I think my work is a deeply personal thing, it’s not for everybody and I’ve come to terms with that.
Ating’s work has been published worldwide, and exhibited at the 2019 Lagos Photo Festival, UAE Cultural Perspective, and Photoville Brooklyn. She’s a member of Women Photography, Black Women Photographers and the World Press Photo African Photojournalism Database.
Portrait photography by Nelly Ating
How would you describe your photography?
Some of my first work was around documenting survivors of Boko Haram. It all started by collecting stories and just documenting or archiving them for the future. Then I stepped away for a little while and I started digging into the aftermath of Biafra, the civil war in 1967. And there were so many similarities in terms of people going through a collective trauma, a conflict trauma and holding on to that for a very long time.
At first I didn’t have a clear understanding of what I was doing, it just came to me naturally and I just knew that there was something that no one else was talking about. Things like the effects of trauma and displacement.
Right now I’m exploring the concept of healing and how that all that leads into my work.
So would you describe yourself as a documentary photographer?
In general terms I would call myself a photojournalist but I think of myself more as a social scientist who uses photography, exploring social behaviours, in visual way.
Right now I’m doing a Masters, studying media theories and also trying to understand human behaviour. And how we engage with media also influences my work.
Your website describes your as a female Nigerian photo journalist. Do you think the industry now has a broader recognition for female photographers and photographers from Africa or Nigeria?
I think the industry started to change from around 2016 with organizations like Women Photograph coming into play and bringing together women from around the world. But it’s still very new, it’s still very fresh to accept women in the space.
But in actual terms of the job of doing, we are very few and most women don’t really know how to promote themselves. They do a lot of amazing work but it’s just in an archive – for example Vivian Maier.
Self portrait photography
What is your project and how did it come about?
I moved to Lagos in 2019 after years of documenting conflict, just years of absorbing all the stories from people who had gone through the crisis, as well witnessing at least two bomb blasts close to my house.
I took a bank job because I needed to take a break to calm myself down. Then I realized that I really did not like Lagos because of the stress. And I didn’t like the environment. Every morning I was going to work. I was so sad.
So I took pictures that documented myself every morning. And when I started looking deeply at the pictures, I realized I was documenting myself around my period or during my menstrual cycle. And a lot of the images were so deep and sometimes very surreal. I began to ask myself, what am I seeing, Why am I seeing these things?
Then I did self diagnosis online. And then the results came out saying you have symptoms of premenstrual dysphoric disorder. And I was like, what the hell is that? Let me check. Let me dig deeper again.
Did you decide they’re going to be in black and white from the start?
The black and white colour theme was needed somehow to show the dark side of womanhood. So I applied that colour grading and shadows to portray the darkness. Another technique I used was de-focus, this allowed my audience to engage with their imaginations.
How did you feel about using yourself as a subject? And has that changed the way you photograph other people?
I’m very careful now when I photograph people. I ask myself, will this person find dignity in themselves when they look at the image? If I’m not sure, I’ll ask them, how do you feel about this? Do you can I can I use it? If they say yes, I’d take that as consent.
In my early days of photography when I was shooting conflict survivors, I believe l didn’t photograph people with so much dignity. This is mostly because of the many propaganda that was circulating on social media surrounding the insurgency in the northeast. Some people still believe that the crisis does not exist. Well, I don’t like showing them again to the public except in conferences where I need to illustrate the depth of this conflict.
What response has the project had?
I’ve shown it in a few places and the feedback has been incredible. The feedback that has been strongest and has stayed with me most is the feedback from other women. On Instagram they’re telling me that they experience it too, or their sister does. And in Nigeria, more women are checking out the website that I used to self diagnose and getting help. It is important you know how to describe your pain so a medical professional can easily work with you to find a solution.
My aim right now is to constantly disrupt the social space in Nigeria and start conversations.
How important is it to follow your own personal work?
I’ve always had a day job that’s not photography: that’s for a reason. I believe that lots of photographers work from a place of hunger, the need to make the next ends meet. They’ll take whatever photography job they can.
With a day job I can be a bit more relaxed and decide this month, I’m not going to shoot, I’m going to research or next month, I’m going to shoot and not research. And that just gives me that opportunity to do my work at my own time. And at my own pace on how I want it not because a client wants it in a particular way, rather I can do it in a way that fits my own ethics.
I’m doing something in COVID, analysing how single people are caught in an enclosed space, and how that space and loneliness brings out darkness and depression.
About Personal Work Journal
PWJ is a photo journal dedicated to showcasing new photography from emerging and established photographers.