I have always been a critic of award ceremonies. It is easy to become a critic of everything joyful if like me you are a journalist who has seen all the hues of hypocrisy and shamelessness. Or if perhaps you need to work three jobs to pay for a single room in Kubwa and spend at least an hour commuting to work daily. You will wonder if truly there is a reason for people to be all smiley when you enter a hall with two heavy bags of equipment to take pictures and video all the lies that their faces tell. You will give your editor the pictures and footage and not think about it when you sleep. You will only give it a second thought if you have not met a deadline.
Now I feel every inch a hypocrite. I have spent many years denigrating the same people who today honour me and smile those smiles that once I could not stomach. And I am smiling as people shake my hand vigorously in congratulations. As they shake and praise me for taking the photo of the year, I say under my breath, big deal! To them it’s just a picture, another excuse to leave their boring, overpaying day jobs and pretend that the world is all about conferences and awards; another excuse to revel in that pretentious world of bliss away from the starkness that is reality.
Mine is a twenty-four hour job. I’m always with a camera, just in case I need to take a photo. It’s those unplanned photos that earn you the most credit. Those surprise shots of slip ups with unsuspecting people in shameless poses. Sometimes I take pictures not knowing if I would ever use them. I keep them all and many times someone without enough material to fill up his newspaper page would call me up for a photo. They know I always have the right photo. I see a dog running with guilty eyes and a dead chicken its mouth, I click. I see a madman rummaging in a refuse dump, I click. I see two men (now that’s a rare one) holding hands in a corner, close to the unofficial gay joint, I click. I click, most times without that bright flash that would betray me, for I need to get the picture without getting caught. Taking photos can be risky business. Sullivan, a former colleague of mine died from gunshot wounds while trying to take pictures in front of a night club in Warri. I remember my old uncle who offered to ‘cook’ me in the village, a simple ritual that would make bullets or knives bounce off my body. Politely I told him that I was a Christian and he laughed at me and called me foolish, adding that my father and two other uncles, all deacons in the church, had done the same ritual. This was many years ago when I was still in the university, before I started this dangerous business of taking pictures. My old uncle is dead, and I think I now agree with him, that I was foolish. I should ask my father before he too passes on.
Mostly though, taking pictures is ok. You go to press conferences, product launches, high-class weddings and funerals and award ceremonies. They call you. They want you to take their picture and they want it to make front page. You tell them you will try even though you know that it is possible for your editor to throw it out. They give you a small something to facilitate this and a take-away pack with snacks and drinks or if you are not so fortunate, burnt jollof rice. Sometimes you get souvenirs- conference bags, pens, mugs and even t-shirts. Sometimes you may even be able to sneak a bottle of cheap non-alcoholic wine into your bag. I have learnt to share my Small Something with my editor so I almost always get those pictures in and because of this reputation for delivery I am assured of a continuous flow of Small Something’s.
The children where I live always want me to take their picture. Most of them have lost one or more teeth to growing up, but they insist on a full smile when I tell them to say cheese. Most times I don’t actually take their picture but I put on the flash to make them think that I do. So the bright light sustains their hope. They run away after the flash, contented. Often I see them play in the mud and around the many heaps of refuse in the area, unperturbed and each time I wish that I could be a child again. This is not Maitama, but Kubwa village where I am constantly reminded of how Nigerians actually live and of the wide gap between reality and the big fat lie called Abuja.
I am sitting in a big hall in Sheraton Hotel, wearing an uncomfortable, over-starched caftan, feeling silly, and thinking how I must look like the clowns whose pictures I take for a living. I feel like holding my camera but my colleague tells me today is my day and I shouldn’t be holding a camera. “You be bush man!” he retorts when I tell him to pass me my camera as I see a popular man staring at one young usher’s breasts. He says I should look dignified because the whole world is watching me. I am sad because I missed a great photo opportunity.
I still cannot afford the rent in the city but because of my award I will become popular. This is Africa’s biggest award for journalists. Tomorrow will be better, for I will have offers from the BBC or maybe Aljazeera. I will be invited for talk shows and I will be paid to give ridiculous speeches at irrelevant seminars in big hotels. And I will become more popular and have more money.
The guy in the rented tuxedo anchoring the program just told me that I will be asked to tell the story behind my picture and I wonder if they truly want to know. I should create a crowd-friendly version so I don’t upset the balance of things. Too much reality is bad for business. So I will not tell them what really happened or how I happened to be in Maiduguri when the Joint Task Force began their onslaught on the town that harboured the man they say blew up police stations and prisons.
I will tell them a fancy story and Kasim my friend will smile because he knows the truth. I will not tell them how I went to the University of Maiduguri to see Yesmin, the svelte Shuwa Arab, who once showed me pleasures that earthly words cannot describe. They will not hear that it was through screams of passion that I heard the first explosions or that because she begged me not to leave I stayed back until Sunday when the military onslaught began; that I switched off my phone because I knew my editor would call and worked on creating a family emergency to explain my absence that weekend. They will only see my high resolution picture that captured a boy at 45 degrees falling backwards from the power of an AK-47, his dry mouth wide open and at least three bullet holes in his once-white jallabiya. They will see the work of my powerful zoom lens in the clarity of a picture taken many meters away from the window behind which I crouched. Only I will hear the shouting and screaming, see the blood and the punctured flesh, feel the naked fear and vibration of angry tanks, experience the death of children and taste the dust in the air on that sunny Sunday afternoon. It is a heavy load to bear, but isn’t my life one of bearing unwanted burdens?
Yesmin has semester exams this week and could not travel to sit with me. I know she could not have come anyway. I do not expect the twenty year old daughter of a devoutly Muslim Maiduguri businessman- who is expected not to know the anatomy of a man- to flaunt a secret affair in front of cameras.
I sit in the lobby bar of Sheraton Hotel after the ceremony, on one of the seats near the bar that give me a good vantage, sipping on a bloody mary. A spare old man walks past. His suit is old fashioned, but I can tell that whenever it was bought it was very expensive. Old money. Three boys follow closely, chatting loudly, jeans halfway down their buttocks, huge shiny chain wristwatches, belts like Wrestling title belts, their blackberry’s and iPhones like appendages to their bodies. A few seats away from me in the non-smoking area, a man not younger than his mid-fifties, holds the waist of a girl, breasts threatening to jump out, bright red lipstick, aquamarine eye shadow, whose long wild weave seems to be dripping with grease. A man in the corner, gestures dramatically as he speaks to a Chinese-looking man who seems unimpressed with the effort. As my tongue slowly gets used to what seems to be too much sauce in my drink, I see clearly a portrait of our vanity. I start feeling detached from it all until some bearded Welsh journalist comes to share my table- he recognises my face from the award ceremony. I catch myself trying to speak in my best British accent. The dying boy of my picture has left my mind. And slowly, I think- as I wink at the pretty young lady singing and get lost in chitchat- I am becoming a part of it all.