BY NNEOMA EKWEGH
Etinosa Yvonne is a self-taught documentary photographer living in Abuja. She leverages on the power of visual storytelling to create awareness on issues she is passionate about. In this interview we get to know more about the artist and her project All in my head, which won the 2019 Access Bank Art X prize.
You describe yourself as a self-taught documentary photographer, tell us briefly about this journey into documentary photography.
I didn’t start out as a photographer, I used to work as a social media marketer up until 2015, when I resigned from my job. I wanted to start a travel blog, so I started traveling to different parts of Nigeria and that was the first time I will handle a camera, but it wasn’t something I took seriously. In 2016 I worked in a health organization and I met a couple in one of the villages we were working in Abuja. I found out that the lady had fistula, they travelled to Ebonyi for a corrective surgery, I went along with them and I had this small camera with me that I used to take pictures, and it just struck a chord but I didn’t piece it together until 2017 when I was like you know what let me give this a try, if it doesn’t work out just keep trying other things, that is how I started.
At the beginning of the project what was your aim and did that change throughout the process?
A brief story of how I started the project ‘All in my head’ last year in February 2018, I went for a movie screening somewhere in Abuja and I watched this documentary put together by an American Chris Pocket called Salam Neighbor, and the documentary focuses on refugees from Syria, living in Jordan and how they are adjusting to their new realities. There was a young boy who throughout the course of the documentary always followed the filmmakers everywhere they went and it struck them that this boy should be in school, so they asked him and eventually he opened up that he was scared because of some of the things he witnessed in Syria and he felt like if he goes back to school in Jordan that probably bombs might be dropped while they are in class. Trauma made him not go to school. And that struck me, I always had an interest in creating awareness about issues that are rarely talked about. The idea of the project came, and I wrote it down ‘it’s all in my head’ in a small notebook I take around with me and I put in bracket exploring the coping mechanism in survivors of terrorism. So I went to one of the IDP camps in Abuja and it took a while to get access to the people to interview but eventually I started the interviews. That is how I started, I just started to travel first vising the IDP’s in Borno, then to Jos, then to Osun state and just kept pushing the project.
You said you had a bit of challenge getting access to them initially, what do you think were the concerns they had about you talking to them?
There were concerns because in their own words people like me had taken advantage of them and their stories, so they wanted to protect their people, they didn’t want a situation where people wanted to use them to source funds. So I made it clear that I am not an NGO, I am just a photographer I am not promising that when I start this project great things will start happening, I just came to contribute my own quota in raising awareness and we will see how things go. They didn’t want to expose them to anyone who will exploit their stories and situation for their personal gain.
Those whom you spoke to about their trauma, was there any noticeable change, did you sense that those who were sharing their stories with you were being relieved in anyway?
There was a particular moment in the IDP camp when the women were together and they were all talking about their experiences. It was interesting to see that a lot of them did not know what the other person went through, it was the first time they were hearing each-others stories, and though they did not hold hands and hug each other, you could sense that it was very relieving for them to share and acknowledge what they had gone through. There were instances where people start crying as they talk because they had never shared what they had been through.
In the course of making this project was there a particular story/image that touched you the most?
I remember vividly Binta. I met Binta in Adamawa, Michika to be precise. After insurgents had captured Michika, some people did not leave and Binta was one of those who did not leave. On that fateful day when she was taking her sick son to the hospital, the insurgents saw her and her son and that was it. The next thing she was in Sambisa forest. She was forced to marry the insurgent that kidnapped her, she became his fourth wife, she spoke of the torture they went through, seeing people being slaughtered. In 2018, she was able to make her escape with her son. She said as she was escaping she stepped on countless dead bodies in the forest, until they got to the IDP camp in Borno. Her story was unique because before we started the interview I noticed that her family members were constantly mocking her. I wasn’t comfortable with the comments they were making so I told Mr. David our translator that we needed to move somewhere private to speak with Binta. I found out that even though her family had taken her into the community, they still treated her cruelly. They called her mad because she had moments where she woke up in the middle of the night shaking and afraid, they found a lot of her behavior abnormal so they did not care for her or her son, but she was suffering from PTSD and having flashbacks. Also because she had been married to an insurgent, they saw her as an insurgent as well. After my conversation with Binta I got back to my place and I cried for like one hour. Her story was horrible, just seeing the psychological effect violence, terrorism has on the victim and knowing that her family are not making things better. She is one of the reasons why I will continue to work on this project.
What do you hope the audience takeaway from this work?
The project started with me focusing about mental health which is still my main focus. Through this project I am saying that we should do more for people who have lived through and survived traumatic events. When I go to some of these IDP camps, I feel sadness when I see the ways in which they live, these are people who were living normal comfortable lives and in one day all that they knew and had was gone, and they have to start over. The psychological impact is not looked at. We are not proactive when these tragedies occur, we are often quick to forget these people and what they are going through, we need to do better for them, in terms of policies, access to medication for those who need it. There was an incident of people being chased out from a land they had been inhabiting because the owners had sold it, and now they had to pack up and leave, to go where?
How are art exhibitions like Art X-Lagos impacting the art industry in Nigeria?
It is a good platform for art to be seen, I have seen that a lot of people are hungry for art, art is therapeutic, it has ability to heal. So for people to be able to go out and see good art by Nigerians, it pushes our work within the country and also onto the international scene. It also gives room for tourism, bringing in people from different places to consume art.
What would you say the Art X prize-win means to your career?
One of the things I say about wins like this is that it is not just the money but the platform that it gives the artist. You can produce good work but where is it, what platform is it on? This is a very great platform and then the opportunity to do a residency, to be given that opportunity to grow and learn is amazing. It is a life changing experience, one that will push my career to the next level.
Do you think your art will be influenced by the change in environment during the course of your residency?
First and foremost, I will be exposed to different types of works. I am going with an open mind, I am going to be flexible, like I said it is an opportunity to learn. This will be an enabling environment, I will not be thinking about no light, traffic, the basics of life are already provided so, I will just be able to create. This experience will definitely open up my mind.