Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Sunmi Smart-Cole: It’s the ‘75th shot’

Posted On Sunday, 25 September 2016 22:47 Written by
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•AWARD—Photo-Journalist Smart-Cole receives a Life Achievement Award from former President Bill Clinton of the United States (right) and Mrs. Cherie Blair QC (wife of Tony Blair), former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, at the annual THISDAY award, in Lagos. •AWARD—Photo-Journalist Smart-Cole receives a Life Achievement Award from former President Bill Clinton of the United States (right) and Mrs. Cherie Blair QC (wife of Tony Blair), former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, at the annual THISDAY award, in Lagos.

TO many people, his story begins and revolves around photography. That notion seems to be right but it is absolutely wrong. Don’t just think about Sunmi Smart-Cole and visualise photography alone. Doing that may not be a balanced reflection on a journey that commenced 75 years ago in Port Harcourt without the glamour that has largely distinguished it so far. Now, whenever the name crosses your mind, also think barbing, architecture, drumming, and journalism.

Though, there are other glitzy fields of endeavour that also add up, the aforementioned, in many ways and different scales, defined the man, whose formal education abruptly ended at 15 because of hunger.

With these areas of pursuit being part of his story, it is amazing that he is synonymous with photography in a way that literally subsumed other areas that also contributed in making him a brand. Indeed,   Smart-Cole lives and personifies photography like no one had done in Nigeria or better still Africa. Since 1976 when he took to photography, Smart-Cole, who was born on September 25, 1941, to a Nigerian and Sierra Leonean parentage, had applied panache, power and character in a fashion that leaves no room for him not to be admired. Through his lens, remarkable stories have been told, bridges have been built and records have been made and broken across the world. To have eventually engraved his name on gold with these feats appear surprising given that he was just a ‘’common barber” (the phrase he told SundayVanguard, was used by the late Brig Gen Benjamin Adekunle in describing him when the latter pushed him into a drainage system at Yaba.’’ Unlike many big names in Nigeria today, becoming the brand that he is was neither accidental nor unmerited, as Smart-Cole, who is being celebrated today by family and friends, told Sunday Vanguard in a chat that his bold steps were inspired by the nonavailability of funds to continue with his education at the age of 15.  

The Sunmi’s Place

‘’I stopped going to school at the age of I5 because my mother, who was just a petty trader, could not fund my education because she had no money. I became an elementary school teacher but hunger made me to set up a barber shop,” he said, during the interview that was held at his Yaba residence. Named the Sunmi’s Place, the saloon, which he said was located in Yaba, was sort of a melting pot for socialites especially the young at heart in Lagos in the 60s.

‘’My barber shop, Sunmi’s Place, was located at number 1 McEwen Street, off Herbert Macaulay Way, Yaba.   I borrowed £40   to pay   the rent   and also borrowed   £12   to buy equipment and furniture from the late Chief Adetuniji Soyede, paternal grandfather of Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo, wife of Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo. I had been an elementary school teacher at the age of 15. My self-education started at that time.   I was buying old books and magazines like Time magazine, News Week, Readers Digest among others. I learnt how to speak in English by always waking up between 4 and 5am to listen to the BBC radio. That was how I learnt how to speak English.” Interestingly, the majority of his clientele then later became men of power and influence in the contemporary Nigerian society. Continuing, he said: ‘’The other language I speak is Krio Pidgin. At 17, I was apprenticed to an architectural draughtsman who taught me the rudiments of architecture. I had the dubious distinction of designing the washrooms at Ikoyi Club, Lagos, when I worked with Nixon and Boris, the country home of the Prime Minister of Sierra Leone, Sir Albert Margarai, in his village, Gbamgbatoke. I also designed an extension to the house of Mr. Johnie Smythe, QC, a one-time Attorney General of Sierra Leone and another house with a swimming pool at the top, for BBC presenter of   “Good Morning Africa” programme, Pete Myers.  

