Paul Oloko: Camera As Institution

By Armsfree Ajanaku

Paul Oloko

Paul Oloko

AS journalists constantly in hunt for the news, there are many important moments that the limitations of time and space do not allow us to capture. Invariably, those moments fizzle into oblivion, where memory may attempt some indifferent sketch. Some of those are the moments of our own personal stories and experiences as they relate to the exact nature and dimension of what we do.

Being in the vortex of a daily attempt to capture the complexities of human engagements within the constraints of time and space tends to blunt the tapestries of our own involvement. This is accentuated by the fact that the objectivity required by our calling compels us to maintain some distance from the fray.

So the reality is that the journalist cannot objectively provide accurate and compelling accounts about the cauldron that is society, if he is right inside it. What tends to get lost as a result of this supposition, are the nuggets of our personal experiences, especially as peripatetic professionals helping society to catch a quick glimpse of its reality.

As such, because the reporter is supposed to maintain some objective distance and not become an intruder in the flow process of information, our personal stories on the beat, including the heroics, the struggles and the triumphs tend not to make the pages.

Albeit unaccounted for, some of these stories are about daring, almost foolhardy acts in our quest to ensure real facts are laid before our audience. Fact, which would invariable lead to the establishment of the truth within a universal context, is the province of the journalist. In pursuit of these building blocks of truth, the journalist must at certain points assume that his very existence is less important than his pursuits.

It is so because the journalist knows that any society devoid of these building blocks of truth exists in a very dark realm, and would as a consequence become a place of constant turmoil.

One professional who has amply demonstrated this unshakable quest for presenting those crucial building blocks of truth is the late Paul Oloko; ace photographer of The Guardian who recently passed on. Oloko was one professional whose lenses produced images that haunted and healed. In the context of Nigerian photojournalism, his camera was an institution, which constantly provided narratives of the existential drudgery of the Nigerian condition. Oloko’s camera was pro-people. It travelled to meet and document the realities of those on the margins of society.

The Guardian late photojournalist, Paul Oloko

The Guardian late photojournalist, Paul Oloko

He never shied away from engaging with the disadvantaged, and he told their stories with the instincts of an ally. Oloko did not shy away from capturing faces that carried the pains and burdens of being Nigerian. The unseen tears of Oloko’s subjects eloquently narrated the stories of the crushing injustices of Nigeria’s indifferent system.

In his relentless photographic documentation, we do not merely see the pains and miseries. We also see Oloko’s subjects through the fine prints of The Guardian in action in the battlefields of the people. His lenses captured the gestures of a people in the fight, however feeble, for survival. He loved to document the engagements of students, market women and the coalition of forces that demand an end to the status quo.

As a corollary, in Oloko’s over two decades of photography, we get acquainted with his quiet, but irreverent offensive against bad governance in all forms. He had an uncommon knack for capturing those monuments of decay, manifesting in heaps of refuse that once threatened our sanity, just as he also put his lens in service of the public by chronicling the unacceptably horrible dilapidation of many of our roads.

Reporting for the flagship, several special assignments brought us together. I was always struck by the depth of his commitment and his fearlessness. I can recall his trim and Spartan appearance, as he would close an eye to take his shots. Nothing thrilled him more than getting a front page picture. On one occasion, we had gone to report one of the many unending pipeline fires in Ijegun, a suburb on the outskirts of Lagos. I still remember this scene vividly. It was one of those bedlam in which everyone had commenced a rapid dialogue with their feet. The fire was advancing rapidly, threatening the entire community. As we had seen many times, a classic case of Nigerian dysfunction was playing out; men of the fire service who managed to arrive the scene after the fire had done substantial damage did not have hoses that could reach a point to put out the fire. So as the fire advanced, gutting a crucial oil infrastructure, the firemen were beating a tactical retreat.

In the midst of it all, I could catch a glimpse of Paul Oloko; he was surprisingly heading in the opposite direction, searching for a vantage position to take a shot. I voiced my worry about his safety, pointing out that even the fire fighters were taking to their heels. His reply had a tone of finality: “this is the picture for tomorrow’s front page.”

There is no doubt that his ability to defy the odds was one quality that made him tick. He was a man who dedicated himself to using photojournalism as a veritable instrument for representing the voiceless, all limitations notwithstanding. Adieu Oloko, rest blissfully in the bosom of the Lord.

Ajanaku, a former associate of The Guardian lives in Abuja.


