In a highly chauvinistic and male dominated environment, voices of the female folks are often relegated to the background. In a society where the woman seems to assume nothing more than the role of a wife and mother, and in some cultures viewed with little or no relevance. Tolani Alli, 25, is a determined and focused young lady whose passion for photography has taken her beyond Africa. In her chat with OLUWATOSIN OMOTOSO, she reveals that her passion in changing global perception of Africa is the driving force
What motivated you into photography?
During a down period in my life where I needed a distraction from my worries, I discovered photography and it fast became a hobby for me, until it became more. I always liked images and always had a thing for cameras but in that season, my fondness for cameras and images took on a new dimension. It was no longer just about taking a picture. It became about the details of the picture and the details in that moment. One of the first people to ever inspire me was Jide Alakija. He took a picture at the wedding of Leye and Folusho Gbadamosi and when I saw it on Facebook, I found myself falling in love with the image and the story behind it. After that, I dug deep into photography, bought my first professional camera and the rest they say is history.
Can you say you are now fulfilled as a photographer than initial profession of Medicine?
Fulfillment is a tall order. I wouldn’t say I am fulfilled yet because there are so many things that I want to achieve and discover and until I accomplish these things there is still so much work to be done. I think fulfillment ultimately comes from how much impact your work has made, how many lives it has touched, the legacy it created and the difference it made. The road to fulfillment is constantly re-enforcing your mandate in your mind. It is being curious, gathering knowledge and information and understudying the greats. It is not something that happens overnight and it is by no means easy but until we get there, I don’t think we can truly say we are fulfilled. So no, I am not fulfilled yet but I can say that I am working towards it.
What do you hope to achieve being a photographer?
There are so many things I have set out to achieve as a photographer and right at the top of my list is changing the way the world views Africa. The narrative needs to be changed. Many people, including Donald Trump have described Africa as a country and not a continent and that cannot be further from the truth. Africa is made up of 54 countries and over 3000 tribes and to me that makes us a goldmine, bursting with culture, flamboyance, diversity, energy and creativity.
About 3 weeks ago, I was the first African and the first African American to ever speak at one of the World’s biggest photography conferences and my message was centered on changing the narrative of Africa. The comments I got at the end of my presentation were very positive. So many people’s perspectives of Africa changed, so many people saw Africa as it is today- the growth, the development, the change. The images helped open their minds to a new dimension to Africa and this just made me realize that there is so much work to be done. So I’m taking things one step at a time but I am working strongly towards giving Africa the visual make-over she so desperately needs.
Where do you hope to end with your passion?
I was going through Pete Souza’s book of photography on Barack Obama and his time in office and I continue to be inspired by it because there is only so much that you can glimpse on social media. To read the books is to see the story behind the man, to see the vision, to see the accomplishments. Without photography, the future will never know of the past and so I hope that with my pictures, I can share with the future the riveting tale of today, long after I am gone.
When you deviated to photography, what was your parent’s reaction?
I remember not talking to my dad for six months after making the move because the goal from the on-set was to be an Oncologist and hopefully one day, find the cure for cancer and change the world. If you’ve ever heard me speak though, you know that photography is passion, love, depth and something I believe is so much bigger than myself. If you don’t absolutely love what you do, it becomes increasingly difficult to do the best that you can and be the best that you can be. So while photography may not be Oncology, it is changing the world, one click at a time.
My parents of course have come around since then and are easily my biggest supporters. My dad demanded that my images be displayed on the walls of our home and I see them constantly offering their assistance in any way possible, should I ever need it. I would say we have come a long way and they are one of the biggest sources of inspiration to me.
For how long have you been with Oyo State Government?
I have been with the Oyo State Government for about three and a half years now. I started working with the Governor at the beginning of his second term Campaign. It has been a learning experience, it has tested, pushed, sometimes frustrated and changed me for the better. It’s been quite the job and it is one I absolutely love. The days I love the most on the job are when we have big events- I dress up, put on my hat, grin from ear to ear and am excited to make history.
So far on this job, what do you consider as the challenges of your passion?