Artist and Road Manager

‘’ In 1966, the late musicologist, bandleader, and impresario, Mr. Steve Rhodes, appointed me Artist and Road Manager instead of Artist and Repertoire manager in his company because I could not read music. I road-managed musicians like Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Koola Lobitos, Victor Uwaifo, Sunny Okosun, British singer, Militants Small of the M Boy Lollipo fame, Ghanian dancing group, the Rolling Beats, and Pat Finn and The Hikers. ‘’I had been adjudged to be one of the best drummers in Nigeria and was a founding member of the Soul and Jazz group, The Soul Assembly, reputed for bringing and popularising African-American Soul music to Nigeria. Mr. Rhodes refused to manage our group because we were not full-time musicians.” His career in the music industry, he told Sunday Vanguard, was, however, punctuated by his sack by Rhodes over what he termed a conflict of interest. ‘’At that time, I was still a red meat eater. I went to Koriko Bar on the ground floor of Bristol Hotel to buy sausage rolls for lunch. I returned to find my termination letter on my desk. I had been dismissed for “conflict of interest”. I was extremely sad,” he quipped. Interestingly, music still lives in Smart-Cole, as his living room where this interface held, had a corner dedicated to musical instruments which were arranged the way it is done in studios. A striking aspect of this encounter was that in spite being interrupted within intervals by issues regarding today’s birthday celebration, the renowned photographer, was always able to reconnect with the subject hitherto being discussed. During one of such instance after a long interlude, he said: ‘’The barber shop was also a cultural centre. People came to read foreign newspapers and magazines. During the civil war, luxury items like foreign publications, butter extra were banned.

The ban was lifted at the end of the war, in 1970 but I had my way of getting butter from the airport. They also came to listen to Jazz, Soul, and Classical music. On Friday and Saturday evenings, they came to find out where the parties for “hep-cats” and the “in-crowd” will be held. I started operating the shop in 1967 and shut it down, in September 1972, when I migrated to the United States of America to live “permanently”.   I returned home after ten years. I lived in Mountain View, California, where I worked with VIDAR Corporation as a Technical Illustrator and Architectural Drafter. I began my study of photography in 1976, at Foothill College, Los Alto, California. ‘’I thought myself barbing, drumming and photography. I went into photography in America because I wanted something that would bring out the real artist in me.’’ Agreeably, taking to photography quickened the blossoming of the infinite stars that had lived in Smart-Cole, as his lens and craft earned him fame and influence beyond Africa. Going through a voluminous compendium of his jobs entitled: Sunmi’s Lens: Medium Between Man And Nature, attested to how people of substance and commoners seamlessly converged courtesy of his creativity. On the strength of this, Sunday Vanguard asked how he felt clocking the age of 75. Cheerfully, he took a sip of coffee earlier served and responded thus: ‘’I feel grateful to God because I know people I was growing up with that died in their 20s. A friend of mine who was a pilot got shot down three days before the end of the war.   He was shot down two weeks before the end of the war. A childhood friend of mine, Prof Tunde Cole-Onitiri, a Prof of medicine died four years ago of heat stroke. He died at his office in Lekki, Lagos. He was not sick. He was in his of office and as he was moving his private papers to another office,   he started feeling very hot because they had removed the air condition in his office. Before the person he sent to get a cooling fan came, he had slumped and died.   I am just a few years older than him. To me, he died young. Sometimes, you want to say why them?  

Total knee replacement

‘’ I am having a thanksgiving service with Holy Communion to thank God  for saving my life at least three times.   As a result of one of the accidents, I had total knee replacement surgery. I fell down inside a helicopter while I was taking photographs over Bonny LNG in 2002. I was sitting down with an English-Nigerian. When you are in a helicopter you have to make sure that you are belted down all the time and it was their responsibility to make sure that I was belted down. But this fellow saw something interesting and asked me to photograph what he saw. I completely forgot that I was in a helicopter and unbuckled.   As I did that, there was a jolt, my head hit the roof and I landed on my knee. My leg turned and my toes were   backward. My knee was smashed.

Much later, I ended up going to America for a total knee replacement surgery which cost about $30.000.  

Editor of Lagos Life

‘’Before that, I was involved in an accident when I was at the Guardian which led to the pain I have now on my neck. As Editor of the Lagos Life Newspapers, I was returning to the Guardian from Apapa on Isolo Expressway, a policeman with a machine gun stood in the middle of the railway and was trying to stop lorries coming from Apapa Wharf because he was collecting bribe or trying to collect bribe. A lorry loaded with bags of flower, rammed into my car. From the middle of the highway, I ended up at the service lane at Cele Bustop. People were diving into the bush, I was lying down in the car because the seatbelt pulled me down, I grabbed the steering, hit my one leg down on something which turned out to be the break. I came out but the car was smashed. I didn’t see any blood and thought I was okay but I knew I was shocked. We went to a police station in Surulere. We saw the police and told them what happened. They managed to bring back the policeman who caused the accident. The accident happened in July when the car was only four months old.”I bought the car new on credit. As Editor of Lagos Life, I could not afford to buy a car, my salary was N900 monthly. But cars like Peugeot sold for N1400 while Volkswagen sold for N400. Prof Wole Soyinka, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, the current Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, and myself were assisted in buying the car by the late Alex Ibru because people used to line up   to buy cars. Alex did four of us a favour by telling us to come and choose the colour we preferred.  

