“Warri no dey carry last” is a well-known axiom that lends credence to the resilient and dogged nature of individuals from Warri, a city in the oil-rich south-south region of Nigeria. Benson is no exception. A graduate of Industrial Chemistry turned photographer, Benson’s work is as artistic and expressive as they come.
In this interview, he speaks to Sheyi Owolabi about how he found his voice in the ever-growing photography space and why most of his photographs are edited with his phone.
Agbowo: Who is Benson Apah?
Benson: I’m still trying to figure out that “who are you?” question. I guess we are all figuring out who we are. That’s how I see it. But on paper, I’m Apah Benson; I’m from Delta State (Nigeria), a graduate of the University of Benin from the Department of Chemistry, Industrial Chemistry, to be precise. I think that is who I’ll be on paper; however, who I am out of paper is what I’m still trying to figure out.
Agbowo: What was your earliest memory of making art, and what precisely about art pulled you in?
Benson: Well, I don’t know. I was a very erratic person growing up, and I did a lot of things that you could consider art, like breakdancing, drawing, and acting. But I wasn’t really self-aware at the time that I was doing these things; I was just doing them. It just came easy. So I just did what was natural. So I wasn’t thinking about it. I wasn’t introspective at any time to figure out who Benson was.
Then I started taking notes on what I was interested in more when I started poetry. I think that was when I got more in touch with whatever artistic side of me. Poetry is something that you can’t be erratic about. You have to think about the words. You have to think about how you want to place the words. You have to think of their shape, as crazy as it sounds. You can write poems that become this sort of figure that you’re shaping out over time. So I think poetry was the beginning of genuine introspection for me. Looking in. sitting down, being patient, and listening, I believe poetry started all of that for me.
Agbowo: How did you get on the path to Photography?
Benson: I decided to take on photography, I think, immediately after university. Then, I needed something to express myself more than just words, as powerful as words are. I just needed something to sort of paint on, So I couldn’t go back to drawing again because my life was busy, and there were so many things that I thought I needed to do.
I was thinking of a skill that would probably keep me within the art space and still be able to provide some means of funding or some of the things that I needed.
So, all those factors made it easier for me to switch to photography. And it was really easy. It was somehow seamless for me. The crazy thing is, before then, it was not like I was studying photographs or something. But I just found it easier to do. So I think it was around that period that I decided to take on this form.
The style that I’m currently doing took some time. It happened over a period of time because I was still erratic with photography when I started. I shot everything. Sports, events, weddings, streets. I shot everything at the time because I was still trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do.
Gradually, with time, I think a couple of people may have influenced my work. I love black and white photography a lot. The crazy thing is that if you go to my page, you may not see much black and white. Though, I’ve developed my kind of black and white through a body of work I recently shared on Instagram. I think there’s one that is on Instagram right now. The style I’m doing right now is not fully defined yet, but it’s a combination of me trying to sort of “hide” things and staying in the dark in some way. And a lot of influences are there. Their signatures are there somehow because it’s not one person.
There are a lot of artists that I like. There are people like many Ghanaian artists and photographers, such as Derrick O Boateng, Prince Gyasi, and Michael Aboya. There’s also Rafael Pavarotti. He is a Brazilian. There are many people that have influenced me. Even my friends that we shot together, how they edited and played with style. I think I owe a particular friend that I have this style more than I owe any of these people. I remember when he was experimenting with it, and I was like, why are you doing this thing like you’re not sure? It seemed like he was only playing around. But then, I saw something that could be developed and worked on. Eventually, we started sharing notes, talking, and looking at other artists. It just happened.
There are a lot of influences and a lot of reasons why this style just happened. So, it’s hard to say that this was explicitly the reason. It was a lot of things.
Agbowo: How long have you been experimenting with this style?
Benson: Well, I’ve been particular about this style for the past two or three years. I think everyone is susceptible to change and transition. So I’m not saying this is going to be a permanent thing. I’m sure it is going to be my signature style because I’m very comfortable with it. Every portrait I take gives the message I want or whatever I need to express. I think what will change is my tone of expression, how I want to express myself, where I want to shoot, and how I want to shoot. My ideas will probably change. But there will always be this whole strength, darkness, shadows, contrast, and colors, even in black and white, that I do inside this form. So it’s going to be there for a long time.
Agbowo: Your photographs have an ethereal and almost spiritual feel to them. How do you come about these compositions and ideas for the photographs you create?
Benson: Well, I think I have the style I feel comfortable with for every piece I do. I have how I edit the images. So style is the composition or a combination of so many things. How you shoot, what you shoot, the framing, the editing, I already have how I like to shoot my models, I don’t know if it’s that consistent, but I think it is to an extent because it has to be or else it’s not your style.
The tricky thing is, when it comes to the editing part, sometimes, what I want to tell for each image, even though, I may have the baseline of the edit that I already have, and I then paste the preset that I already made on it. So that makes it easier for me to see if it fits in or if I should use something else. Because not everything is going to fit into what you want to say sometimes. So you have to develop something else. And then you have multiple presets you’ve developed over time from the main preset or three or four other main presets. So that’s how you have several images that build up to the extent of having a style and feel.