One of the challenges I face which I also consider a blessing in this field is the fact that I am female. I am so proud to be a woman. There is just so much about us. We have this grit and fire to make a difference and so I know many women in this field and others who don’t see these challenges negatively but simply as another opportunity to showcase talent, strength, Grace among others. I believe challenges make you stronger and so really and truly every challenge I have faced outside of this one has been worth it.
What makes you happy?
I would have to say the opportunity to be the messenger in time. The fact that I capture moments that tell a story to the future. I am honored and constantly in awe of my job because the moments I capture will live long after I am gone. My pictures will inform, they will incite conversations and they will change ideas and form opinions. I think that is the ultimate source of my joy as a photographer.
Are you getting the vibes you want from the profession?
Yes, I am getting a lot of good vibes. The industry is honestly more accustomed to female photographers now because we have the likes of TY Bello who is basically like the Mother Hen here in Nigeria. She’s doing it at a portrait level; she’s done a different style of documentary photography- focusing on new subjects every day.
Of course when I started doing this, with one subject, there were some people who found it strange and made comments around a woman ‘following a man’ around all day. Still, it is as Michelle Obama said: ‘When they go low, we go high’ and I believe that a great number of people now see and have a clearer understanding of what I do and why it is so important. So of course while there are bad vibes in every situation, the good vibes are what I choose to focus on.
What are people’s reactions to your being a young female photographer?
I remember coming in as the only female in a 50 man crew, it was quite intimidating at first. I mentioned earlier that there are all sorts of challenges that women face, both in this industry as well as others. People tend to look at us a little skeptically in the beginning but I would say that ultimately if you stand tall, don’t sell yourself short and basically know and show your worth, eventually everybody starts to see and respect the stuff you’re truly made of .
How are you handling or coping with it?
I’m looking at women who have done great things before me. Both in Africa and abroad, women are changing the game. Times have changed and we live in the Era of the woman that knows who and what she is and does not under any circumstances, settle for less. I remind myself that there is a whole generation of little girls, looking up to us for inspiration and so we hold the key to impact millions of women across the world. That is enough reason for me to keep on pushing the envelope and keep on making an impact. I don’t let the negativity get to me because it’ll only slow me down and there is much ground to cover. So I think it’s a great time to be a female photographer and a great time to be alive!
How do you manage male advances both in the office and outside?
Most of the time I just smile and say ‘thank you.’ I am really focused, so I really don’t pay much attention to people who aren’t serious. The world is full of people who can be ‘funny’ or even perverted and so I always make sure I have my wits about me, I’m a straight shooter and am quick to shut down the wrong types of advances. Ironically, being the only female in a team of men means I have a lot of ‘protectors’ looking out for me and sometimes even weeding out the bad ones before they get close to me.
What is your view on gender equality in Africa?
I think we are a long ways away from where we ought to be but a far cry from where we came from. I think the time is coming when you either hop on the gender equality train or you get left behind. It’s that simple. But like I said, the world is changing, we are making our mark as women and in the words of Maya Angelou, come what may; still we rise.
What are your Educational Qualifications?
I have 2 Bachelor’s degrees and I am currently working on a Master’s in Public Health. It is challenging juggling what I do now with school because it means that I’m up all hours of the night, either working on a paper or delivering on a job but it is also amazing that I get to do the things I love. I have very supportive parents who have constantly reminded me how important a Master’s degree is for any professional and so I am excited at the prospect of adding this knot to my belt.
Are you engaged?
Engaged ke? I am not engaged oh! I guess you could say I am on the single market. I am single for now and very focused on my work and my craft. Sometimes I hardly ever have time to socialize in that capacity but it is one of my goals for this coming year to find a balance. I believe that the right one will come at the right time though so for me, there’s no rush in that aspect.
How will you encourage young people male or female, trying to follow your steps or go into photography?
I always tell people to start small. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I started with a small Panasonic camera and took it from there. I see people who get expensive cameras first without any knowledge of the basics and so eventually, their cameras become a wasted investment. When I mentor people, I don’t give them a camera until about three months into the job because the essence of this job is the basics and the fundamentals. Those are what keep you going in the long run. People are consumed with money and the need to show off, but what is money without passion? Passion means that you can do what you love, be great at it and ultimately your work will speak for you. So to anyone looking to work in this field, I would say; start small, work your way up and be ready to put in the hours. Eventually, your work will get the recognition it deserves.
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