Jide Adeniyi-Jones is a documentary photographer currently based in Kenya. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1952, he entered the field of professional photography twenty years later while in London. Since then he has developed long-term personal projects and more commercial assignments in Africa, Europe and the United States. Here, he introduces us to an ongoing project, which looks at the work of Nigerian peacekeeping forces. “I am taking a bit of a chance with it,” he said to us. In the course of the interview, Jide explains why he feels this series as something quite experimental to him.
Q: Jide, can you please introduce yourself briefly? How and when did you start photography?
A: I first got involved with photography in a serious way in 1972. I initially took lessons with and later assisted John Vickers. He was a theater photographer in London but, by the time that I worked with him, most of his practice was in portraiture and advertising. He had a healthy disdain for automatic exposure and auto-focus cameras that were becoming widely available, so my photographic foundation was laid with a twin lens reflex camera and the Weston Master V light meter. I found darkroom craft at least as enthralling as taking pictures. The most important thing that I learned from him, however, was that I had to form a point of view about something in order to photograph it; so began what has essentially been a voyage of self-discovery. After I left his studio, I worked as an independent photographic assistant and got a variety of experience in fashion, advertising and editorial photography.
Q: So, throughout your journey of self-discovery in photography, what major themes, would you say, have most attracted your attention to give your own perspectives on?
A: I describe it as self-discovery in the sense that everything I have done in photography has forced me to establish a point of view, even with the most mundane assignment. I have had to clarify my personal point of view on the subject. My personal projects usually begin with a vague idea about something, the process of researching it and the approach that I take to photographing it reveals at least as much about me as it does the subject.
Q: You have for a few years, off and on, been looking at the Nigerian army in peacekeeping. How did you first become involved in this issue and decide to document its different forms?
A: Peacekeeping interested me because I am from Nigeria; I felt that in Nigeria we could probably form a fairly uniform consensus that the military takeover of government in the country was the worst thing that had happened to the country since colonialism. The Nigerian Army overthrew the government in 1966. The officers who carried out the coup claimed to be correcting societal ills but that event triggered cycles of coups and counter-coups with the attendant brutalization of the society for the next forty odd years.
I had always heard that the Nigerian military had an excellent reputation in peacekeeping operations. In fact, one of Nigeria’s first acts as an independent nation was to send peacekeepers, under the auspices of the United Nations, to the Congo in 1960. So the army that represented corruption, bullying, betrayal within the country stood for self-sacrifice, honor and protection abroad. I felt that I might be able to use it as a metaphor to illustrate that our national dilemma was not a simplistic black and white situation but was far more complex shades of grey.
Q: You said that “conceptually, you have found the subject very difficult to come to terms with.” Can you please elaborate on this point? What were/are the main challenges you had/have to face?
A: Conceptually, I found peacekeeping difficult to fit into my metaphor because the idea of an army representing something positive posed significant problems for me. However, hearing one of the Sheikhs in an IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp tell me that he thanks God for Nigerian troops was difficult to argue with. He said that if they had not stood between him and his countrymen, his entire family would certainly be dead. That led me to the diptych made-up: on one hand, the group meeting of sheikhs in the camp, they are men with traditional responsibility for their people but no power to ensure their security and, on the other, the morning briefing of peacekeeping patrol, young men with no personal stake but with considerable firepower to secure the community.
Then, I went on a firewood patrol and realized how ordinary, mundane, everyday activities could not be carried out without the protection of peacekeepers. I met a young sergeant in the forward operating base close to the Chadian border who was on an eight-month rotation in the desert, though she had a seventeen-month-old baby in Nigeria with her husband. Responsibility and self-sacrifice are not the qualities that we associate with the army in Nigeria. It began to dawn on me that while one politicized group within the army was plotting coups and stealing money, another was committed to the profession of soldiering. So my challenge was to present this in a visual narrative.
Q: From the images of your work that I’ve looked at, it seems that your focus is more on the peacekeeping forces and their daily life and work than on the displaced people. Am I wrong?
A: Yes, you are quite right, the main focus is not on the displaced people though, of course, they are crucially important: the image for instance of the lady sandwiched between the shadows of the peacekeepers helmets (above) and the ladies protected on the firewood patrol represent, in as subtle a way as I can, the inadequacies of the peacekeepers.
This picture was taken at the entrance of a camp for internally displaced people, I felt that the very light shadows of the peacekeepers reflected the distance of the camp from the military base and the myriad of restrictions that the status of forces agreement placed on their ability to protect the people.
This is a lady out gathering firewood in Darfur, an ordinary activity that is impossible for the displaced people in the camp without the presence of the peacekeepers. I think the ambiguity of this picture is interesting, I hope that it will work in the series; for me it is uncompleted and uncertain and the baby suggests at least another generation. The out of focus soldier is the only certain element in the image, though he is an odd intrusion in the scene.
Q: How “easy” was to get access and have the permission to photograph these troops? And, then, how did you organize the work: are you also collecting information on their personal paths to understand how/why they decided to join these forces?
A: It was not easy at all to get access to photograph the troops but luckily I was acquainted with a senior officer who oversaw peacekeeping who agreed with me that the story of the force was indeed complex. That facilitated my trip to an active theater of peacekeeping operations, in Darfur. A network of friends led me by word of mouth to retired soldiers and their personal stories. I have been more interested in choices they made in service and the consequences of those choices.
Q: These images were taken over the last four years in Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia. How do you see this work expand in the future?
A: I hope to do a bit of work looking at the training of the troops and then perhaps portraits of retired officers. Because by and large, officers who rose in the ranks politically are very wealthy while those who served professionally in peacekeeping are not.
Q: Do you see some threads between this work and your previous work?
A: This is, I suppose, new territory for me. Perhaps as it takes shape and I begin to get a feeling of how it will really come together, I may begin to see a thread to other work. This piece of work is unlike any that I have done before; I suppose the only similarity is that the projects take a long time and evolve as they go along.
Thank you for your time, Jide!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Jide on his website.