Nii Obodai: Ghana, Who Knows Tomorrow?
This poignant and brilliant work opens a new dialogue on contemporary visual representation of Ghana, one in which Obodai and Boudjelal are engaged through their photographic investigations into the essence of Ghanaian culture. Their creative achievement calls for nothing less than a new framework to represent Ghana in a global arts context; one in which photography is fundamental to conceptualizing the contemporary African experience. Here, in the articulate and self-reflective words of Nii Obodai, is the remarkable story of his mission and how the book came about.
Q: How long have you been doing photography professionally?
A: My first exhibition was in ‘97, so I’d say it was a couple of years before that. Friends in journalism and other interests started picking me out and that’s how I began shooting. So yes, there was a time when I lived off of photography. Now I work other jobs but not commercially and follow projects that interest me based on my creative impulses. I do get commissions 2-3 times a year.
Q: What kind of equipment did you use to document Ghana, your native country?
A: I use Leica lenses with Voigtlander rangefinder body. I find the lenses capable, robust and enduring, especially for travel and adventure. My preferred film is Fuji Neopan ISO 400 black-and-white — I‘ve grown to love it for its versatility and ability to present the world as I see it in my mind. It’s a challenge for me to get film here — mostly, I have to order it from Paris and import it. The last time I ordered it from Paris I was told that the factory would no longer be making it — a little bit of a heartache there. I guess this gives me the opportunity to work and experiment with other films like Kodak TRI-X. I am also able to get Chinese-made Lucky black-and-white film from a local photographic supplier. You may laugh, but I tried a batch and I’m really getting to enjoy playing with it. I push it quite hard — to 800-speed — and the results are very interesting. So there is hope.
Q: Which Leica lenses do you use and can you say something about their particular imaging characteristics that work for you?
A: I use a 50mm f/2 Summicron, 90mm, and a 135mm. They’re all lenses I purchase used at local markets here. Broadly speaking, what I like most about them is the distinctive nature of the images they capture. In terms of my shades of grey, I’m able to capture a full tonal range with the 50 and that’s why I really love it. I not only get the full gradations, which I love, but also a sense of clarity. Rangefinder users get to understand their lenses in a very intimate way especially when shooting in a challenging environment. Recently I’ve mostly been shooting with the 50 and occasionally with the 135. This is quite a humid environment and all lenses are prone to fungal attacks. I’ve got a bit in my 90, but there’s no visible loss of sharpness in the images. When you look down the lens barrels of the Leica lenses you can see that they’re extremely well made.
Q: There seems to be a very playful sensibility captured in many of your images? Do you think that’s true and can you say something about it?
A: Definitely. If you don’t play, your mind can’t grow. I started exploring photography because the image can be so much fun and the more I grew, the more I tended to perceive through photographs the special relationship between myself and Ghana, the country of my birth. I grew up mostly in England and Nigeria so to consolidate my being, so to speak, my relationship with Ghana and myself became an implicit part of my photographic mission. It’s true that when you enjoy what you do, you tend to play a lot. Reading stories about my culture by some of the renowned African authors like Ben Okri’s book “Famished Road” helped me to merge myself into that playful space. You can read the word “history” as “his story” and photography tells that story. That’s why I love photography, whether as documentary or art, I can shape it into another form that allows me to reveal even more.
Q: You had the opportunity to shoot with the Leica V-Lux 20 shortly before it was officially released. Can you tell us something about that experience?
A: I tested the V-Lux 20 in April of this year and I was amazed by the clarity of its images. I have not used digital cameras much, except for a few commercial assignments, so the feel of the V-Lux was a new and fun experience. I did a lot of very random shooting; I just played with it. It’s opened up my mind to a lot of new possibilities. Digital capture has a lot of advantages in terms of immediacy, and its experimental capacity is huge. However, I think digital still has a little more to go in term of its exposure latitude capabilities — the ability to capture extreme light and dark tones, but I do love film-type grain — so maybe I haven’t quite understood how to manipulate the grain in digital images (laughs).
Q: How about the Leica M9? Do you think that’s a camera that combines the best of both worlds — the traditional and the digital — and do you think it could work for you?
A: If I were to work with a camera like the M9, it would have to be equal in experience with the fun I have with film cameras, and a camera has to travel well. I’m a seeker who looks for solutions to my questions through photography and so the first question I ask myself about any camera is “How can it help me translate my consciousness into images?” After I experienced the V-Lux, it largely negated my snobbish attitude toward digital. After all, it even provides HD video capability and GPS, both great additions to storytelling. As I said, it opened up a new space. I’m amazed by its quality. It gave me a new experience to expand into and think about. Essentially I have to keep looking and this little camera allowed me to see deeper and realize that there’s a delicious quality to life from another perspective.