At 50, the Jahman Anikulapo I Know

By ‘Fisayo Soyombo
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It was nearly a decade ago. I was only a 100-level student of Agriculture but I had suddenly been thrust into The Guardian’s newsroom on a two-month internship.
“This small man with big tie, I just hope you can write,” a middle-aged man addressed me smilingly on one of my first days. “I hope your writing ability is half as good as the quality of your tie. In fact, I cannot wait to read your first story.”
“It would be such a big disaster if after harassing me with all your big ties, you cannot write,” he said to me another time, wearing a wide grin.
Mr. Jahman Oladejo Anikulapo, as I soon found his name to be, was Editor of The Guardian on Sunday — the desk to which I had been deployed. (And as events eventually played out, this was the man I would later owe my media career to.) But he was more than an editor.
He not only edited your works, he called you into his office to dutifully point out your errors to you. That, I suppose, is the hallmark of a teacher. Every Friday, from his pocket, he gave all interns, male or female — whom he knew were only remunerated with a transport allowance — some money for the weekend; that’s a father. (In the end, it wasn’t the worth of the cash that mattered but the beauty and sincerity of the underlying intention.) There were times he called interns into his office to advise them on personal matters; that’s an uncle. And occasionally, he took time off his constricted work schedule to — like a friend would — exchange banters with interns and other staff.
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With a full page story and several news clippings in my file, I ended my internship two months later a very grateful boy — grateful to Jahman Anikulapo. But I never knew the extent of gratitude I would exude towards him until the following year, when the Group News Editor of the defunct Comet Newspaper denied me just four weeks in the newsroom. The Guardian had, in actual fact, approved my second internship stint, but it would not take off until another four weeks. That was too long a break for me, so I tried Comet. Its management approved the training but a defiant Group News Editor would have none of it. My offence: I was attempting to “cut corners” and enter the media through the “backdoor” because journalism was not my academic discipline. A letter of introduction from a campus press organisation made no difference, too. “Well, everyone cannot be a Jahman,” I consoled myself. “Not everyone gives a young knowledge-thirsty boy a chance at life!”
I was back again at The Guardian for my National Youth Service. That one full year under Jahman’s supervision formed the foundation of my career, as my boss was the quintessential editor. Day and night he worked and toiled, and many times I wondered if he was human or machine, if he was mortal or immortal. He read nearly every word that graced the paper, and he was the only editor in the newsroom who always literally jumped from his office to the graphics room to personally design the newspaper’s pages. He didn’t need to preach hard work to me or anyone else; he simply exemplified and embodied it.
Jahman was that editor who motivated all his staff, even in the littlest manners. One of such examples: on one of the many occasions when I passed the night inside The Guardian newsroom just to beat the deadline for submission of stories, my editor was exiting the newsroom when he sighted me at a far corner and walked up to me. It was some minutes after 11pm.
“You don’t have to sleep inside the newsroom, Soyombo,” he said, his right arm nestling on my left shoulder. “Here, have the key to my office. When you’re tired, you can go in, switch on the air conditioner and sleep on the sofa. My fridge is not locked and there are drinks in it.”
As Editor of The Guardian on Sunday — a post he willfully relinquished (just a day before his 50th birthday) after 10 years in the saddle and 26 years in the newsroom — he was loved by all standards of the word; beyond the usual workplace mutual respect or camaraderie, or subordinate sycophancy. And that was because he earned it, because he maintained a bond with his people — the lowliest of them, even. The security men could enter his office, the women at the canteen, the typists, and the lower-cadre staff. And on Saturdays, the busiest days for the Sunday desk, a visitor would think a party was ongoing, because Jahman ensured that there were drinks and chops for everyone to thaw production-day tensions.
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All these qualities helped him to raise a fairly stable editorial team. In mid-2009, some seven or eight months after the advent of the now-rested NEXT Newspapers, I asked Tope Templer Olaiya, a senior back at the University of Ibadan whom I came to know during our internship days, why he was not ditching The Guardian where he was only a stringer at the time for a better earning at NEXT.
“You see, Soyombo, I am not freaked by the rush to NEXT,” he answered calmly, assuredly. “To have Jahman Anikulapo as Editor is the best that can happen to a young man’s career. I want to continue working under his supervision, so I’m staying.” Less than two years after, Templer would go on to become one of the mainstays of the Sunday desk of The Guardian.
As Jahman was good to Templer and me, so he was to everyone he encountered. And Armsfree Ajanaku Onomo, unarguably one of the cleverest writers in The Guardian’s employ, would readily agree with this. Of his Editor, he once told me: “One can never fault Jahman on fairness. Never!”
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On and on, anyone could write on him, and even the smartest, most concise raconteur would have the trouble of his life winding down a novel on this talented and most multi-faceted consummate professional. So how do I summarise the Jahman who’s celebrating the golden jubilee of his birth as I write these words? A tireless, indefatigable hard worker who’s striven all his life to be the best there is to be; a graceful soul with a large heart for everyone around him, his subordinates especially; a boss who will not, in anyway, muffle a subordinate’s progress — one quality I find so utterly un-Nigerian; and a man who has achieved all the successes anyone anywhere in the world could ever hope to achieve, for the simple reason that through his painstaking contributions to the careers of several young people, he has succeeded in replicating and reproducing himself, in following up his own modest successes with worthy successors.
The only danger for such successors is that having worked with Jahman, they must now have to deal with the catastrophic temptation of benchmarking future bosses against his standards. Yet, there can only be very few people like Jahman. And I know so: in my still-fledgling but fatefully itinerant media career, I am yet to meet another!