Remi Adetiba: Nollywood Swinging

NYC based photographer and ADC Member shoots for Nigerian box office smash

Oscar season is officially upon us! Who’s gonna take home top honors? The heavy yet moving Manchester By the Sea? The upbeat musical stylings of La La Land? The inspiring biographical drama Hidden Figures?

Or perhaps your eyes aren’t on the American film scene at all. If you’re part of the Nigerian diaspora, or have a fondness for the ballooning influence of “Nollywood”, you’re probably basking in the glow of The Wedding Party, the romantic comedy by director Kemi Adetiba. The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September, opened to box office-shattering records last month, the biggest such opening for a Nigerian movie.

When it came time to promote the film, Kemi was fortunate enough to be able to keep things in the family; her brother is acclaimed New York based photographer and ADC Member, Remi Adetiba. Remi shot all of the images for the film’s promotional materials, from the main and alternate posters, as well as character and press photography. We caught up with Remi to chat about the experience, as well as to shine a light on his creative career — including a major role in bringing the African version of Next Top Model to life.

How did you decide on the look and the style you wanted in your images? Did the final outcome deviate from your original vision?

RAbw1As far as the poster imagery went, I just let the story lead. I sat with Kemi over drinks in her living room to hear a brief summary of each character’s personality and character arc, in order to come up with an effective way to boil it all down to a single image that represented them and enticed the audience, but without giving away too much.

It was also a little tricky because I didn’t want to know too much beforehand, either — this was my sister’s feature debut, so I wanted to laugh and gasp in the audience along with everyone.

Sure, the main poster layouts and graphic work were a major departure, but in terms of the photography itself, any points of conceptual deviation were minor — a wardrobe choice or two that I envisioned for characters, but had to alter because the folks who knew more about the characters disagreed. I was very lucky because Mo Abudu, the CEO of EbonyLife Films and one of the film’s EP’s was a big believer in my past work, and kinda gave me free rein to create — within the bounds of the script, of course.

What sorts of unique challenges did you run into, and how’d you get around them?

Shooting around filming was definitely the main challenge. This was an ensemble cast of respected actors, Nollywood veterans, singers, and even a couple viral stars, so they were all guaranteed to disperse for other obligations once production wrapped. This meant the production had to fly me in to shoot during filming, so the crew, my team, and I were basically setting up shots based on what locations and talent weren’t in use between time blocks earmarked by their production team.

For the gearheads out there, what did you use to shoot the promo shots? You really captured a lot of rich color in these images…

Color was very important to Kemi and the team as a whole. I had been going through a bit of a color-gel phase last year, and I’d begun to read blog/press coverage that described it as a “trademark” of mine (and I was slowly noticing more photogs in that market use them more), so I told my main assistant “We’re done with gels. If I ever ask for a gel, stop me!” Then on this shoot we had elements that absolutely warranted a gel here and there, and all that went out the window.

“I had been going through a bit of a color-gel phase last year, and I’d begun to read blog/press coverage that described it as a “trademark” of mine… I told my main assistant ‘We’re done with gels. If I ever ask for a gel, stop me!'”

Gear-wise, I shot on a Canon 5D Mark III. My cousin Bunmi, who’s my right hand whenever I shoot in Lagos, had been tempting me with the new Hasselblad the studio just got, but this wasn’t the shoot to test out a new camera. Lighting-wise, we had a series of remote-triggered Profoto heads, with various modifiers. I travel between continents with a set of two D1-500 Airs, and supplement as needed wherever I am.

What are the pluses and minuses of collaborating with a sibling? Does it ever devolve to “mother always liked you best!” arguments?

(laughs) It’s definitely something you have to work at, to ensure the personal and professional each has its place. Kemi and I have always been very close, and we’re each other’s biggest cheerleaders, but we definitely do clash like typical siblings. It’s especially interesting because she’s a director, so when I’m shooting her as my model, she’s insisting on lighting directions, and I have to go “Sit down and look pretty!”

