Most of the clients who’ve hired me don’t even look at my commercial work, they look at my personal projects.
KC Nwakalor is a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Abuja, Nigeria.
His work has been featured in newspapers and magazines world wide and he regularly works with international NGOs and humanitarian organisations. Originally educated as an biologist, and with training in photojournalism from the New York Institute of Photography, he brings an intellectual rigour and a compassionate eye to his stories.
KC is also the co-founder of No Wahala Magazine, Africa’s first contemporary photography magazine championing visual stories by African creatives.
WHAT SORT OF PHOTOGRAPHY DO YOU SPECIALISE AND WHAT SORT OF CLIENTS DO YOU HAVE?
My photography is mainly journalism and editorial and I focus on issues: social economic, environmental and health issues. My aim is to humanise stories because a lot time when they talk about issues people don’t really look at things as if there are other people involved, they approach the subject as if its just statistics or numbers. With my work I try to show the problem and highlight the urgency, the need to act and do the right thing.
Over the years I’ve worked for the New York Times, Bloomberg, The Financial Times and CNN. I’ve also worked with a host of NGOs like UNICEF, USAID, the World Food Programme and Sightsavers.
DO YOU THINK THAT PHOTO EDITORS ARE MORE INTERESTED IN WORKING WITH PHOTOGRAPHERS FROM THE COUNTRIES WHERE STORIES ARE HAPPENING, RATHER THAN SENDING A UK OR USA BASED JOURNALIST?
I think things are changing, I’ve seen myself getting more commissions and also other photographers within the African continent getting more work opportunities. There’s a kind of trend or awareness to hire local photographers, so I believe it is creating more work for African photographers. Even in the context of COVID there were assignments that I got because the photographer couldn’t come to Nigeria as the result of travel restrictions.
But it’s not just about who is telling the story but also where we take our references from: if most of us are learning photography from the West it’s very easy to replicate what they are doing. Personally I try to look at the people I’m photographing – here is my sister, my mum, my wife – would I want them to be represented this way?
And it’s a very complex situation because I want to show the problem but I don’t want to contribute to tons and tons of pictures that objectify people and turn them into a spectacle. It’s a very difficult space to be in but I try to find that balance between documenting reality and also to humanise and dignify people that I photograph.
HOW ARE YOUR CLIENTS AND PHOTO EDITORS RESPONDING TO THAT BALANCE?
The truth is there’s a shift taken place for most of the publications and NGOS that I work with: you can’t force me to take a picture that I think is problematic. For example I was commissioned by an organisation, and while we were travelling they gave a pack of sausage rolls to some kids. They called me over and said, KC take a picture. I reluctantly took the picture but never sent it over.
So it’s one thing for you to commission me me and say I want that photograph and it’s another things for me to come back with that picture the way you want it. But I’ve been lucky, most of the clients I have want inspiring pictures and they are not interested in the whole poverty porn style.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN NO WAHALA MAGAZINE?
No Wahala was my wife’s idea – I co-founded it with her. She’s from the UK – she studied photojournalism and documentary photography at the University of the Arts in London. She’s very passionate about ethics within the photography industry and the whole theoretical aspect of photography. With a new role as a communication officer in an NGO, she had to find a way to keep her creative juice running and the magazine was a means to inspire and educate, and to show work of African photographers.
It is also a shift towards building our own platform to show work from this part of the world. There’s a feeling that when you produce work or stories that probably don’t have international appeal, editors probably won’t jump on it but with the magazine, if you’re African and your work is good and works with the theme of the current issue, you can be featured.
WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL PROJECT?
My project is Tales of the Oil Rich South.
My work is centred around issues and I saw that there was an on going issue in the Niger Delta: everything in that region is always about oil and I started thinking about the human cost of the oil exploration industry and how it’s affecting people in various communities.
The project was me attempting to address and highlight the harmful practices being perpetrated in these communities. One of them I highlighted was soot, there was soot pollution in Port Harcourt City, Rivers State. For so long, this soot pollution has not been addressed and as we speak, people still struggle with this. Their air conditioning vents can be totally black and this is what people are inhaling day in day out so I can only imagine what the health implications of that.
And I also highlighted how oil exploration is affecting agriculture because there are communities that just depend on farming and they’ve complained about a substantial reduction in their farm yields. There are also fishermen that because of oil spillage have to travel deep into the sea to fish and sometimes they do it without life jackets.
HOW IMPORTANT ARE PERSONAL PROJECTS?
I think they’re very important because most of the clients who’ve hired me did not necessarily make a decision based on my commercial work, they look at my personal projects. The first time I got a commission from the New York Times, in 2019, it was a personal project – Being Nell – that the editor saw and liked the style.
With personal projects there is no rush and you have the freedom to express your self. If you want to become a better storyteller you have to develop your personal projects.
Personal projects are a very important way that you get your voice as a photographer, and even for most portfolio reviews they don’t want to see the work you produce for commercial clients but your personal stories that show what you’re interested in at the moment.