services.
We have still and motion photography, film, social media, beauty and hospitality. This came about because I realized our services were all connected and we needed each other for our work to be great. I called up a meeting with the best in Abuja and the network was born.
You used to work a 9-5 job before you quit to pursue photography full time. Did you entertain any fear or hesitation before taking the big leap?
Oh yes I did, it was tough but I did my research and took my time before making such a decision. My main fear was whether or not it would work out but I asked myself, what if it did? I was young enough to make a mistake and run back searching for a job since I had my qualifications and work experience so it was a risk I was willing to take.
I took my time to buy equipment in bits because photography is very capital intensive. I gradually started making pictures on the weekends so it was double work for me and once I knew I had the market I quit. It wasn’t something that happened overnight and with every career or business decision one should take their time with research because that can make or break the decision.
You’re married with kids. How do you manage both roles and still do photography? And can one be happy at both?
I am very happy with both. I get to spend more time with my family because I choose my hours unlike before when I had no choice. It was because I was married with kids that I jumped into the deep end of this career choice.
I needed more time for them. It was hard in the beginning learning to balance it all because I felt I had to take every job that came my way but I knew I wanted Life/Work balance so I had to make it work. It is not easy but there is always a way even with a full time career. You have to make sacrifices for your family and for the job from time to time. Being a mother comes first but it is also the same reason why I can’t quit due to whatever struggles I may face.
You’re a muslim woman actively pursuing a creative and somewhat eclectic profession. Did you meet with any sort of disapproval from family and society?
I grew up in a family where women work. I had Aunties in amazing careers, my mother is currently a Justice of the Court of Appeal and a serious workaholic so it was never an issue and you were seen as lazy if you decided not to work so we couldn’t even try that. The disapproval I got from my direct family about my job was not because I am Muslim but it was mainly because they didn’t understand how making pictures could be a career in Nigeria.
How stable could that possibly be? Are you just trying to be lazy? Photography is not a career! They said. These were the questions I faced. With society in general in the north it was tough, a lot of the closed minded individuals thought I had to be crazy. “This was a man’s job” (I still don’t understand that) because the camera does not gender discriminate. Everyone told me what I couldn’t do but those same reasons are what pushed me forward.
Because I am Muslim I can shoot where men are not allowed, because I have children; I can choose my own hours, because I am female; people are more comfortable with me and every time someone sees my work they are even more interested when they find out I am a woman.
I’ve never seen any of these as a disadvantage. I had threats along the way from some people trying to intimidate me because I inspired their wives to do something with their lives but it didn’t matter, their perceptions have changed with time and it’s best to educate people with your actions than to fight them.
You won The Future Awards for Creative Artist of the Year in 2011, how did that impact your career?
It was a beautiful experience. I didn’t think that was going to happen at the time to be honest and what it did was to push me to do more and it also helped with pushing my brand online and in the news.
That gave me an automatic endorsement from certain people. It was great to be celebrated and it also reminded me that I was on the right path to success. I still have a long way to go but that was a great start.
Your photographs on Instagram are very interesting and varied. Do you love to travel and how does that influence your work?
Oh I would travel the world over and over if I had the chance. I love to travel. I love experiencing new things, new cultures. I heard a saying that “to travel is to learn” and I believe it. I have been to almost all the states in Nigeria, I think I have 6 or 7 left. What it has done is that I always see things from a new perspective with every trip and it also inspires me greatly when I want to create art.
My Instagram is more of a personal journey and not for my professional work. I’ve become really good at mobile phone photography and it’s always great to capture what I see on a daily basis. It’s even better when I get paid to travel and that happens a lot lately.
Until perhaps the last decade, photography in Nigeria was seen exclusively as the preserve of men. Have things changed, and how have you been able to create your own identity?
I believe I have, even being interviewed right now says something. The men know that the women are here to stay in photography. I still say it over and over, this is not a struggle between men and women, anyone can take a photograph.
It is just that more women are being able to express themselves now so in almost all careers you find a pioneer woman pushing to open doors for us all. I have our older mentors in photography in Nigeria who have seen my work and applauded me.
And I think they would still applaud it if it was taken by a man. The difference between us is that we sometimes have to work harder. I have found that my work speaks for me more than my gender and being a woman is what made me stand out in the first place.
Name 3 women you admire and why?
Mrs Betty Irabor: She has been consistent with her work and she may not even remember this but she told me years ago that nothing could stop me from being who I wanted to be at a time when everyone else was telling me the things I couldn’t do.
Mrs Maryam Uwais: She’s a lawyer and human rights activist who has fought for the rights of women and children in Nigeria.
Christiane Amanpour: this is someone I have watched as a journalist since I was a kid. She started out in 1983 and is still relevant today.
Is mentoring an important element in your field, and who would you say are your mentors?
It is very important in any field and that is one of the things I struggled with when I started out; finding someone who would take time out of their busy schedules to be a mentor.
Nowadays it is easier especially with the internet because you can access people through different social media. I co-founded The Centre for Art and Creative Talent (with like-minded individuals in Abuja with mentorship as one of our focuses in the Arts. In photography I will say Mr. Tam Fiofori and Uncle Sunmi Smart-Cole. They gave me so much insight with their experience in the business.
Do you think that the stereotypes about muslim and northern women not being career inclined are valid?
Northern women are very conservative and are brought up mostly to aim towards getting married instead of having a career so even those who have careers do not flaunt it. I think the whole idea about aiming for marriage is a general Nigerian thing in my opinion. Just some cultures more than others.
This has gradually changed over the years and it’s getting better. There are many of us however that are very career inclined and are brought up to be able to support our families, direct and extended. We all didn’t get married at 12 and we all are not oppressed.
The woman is seen to be one who should be taken care of and not one who should work for much. She should be taken care of by her father and then by her husband. A woman is a gem. Unfortunately some people have their own interpretations to this and prevent the woman from progress but like I said, things are changing and it is acceptable for women to work.
If you weren’t doing photography, what would you be doing?
I would be a journalist.
You support quite a few charitable events – sickle cell, cancer and the rest. Tell us more about why you do this?
I realized that I had a voice with my work. People pay attention and they are willing to buy my photos. When they see images created it hits home more and they are willing to do more for the cause.
I’ve always felt my work shouldn’t be for the fun of it. It changes people’s lives and that gives me a reason to apply myself in that regard. There is nothing more uplifting than that. I support awareness and treatment campaigns because of that.
What would you like to be remembered for?
For being an exceptional mother who had an exceptional career. I want my work to be a part of history, an archive of seconds in time.
In your opinion is the field of photography in Nigeria getting more female entrants?
Yes it sure is; I am constantly getting calls/emails from many girls who are already in the industry or want to be photographers. The women are here to stay.
What do you do to relax?
I like silence after a crazy day. I have some scented candles; I put one on and relax in silence.
Where is your favourite travel destination?
In Nigeria I love the Obudu Cattle Ranch, such breath-taking views and the villagers close by are so much fun.
What advice would you give younger women considering a profession in photography?
Do a lot of research about the business and kind of photography you would like to get into and not just the skill. It is one thing to make great photographs and it is another to make money from it.
There are many different aspects of photography and understanding light is just the beginning…Research, Learn and more research.