What I do is that each image has a statement they want to make. It’s different for every image. My job is to find it in the best way that suits my style, and that says what it needs to say in the most powerful way possible. Sometimes a series of images have the same statement. Still, they have different poses and expressions, and they could speak differently to different people but have the same style. I have a couple of images close to my heart, which I took a while back. When I was working on those photos, I was thinking of heaven. I wanted them to look like something out of heaven. It took me a while to get to that point because, at the time, all the images you see now were edited on my mobile phone at the time because it was difficult. There were limitations. I didn’t have a laptop at the time. I just got a laptop this year after many years of shooting.
I had to make sure I could tell what I needed to tell in the best possible way with the device I had. And I was just using Lightroom. I wasn’t using Photoshop, and I’m still not using it (Photoshop). The tool you have also sort of matters and how you use it. For me, each image sometimes has the kind of statement they want to give. The most challenging job is finding the voice of that image. If it’s were a commercial job, you just know you need to make it clean, edit it and make it ‘fine’ (beautiful). That’s all you need to do. You don’t need to do more than that. But if it’s something that has to be artistic, you need to listen to it and take your time. I think that’s how it works for me.
Agbowo: Do you predetermine what you want the image to say? Or you shoot and then start looking into the image and figure out its message.
Benson: So some images come to me before the shoot. For example, the photographs from Spectra series with the umbrella. I’d already seen that image long before I went into the shoot, but I was still amazed when I edited it, and it came out the way it did. Because although I saw it in my mind, I didn’t exactly see the whole thing.
I see some images before the shoot, while others happen on impulse. The two are different in the same way; seeing the blueprint of a house and you entering the house feels different. You can feel the walls and all for the latter.
Agbowo: How do you see the images? In your mind?
Benson: Yeah, of course, the thing is, sometimes I’ve been so busy, so I’m kind of lazy right now. Usually, there are many ways to go about it. You could decide that you want to write down an idea of what you want to create. That’s the whole idea of conceptual photography. You have a concept in mind, and then you go shoot the concept. But sometimes, you may just have an inkling or thought.
Thoughts are going through your mind every single minute as we’re talking right now; thoughts are going through your mind. But you’re not aware because you’re distracted by what I’m saying, basically, because you’re trying to focus on what I’m saying.
So the kind of music you listen to, the type of environment you are in, the sort of movies you watch, the experiences you have with people, and the places you travel to all allow you to be creative. All you have to do is listen sometimes because if you’re too busy with life, life is passing you by. There’s no time for your brain or your mind to hold an image.
Some of the things that seem to come out from my mind sometimes and just pop out. Probably due to images I’ve seen before or emotions from a song I’ve listened to. Any of those things may inspire them, but they are in my mind, just that I’m not listening to them. But the moment I decide to pay attention, I have a shoot, or I have an idea of what I want to do. Sometimes you do not write them down, forget or write them down, but you never go shoot them.
So there are a lot of things that happen. Other times you just have a model, and you have suitable accessories. You go out, and then you shoot.
Some of the portraits that I have taken felt like that. I thought of the portraits in my head during the shoot. I took the portraits, and then I turned them into my style, and they no longer looked like regular portraits. People see them, and they’re like, bro, how did you do this? How did you do that?
A great photo usually doesn’t happen by mistake. Sometimes, people think it happens by mistake, but at the end of the day, it’s an accumulation of every experience, everything that has led up to the shoot. So that’s what I would say.
Agbowo: Riding on what you just explained, can you walk us through a typical day in your life when you are creating? What’s the process like from start to finish?
Benson: Yeah. My process is quite simple, though. So I have a very limited number of people I work with because if you look at my images, you usually find one or two subjects across the board. I don’t take photos of different models. The guy I work with, mostly, we have this chemistry. We understand each other. Sometimes he has an idea that he wants to shoot with me, and sometimes I have an idea that I want to shoot with him. So we come together, we talk about the shoot. Sometimes we talk about a pre-proposed idea we think we would do when we get there. And then we go out to shoot. We pick a location, as usual, and then we go out to shoot. During the shoot, we do the idea we discussed before and also do new things. We discover. We let ourselves just flow. I like playing music during my shoots. It clears my head. I like being free during the shoot. Sometimes, the images that even stood out eventually were not the ones we initially discussed; they were the ones that we just decided to go with the flow and keep shooting.
After the shoot, it takes me a lot of time to edit. I sometimes get home, I relax and take my eyes away from the images. For studio images, It’s easier to just shoot and edit them immediately. Because you already have a style, it’s a studio. What else are you going to do to the images?
So when you shoot outdoors, and there are other elements involved, sometimes you have to take your time, and it’s best to step away from the image and, you know, lose that connection that you think you have with that image so that you can pick what is best amongst several images that you took. I do that, and then I start editing them. It takes time. Sometimes it just depends on the image. Some images just work. In one click, everything works, and you just have to make a few adjustments.