On this project, we were the utmost professionals, though. She recommended me once to Ms. Abudu, who looked at my work and declared I’d have to shoot the work — day rates, airfares, and availability be damned. It also helped that I had been in talks with another of the movie’s executive producers to do similar work on another project. So in the end, once Kemi made the initial intro, and gave me the character breakdowns, she made it a point to stay out of it to avoid it feeling nepotistic.

And I, for my part, respected set decorum and found a good balance between how I’d address my sister over drinks and how one interacts with the director on set. We may have finally found our groove!

You had a career in advertising before picking up the camera. Where did your interest in photography stem from, and what made you decide to make it your bread and butter?

I’ve always been obsessed with visual storytelling, and for me, advertising and photography are two sides of the same storytelling coin. My dad was managing director at one of West Africa’s top ad agencies, so that was probably an unconscious influence growing up. But I was always obsessed with creative visual storytelling — music videos, ads — especially over-the-top ’80s/’90s fragrance ads — and great print ads too.

“I’ve always been obsessed with visual storytelling, and for me, advertising and photography are two sides of the same storytelling coin.”

I went into the creative-technology side of digital advertising, but I’d find ways to contribute to some print or video/pre-roll stuff too because I grew up fascinated by the power of traditional media. I collected books by greats like Richard Avedon, Albert Watson, Klinko & Indrani, and of course my hero, David LaChappelle. I worked as a retoucher and creative director for other photographers, while rising in the ranks in advertising. Then at some point, after I’d been shooting for years on the side (incidentally, spurred by my sister Kemi), I felt like I wasn’t being creative as much as managing and nurturing my team. And the whole “How big is the office/does this come with a VP title?” hustle kinda got old. After doing the agency thing for years, I eventually ended up helping steer digital marketing execution at The New York Times. So one day, after I bought a ticket for my dad’s 70th birthday party in Lagos, I went in to The Times and let them know my upcoming one-week vacation would be something much longer, and I wouldn’t be back. I kinda needed to ditch the safety net.

Africa’s Next Top Model — how’d that happen?!

Hah! I sometimes wonder that myself, considering how publicity-averse I am as a person. It all came down to the show’s host and executive producer, Oluchi. I went from curiously watching her win Face of Africa, itself a televised model search years before the debut of the Top Model franchise, to proudly seeing her on billboards in Times Square and the cover of Italian Vogue, to (maybe) crushing on her as she did the Victoria’s Secret shows for seven years and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue for four, to us just kinda hanging out and getting on each other’s nerves as friends.

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I was crazy-pumped for her and the show, but at no point did I expect to be on it, even as a photographer. Then as she was doing press leading up to the show, she asked me to shoot a pair of covers for one of the magazines she was doing. She had noted my work in the past but apparently she saw something in the way I handled both pre-production and the actual shoot, and ended up asking me to come on board as a resident judge on the show. She explained that she valued the fact that I brought not just expertise as a photographer and creative director, but also a career background in New York advertising, which put me in a position to evaluate the girls’ ability to push product during challenges.

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For those unfamiliar with “Nollywood”, what should an outsider know about the Nigerian creative industry — film, photography, advertising, design etc. What would surprise the average creative New Yorker?

Growing up in Lagos, there was no Nigerian pop culture to speak of — it was kind of a mash of two other pop-culture empires: British and American. When I left there about 16 years ago, there were very early sparks of a revitalization of the film and music industries, but right now both are red-hot.

The creative industry there is incredibly vibrant in Lagos especially — from the gallery scene to the fashion industry, creatives are hungry to create, and there’s no shortage of opportunities to collaborate. Nigeria is experiencing a full-on renaissance in film, fashion, music, television, and online content, and I feel especially fortunate to be able to experience and facilitate it in some small way with my work.

“Nigeria is experiencing a full-on renaissance in film, fashion, music, television, and online content, and I feel especially fortunate to be able to experience and facilitate it in some small way with my work.”

What’s next for you?

Hopefully, some fun projects. After spending much of the last two years shooting overseas, I’m going to be spending a little more time Stateside. I recently signed with the agency Ken Barbosa Associates Inc, who’ve represented some of the best in the image-making industry over the last couple decades. So let’s see what that brings.

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