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.