As I said before, I already talked about how editing works, and it takes time. Some others need time and care. You need to take a lot of time to do that. So that’s usually the process. I work entirely on Lightroom mobile. I’ve been working on Lightroom mobile my whole career. I just started working on Lightroom on PC because I just got one a month ago. So all the images right now were done on Lightroom mobile. I don’t have anything out there that I did on something different. So that’s been it.
Usually, I’m guilty, though. I’m a hoarder of images. I haven’t put much of my work out because if you check my Instagram, you probably see maybe 50 photos. So there’s so much work that I do have. I guess I’m still attached to them. Probably when I go out and shoot more, when I finally have a camera of my own, and I shoot more, I might be able to let them go.
Yeah, that’s exactly how my process works.
Agbowo: Tell us about Chaos DAO*
Benson: Chaos DAO is a funny one. What happened was we were just looking for a place to have fun and laugh because sometimes the Web3 space can become chaotic, and there are a lot of crazy things happening on Twitter, people who are trying to cancel people or trying to do this or do that. So we just need a place to not be serious and just laugh. And that was how the Chaos DAO started. And soon, it quickly became something different. A lot of people wanted to be part of that whole ‘chaos.’ So, we decided, why don’t you use this energy to change the narrative?
Because there are so many artists people never look at because they tag them as small artists, but the work they are creating, you can put them side by side with the works of some of the people you’ll call OGs in the space. So that was my concern. Especially if you’re from Africa, It makes it much worse for you sometimes because of where you’re from, on top of the fact that you haven’t, for example, had a deal with Adobe before or you haven’t worked with Vogue before. So you’ll just be tagged as a small artist even though your work is outstanding. So we wanted to ‘chaotically’ change that narrative to put the artists, those artists, and give them the spotlight in any way we could. That was the reason for the DAO eventually, and it became something much bigger.
Agbowo: How did you get into NFTs and Web3 generally, and how has it been so far?
Benson: Well, the journey has been crazy, I would say. There have been a lot of downs, and there have been some good times. And, sometimes, you think you’ve been here for years because of the energy it takes from you. You have to be there every day. You have to try to be around and be committed. I think I started in August or September; I’m not sure. At that time, a friend of mine introduced me to NFT. He had heard about it and was still trying to figure it out. So when he told me about it, I wondered, what the heck is NFT? What are you talking about? How can someone make money from that?
It was all new to me because I was not a crypto person before that. So he showed me the ropes and told me about it. I’ve had a Twitter account since 2017, I think. I don’t use it. I think I have just like 10 or 20 followers; I’m not really sure. So I was like, okay, let me try this. Then, I came in, started sharing some of my work, and began understanding how the space worked. It took some time; it took two or three months before I got my first sale there. It was great. A lot of communities started during that time. That’s how it all started, and that’s how it has been.
Agbowo: How many works have you sold so far?
Benson: I’ve sold around 15 pieces.
Agbowo: Based on your experiences selling your works, NFT and Web3, what are your thoughts on the NFT space in Nigeria and Africa, and what are your hopes and aspirations for that space? What would you like to see?
Benson: Well, the thing is, like I said something about people tagging artists as small artists, even though the work that they create, obviously you can see the talent and you can see technical prowess. You can see the understanding of the craft and the work. Yet, they still tag them as small artists because of where they are from, don’t have the connections they should have, or because of any of those reasons. So I would really like to see that change, I guess. I think that’s the number one thing.
The number two thing is to get more collectors in the space. Because I think at the moment, there are more flippers, people who are into crypto but just usually want to flip, like make cash and leave, which is fine. Still, it would be great to see people who appreciate art, who are ready to collect, and who have been collecting, like in real life, coming to this place and doing that.
And as far as Nigeria and Africa, we hope we can be united because I feel we need that to stand and stomp whatever wave is coming. Because this wave right now of like whatever dropping, a lot of people would not have survived it alone. Yeah, I like to see people grow in space, and be able to stand alone because it’s not sustainable to depend on anyone for bread.
It’s not sustainable. So being able to get to that point where you build a name for yourself, we can all get a place where we can stand and help other people coming into this space. I think that’s the best thing that could happen to every one of us.
Agbowo: The last two years, there’s been a surge in the NFT space. A lot of artists are putting their work up for auction. Would you consider this surge as a way for African art to reemerge and re-present itself in the global art space?
Benson: Definitely. 100%; NFTs have made it possible to bridge the gap in a way, in a sense, so people who would normally not be able to see your work can see it and not just see it. Because you could do that on Instagram, right? They can see it, and then they can interact with you. They can interact with the artist and have conversations. And that has never been the case before. These spaces and all these things are more interactive compared to Instagram. So, yeah, I would say it’s a place where people can see African artists and see what they can do and appreciate it and put the art at the forefront once again.
Agbowo: Thank you very much, Benson. This conversation has been very insightful.
Benson: Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this. I appreciate it.
*See here to know more about what DAO means: https://www.investopedia.com/tech/what-dao/