Q: Your new book on Ghana just came out. Can you tell us something about it and why you chose such a provocative title?
A: It was published by Les Éditions de l’Oeil in Paris and we launched it on November 17th of this year. The title is “Who Knows Tomorrow?” In it I’m seeking to bring forward the issue concerning the legacy of Kwame Nkrumah, our first president. But I wanted to go into that inner space: Where’s the future going?, Where are we coming from?, Where are we? and Where are we going? It’s deliberately an open-ended question. The book came about in collaboration with Bruno Boudjelal, who’s based in Paris and together we teach in workshops. It is through these workshops that we got support from the French embassy, began traveling through Ghana and simply exploring and observing her. I saw myself in the landscape and felt that tension in my photographs. And then, editing and selecting the images for the book became essentially an exploratory dialogue between myself and my country — both spiritually and politically — these are some of the actual internal discussions that influence me and determine how I function as an image maker. Out there in the countryside and through different cities, how do I tell a story that involves the relationship between me, the environment and our culture? I had to look at all the key areas and decide what was most heartfelt, genuine and relevant. Isn’t that how we have to move through life in general? (laughs). I think, if we present an answer, wouldn’t that be presumptuous of us? That’s why the title of our book is an open question. I try to think clearly before capturing images as I strive to achieve and convey a sense of beauty. I definitely think creativity and beauty are a great way to express one’s critical sense of being. If I can achieve that, then I know I have created something memorable, hopefully being of service, and then I can celebrate. The form in which beauty is expressed can also be frightening, outside of the box, difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless, it is beauty that becomes the attractive power. To be an artist is an act of service to my society and the greater world. It’s really important to document who we are and be completely open about it so the coming generations will understand who we were and how we lived. Maybe they can learn something useful from us.
Q: Have there been any critical reviews of the book and how has it been received?
A: It’s too soon for me to know. When the book was published I was already back roaming the countryside!
Q: What did you achieve in the book? Or, to put it another way, what makes you happy about it?
A: I’m definitely happy it’s in print because we have few photographic books that capture the beauty and challenges of my country. My satisfaction comes in knowing that we’ve moved a step further. Also, the more I look at the images in the book, the clearer it becomes that it’s not a one-person show by me the photographer. I immediately remember all of the conversations with my friends and the people we met on the road. That’s why it’s not something I can claim as mine. Indeed there are the invisible ancestral voices impacting this work. And if there’s any personal satisfaction in it, it is that I’ve been a channel for all of these voices.
Q: What are you doing now? Are there any new photographic projects on your radar screen?
A: Right now, I’m going to be working on landscapes, portraiture and architecture, and concentrating these three aspects into my photographs. Portraits have always been a real love of mine because faces tell stories. And we’re all involved in landscapes. We cannot deny the landscape exists because it is within the fundamental context of our relationship with earth. Architecture, on the other hand, is an exciting creative form defining our social construct. My goal is to tie it all in and I’ve begun this exploration. In documenting my environment, I am really documenting souls incarnated in the space called Africa. It’s important that we convey this idea of who we are. It’s a must. It’s something that I have to do. I derive a lot of joy and happiness from being able to connect with people and nature, to connect with my culture.
Q: We noticed that your Leica lens collection includes normal, medium telephoto and telephoto lenses. Have you ever used wide-angle lenses?
A: Yes, wide-angle lenses are essential. I have a wide-angle Voigtlander lens and I’d like to get an even wider-angle Leica lens. A lot of the interiors here are small spaces and there are a lot of stories to be told. The external environment is so important because most of our living happens outside. It’s crucial to have that expansive perspective and that’s why a 21mm lens is at the top of my wish list. A 35mm or 28mm is more towards the normal end of the spectrum, but I’m dealing with a lot of wide open-spaces. When you enter that kind of space, it feels very different and that’s where wide and ultra-wide lenses really help.
Q: Why did you decided to move back to Ghana? Do you think the growing up in other places gives you an insider-outsider perspective?
A: Moving back to Ghana was a family initiative. Ghana has always exerted a great pull on me and at this point I’ve actually lived here more than anywhere else. I have a deep connection to Ghana, but I am also able to contrast what I have here with what I experience in Europe or other places and this always broadens my perspective. There are so many things to focus on. I’m inspired by greatness. I’m exploring a lot of indigenous works and science — there’s greatness there too. There’s greatness in the whole human experience; touch the most mundane and explore long and deep enough you’ll find something beautiful.
If you would like to learn more about Nii you can find his biography here: http://niiobodai.wordpress.com/about/. You can purchase “Who Knows Tomorrow?” from Les Édition de l’OEil, albeit the website is in French.