Audu Ogbeh couldn’t buy a car

‘’We bought the cars from Rutham Motors. Audu Ogbeh was a minister but he could not afford to buy a car because he was not stealing.

He could not afford to buy a car under Shagari’s government even though he was   a minister. The purchase of mine was financed by Societe Genrale Bank, a Guardian lawyer cosigned for me. My salaries were paid into the bank while the money was deducted within the span of three years. Something interesting came out of that.   I didn’t know I had sustained an   injury in that accident that happened in 1986. Six months later, I started feeling very poorly. My late friend, Prof Tunde Cole-Onitiri said it was cervical spondylosis. He thought it was just part of aging but when an   x-ray was done, it was found out that a bone on my neck got chipped and was erupting against a nerve. When it got bad, my doctor said I should be allowed to travel out of Nigeria to have a rest because of my workload. Alex Ibru asked me to go Zimbabwe and rest at one of the two houses he bought there when the whites were running away. I actually changed my route at the airport and went to London where I spent two weeks.  

Buhari-Idiagbon regime

‘’Audu Ogbeh and others were arrested then by the Buhari-Idiagbon regime. They said he must prove how he bought a car without stealing. The government was dismissed in 1983 and they asked him to come and explain how he bought the car in 1985.   A warder was sent to the Guardian office with a letter addressed to Dr. Ogunbiyi. The letter was written by Audu Ogbeh. I thought he needed   some things and I took the decision of opening the letter. He wrote in the letter that security men were coming to question Ogunbiyi and he should tell them nothing but the truth. And after questioning   Yemi later, they released Audu Ogbeh. The truth is that none of us, including Wole Soyinka, could afford to buy a new car at that time. ‘’Wole Soyinka had not won the Nobel Price then, he was just a university Prof, who was managing himself with proceeds from his books. I am not saying that I am vouching for Ogbeh but there is a handful of people, who had been in public office, especially in the past, who never stole anything.

Today, we are worried about what to do to people who stole billions of dollars in Jonathan’s administration and some are saying that everybody is corrupt. That is wrong. Everybody is not corrupt. When the army overthrew the government of Nigeria in I966, they   said the Prime Minister who was among those killed was corrupt. But less than three days later when the banks opened, they found that the man had only 25 pounds in his bank account. That shows that not everyone who held office in the past was corrupt.’’  

Godliness and contentment

‘’In the old days, some people had plaques in their homes with inscriptions like ‘’Cleanliness is next to godliness.” But then there was also godliness and contentment. Compared to most people out there, you might say I am well to do. I have always been contented. That is why I am afraid that we shouldn’t have a revolution, because if such happens, a man, who has a commercial motorcycle might be killed by those who can’t afford it. If that should be the case, what then would now be the fate of those, who have cars.’’

On Lagos in the good old days

Explaining how Lagos made his stardom possible in the good old days, Smart-Cole, who is reputed to ‘’know   Lagos just like Lagos,’’ said: ‘’When Lagos was Lagos, if you drop a piece of paper on the floor and you are caught, you could be sentenced to six months in prison. A police officer from the rank of inspector upwards would administer the cane after putting a piece of cloth on the person’s buttocks. After then they will pour Izal (a brand of germicide) on the person’s buttocks. When the British were here, there was a punishment called Leave Township. It involves sending the offending person back to his village and holding the traditional ruler of the person’s town responsible if the person returns to Lagos. They also did that to prostitutes who have been arrested several times.  

Then the police obeyed the law because of honesty. There was a case when a policeman and his colleagues were sent to the scene of derailment in Offa. The man was busy searching pockets of the dead.   He was arrested by his colleagues, brought back to Lagos and tried. But he later escaped from jail only to join the Nigerian Army during the war. Things are bad but there was a time in this same town when taxi ran all night while nightclubs closed at 2pm.    

Mansions rotting away

On craze for properties among Nigerians, he said ‘’This is my first house. I had a parcel of land at Borno Way which I bought initially for N14 million. By the time I sold it seven years later, I got N45 million. I added N10 million to that amount to buy this place. That is how civilize people act. It is better than building mansions like some in Victoria Island that are currently rotting away because there is nobody to maintain them. This place belonged to the YABA Medical college, it was the first place where medical doctors were trained in Nigeria. Even the first Premier of Eastern Region, Dr. Micahel Okpara, was trained here. When Obasanjo started selling houses, he sold it to the last man, who lived here. He didn’t have money and had to get Briscoe properties to develop it after which we started buying.’’ Since Smart-Cole, who is widely travelled is synonymous with photography, describing his 75 years birthday as his 75th shot, is not really a bad idea.

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