Fashion has always been about defying expectations and confounding the norm. Few have done that better than Kelechi Amadi-Obi, the country’s leading fashion photographer and a treasure of the Nigerian creative industry. Now he’s using his skills behind the camera to break a few more rules – by using photography as a force for social change in Nigeria.
Fashion – and fashion photography – tend to live in a rarified world. But Kelechi Amadi-Obi sees things differently. He believes photography has the power to bridge class divides, because no other art medium has such power to show a different world – and invite you to join it.
Photography, he says, makes the elitist accessible. “I believe that culture is learnt. Society evolves, and people learn things,” he says, citing the example of how India adopted and then excelled at the game of cricket. He sees photography as an enabler of that cultural change, helping designers showcase all that is exciting and new in Nigerian fashion design while showing a growing audience that – as designers, creative artists, models or consumers – they too can access it. As he puts it, photography “amplifies the publicity.”
Kelechi Amadi-Obi is no stranger to amplifying publicity, yet his career started a long way from the pages of his magazine Style Mania.
As a child he was obsessed with drawing and at an early age began reading and researching books on visual art and art history. But as his four older siblings were lawyers and his father a former High Court judge, it wasn’t a career in art that beckoned.
Law brought him to Lagos, but by his third year as an undergraduate he decided his future lay as a full time studio artist. On completing his youth service he made himself part of the vibrant Lagos art scene.
His first charity exhibition was staged in a benevolent aunt’s sitting room. Whilst an unconventional gallery space, it proved successful, raising around 2 million naira. More commissions arrived and soon Kelechi had far more work than he could handle. It was a situation he found unbearable.
The switch to photography was a practical one. Initially the photographs served as reference material for his painting. But as his skills grew, he realised photography could be so much more. “I fell in love with photography immediately I saw that I could manipulate the picture after taking it in the darkroom,” he says.
He began to exhibit his photographs outside Nigeria, in Mali and Milan. And increasingly he saw that the commercial realities of a career as a photographer appeared far more attractive – and practical – than those of a painter.
He found the perfect blend of artistic passion and business fulfilment in fashion photography. “I always loved the fashion photographs I used to see in Vogue, Elle, and all those other magazines, but there was no fashion magazine in Nigeria,” he explains. He started taking photographs of models, and soon he had an impressive fashion magazine portfolio, but
His break came when True Love magazine needed fashion photographs. Kelechi’s unique style proved hugely successful – and led to the launch of his own monthly fashion magazine, Style Mania edited by Dimeji Alara.
Today, Kelechi understands that whilst what he is is a photographer, what he does is something more profound. “We are storytellers,” he says, “we tell our stories with images.”
So how does his ability to tell a story help fashion break down traditional social barriers? “What we do is to show people that this happens,” he says, noting that people in Nigeria are breaking into and enjoying huge success in the fashion world. As photographers, “we provide evidence that this is happening, and that evidence educates the masses.”
The photograph, then, makes it real. And the more publicity it receives, the more the message is amplified, enabling more people to see fashion as a relevant part of their world. “I’ve always believed that art is a very powerful medium for social engineering,” Kelechi says. “The artist determines the trends.”