Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko is a freelance photographer. Early this year she held an exhibition tagged ‘White Ebony,’ which focuses on persons with Albinism. Herewith are excerpts of her conversation with Nneoma Ilogu and Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, where she talks about why she embarked on the project and more. Excerpts:
What inspired ‘White Ebony’?
My decision to do this body of work was triggered by a phone call made by the founder of the Albino Foundation to my husband. He initially wanted an advertising campaign as a charity project. Due to my husband’s hectic schedule at his agency, the project kept being postponed, until I found out about it. I suggested that since they were too busy to handle this ad campaign, they should hand it over to me because I have always been interested in persons living with albinism even though I didn’t know much about them. I wanted to explore the issue through my work and the camera. My husband was happy I stepped in so I called Mr. Jake and pitched the idea of a photography exhibition instead of an advertising campaign, and he was thrilled with the idea. Him running the Albino Foundation made it easier for me to enter their world and meet them as a group, especially since they hold regular meetings. I found them to be educated and enlightened.
They were excited to work with me after they got to know me and my work and track record with projects like this. They were also happy to get the focus and attention. After building this body of work, I approached my favourite curator, Sandra, and the rest is history.
What were some interesting facts you discovered during your research that you further explored with your photography?
To be honest, before I started engaging with the Albino Foundation, I didn’t have a clear idea about the direction of this body of work. I saw persons with albinism on the street, and I knew they were sensitive to light exposure and that was about it. After I started working with them, I gained a lot more knowledge. What shocked me the most was what persons with albinism can’t do because of their genetic disposition. For instance, I was surprised to learn that they find it difficult to vote.
Legally they are allowed to vote, but in Nigeria, the process of voting is not conducive because of the long queues and the long hours of standing in the sun. It’s organizations like the Albino Foundation which have been fighting to change things. Starting last year, persons with albinism are being provided magnifying glasses at polling booths to help them read the ballots. Finding out this particular limitation was quite shocking. I also didn’t know how difficult their lives can be. In many parts of Africa, including Nigeria, a lot of people still believe that persons living with albinism have magic powers and so in the hinterlands especially, they are still used as sacrifice. They told me that even in Lagos, they are very careful about going out at night. They also face educational disadvantages because they can’t see what is written on distant chalkboards. They can read and understand concepts but they can’t see what is written up on the board. Also, employers often discriminate and tend not to hire them because they believe persons with albinism are sickly.
Did you find out any statistics such as the rates of people with albinism born in Nigeria?
I don’t know the numbers but it is something we should be able to look up. But even then, their numbers are underrepresented because most of them are still hidden. The Albino Foundation is trying to get an accurate census of persons living with albinism in Nigeria to aid in passing of protective legislation.
You spoke about having access to the albinism community through the foundation but how did you select the people you photographed? Was there any criteria or did you photograph every member you met?
I did it by releasing a casting call in their Whatsapp group which I had been added to for this project. I would let them know the date, time and venue of a shoot, and invited whoever was available and interested and they came. I made specific requests on the group chat, for instances when I wanted to show specific things like siblings or twins where one is an PWA and the other isn’t, or babies with albinism.
Looking at the works, there are some recurring themes like the girls in the classroom that reminds me of a work from one of your previous exhibitions, ‘Eko Moves’ where you had the dancers in the classroom. How did your select your locations for this series?
I chose the classroom for instance and because the lack of access to education is an important recurring issue in Nigeria. In ‘Eko Moves’, I photographed dancers in the classroom because we wanted to show that dancing is a form of education. With this White Ebony project, I wanted to highlight that education is a huge issue because they are often prevented from getting an education and that’s why the classroom is a recurring symbol of education. All the other photos were taken in the studio and photographed in the renaissance style. I wanted all of my photos to have a painterly quality which requires very controlled lighting which I have in my studio.
Why the Renaissance?
When I started photographing them, their pale skin and white eyelashes and brows reminded me of the people in Renaissance paintings so I decided to just go along with it.
Could you pinpoint some of the works, and the themes or topics you wanted to communicate?
I had many conversations with members of the albinism community where we sat down and just talked. Their discussions were always centered around fitting into society and just like me, sometimes feeling out of place in a place because of how they look which is crazy. These are people that are even more Nigerian than I am, they are born and bred here with two Nigerian parents and speak the local languages and still they are on the fringes of society. So that feeling of displacement is what I’m exploring in my work. I asked them how they wanted to be portrayed and they were in agreement with my direction. When I had the idea to show them unzipping, they agreed that that’s how they feel.
Did you face any challenges while photographing?
One challenge I guess was time. Doing this alongside my regular work has been a bit challenging. We finally started shooting last year October and here we are finally. They were very interested to work with me and loved the experience of being in the studio and being photographed. It was a novel experience for most of them.
Was there any problem with continuity with the models?
I definitely had that issue, especially because they aren’t professional models so some of them felt uncomfortable in front of the camera. I had to do the shoot with the child in the school twice. Also, you know how it is at the beginning of a project, there’s lots of energy and then normal life takes over and then gaps start increasing and but towards the end, things pick up again and we try to catch up.
What would you say is your goal for this exhibition and for the people who come to view it?
Enlightenment and a call for action. If you look at my previous exhibitions, they are usually collaborations with a cause. At the end of the day what I want is for my work and camera to facilitate something that will have lasting impact on the subjects I am shining a focus on.
You are also trying to raise money for sunscreen.
Yes. Sunscreen is essential to persons living with albinism because of their sensitive skin. In Nigeria, we don’t have a sunscreen culture and the ones which are available here are very expensive. They need sunscreen with an SPF factor of at least 50 which is expensive. I always ask people coming from overseas to bring bottles of sunscreen which I can give to the Albino Foundation.
What are your thoughts on using art for social change?
Art has to have a reason or a purpose. Because I’m also an advertising photographer, I do a lot of commercial photography which I enjoy, but I also want the work I do to stand for something. So, I itch to do work that has a lasting impact and will mean something in the future.