Women move me. I am profoundly connected to women who pour themselves into their lives work and they possess the staunch power to move me to a place a place of introspection where I demand better of myself. Their stories even in their early stages, I do not wish to let go unshared.
It’s with so much enthusiasm that I present to you ‘ The SHE Is Series’ where I share the thoughts and driving forces of intelligent women who do not stop at thinking but DO.
Today, SHE Is Nelly Ating
Nelly Ating is a 28-year-old photojournalist from Akwa Ibom State. She currently lives and works in Yola, Adamawa State where she seems to so skillfully balance her work at the American University of Nigeria’s Communications & PR department as a features writer and her personal vision of using photography to tell the elusive liberation stories of the Boko Haram survivors. Last year, she was nominated for The Future Awards Africa Prize for Journalism. The Future Awards Africa has been dubbed by Forbes as ‘the Nobel Prize For Young Africans’. As you can imagine, it was such a pleasure to have this brief chat with Nelly.
(Photo Credits: Nelly Ating Photography)
Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview with us and before I forget congratulations on your Future Awards nomination 🙂
Thank you, darling.
So, as part of my research, I’ve read almost all the interviews and articles of you out there. Most of them spotlight your work – sort of an expose into the work you’ve done as a photojournalist, your experiences along the way and a bit of your background. While those are great and an essential part of you I’d like us to go in just a slightly different direction. I’d like us to sort of delve into your mind, understand better the driving forces behind you and hence your work.
What drives Nelly to create? To document these stories that you so profoundly do?
It is born out of the desire to share untold and underrepresented stories. You go to the field, find something interesting that more people need to know about the North East and so you capture it. You know Fati Abubakar? The photojournalist behind ‘Bits of Borno’, I was telling her that we literally defined war reporting in Nigeria; we were more concerned about demystifying the claim that Boko Haram was a war crime when in fact it’s a bunch of hoodlums. We were fresh voices with no war journalism skills telling human angle stories
Was there a specific point in which you knew for certain that photojournalism was the right path for you?
I have always known journalism was for me. I studied journalism the American University of Nigeria (AUN), Yola. After which, I went to work in Port Harcourt shooting wedding photography but I was more drawn to ordinary people. I wanted to tell human angle stories of people and draw empathy towards what’s happening in the North East.
How do you balance your day job and your passion for photojournalism?
I have no days off; Monday – Sunday, I am working. I am married to my job for now, because I need to hone my skills and get it right, more like content creation and archival. As for my day job, I have gotten used to it, but photojournalism requires a lot of my attention.
Did you anticipate how much your work will take off when you first began?
I did not see it coming… honestly, I did not envisage this. You know how the Biafran war did not have proper documentation? I just did not want that to happen in Adamawa. I did not want stories of the insurgency misconstrued and I wanted evidence to back up future narratives. You know I am thinking of writing a book to document my journey thus far.
How did being nominated for The Future Awards impact your view of your work… yourself… your vision…
When I received the email informing me that I had been nominated, I was on the field in Gombe State. It had been a rough day; I was shooting at a location. Imagine after an 8-hour journey, we had gotten to a village (location) where we needed a translator and there was no translator. I got the email that same day and it gave me hope. To be classed under ‘Nigeria’s New Tribe’? I did not see it coming. I’m just a small girl from Calabar who moved to the North East to work – who knew me? But before anything, I am first and foremost a Nigerian. I was so glad to see my work gaining momentum across the country.
Did it make you respect your work more?
Yes, it did. It made me realize that people were watching me. It kind of put me as an influencer for war reporting, a case study of Boko Haram. People refer to my body of work when discussing Boko Haram in Nigeria. My work is quite extensive; I have covered Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe State. However, Gombe was indirectly affected because it borders Yobe and Maiduguri, the epicentres of this insurgency.
Looking out 3 or 5 years? What can we expect from you? What other stories do you hope to document?
My dream is to visit Libya, document the immigration crisis. You know there’s a lot of intra-African migration that is untold. For instance, I went to Tarkwa Bay community for a research and I found a lot of people from neighbouring African countries and even other states in Nigeria living on the Island. I seek for things people turn a blind eye to – it makes my work unique. I want to teach in the next 3 to 5 years. The knowledge gathered needs to be shared cohesively as most of us photojournalists in Nigeria had to learn on the job. For this year, a team of journalists and I are crowdfunding to host citizen journalism training. Against the backdrop of 2019, which will be intensive because of the forthcoming elections there will be a spiralling incidence of fake news and political parties cabal will use them to their advantage. It will be difficult for citizens to fact-check information. This training will educate, inform, and guide on citizen reporting with basic ethics of journalism.
What are 3 things that make you, you?
I’m a risk taker
Tell us one thing you’ve told yourself that keeps you going through your darkest hours?
If tuberculosis did not kill me in 2016, nothing else will kill me. If I did not die going through that pain for nine-months, nothing else will kill me. And I always remember that God will not give me what I cannot handle.
How has being a woman impacted your navigation as a photojournalist? What would you have been able to do if you weren’t a woman? What would you NOT have been able to do if you weren’t a woman?
Being a woman and doing this job is very difficult! Some days, on the field and I am battling through severe menstrual cramps, well but I just have to tuck my emotions in and focus on my subject. Another major challenge is the restriction into some certain royal kingdoms. I wanted to do a documentary in Calabar about the Ekpe Dynasty. I was refused from entering the shrine because of my gender. Sometimes religious barriers, I could be among a group of visitors, and the men are greeted with respect. Then it gets to my turn, I do not exist. As far as even directing the shoot, sometimes the male subjects prefer to communicate with my fixer who is a man. The discrimination is very discouraging. Is it lewd comments I endured at a runway show in Port Harcourt? Oh, I remembered when a church almost rejected our company’s coverage of their event because I was going to control the master camera. That reminds me, once a stranger at an event I was assigned to cover spanked my ass. Sigh. But you just have to keep pushing so the work. I do not believe any career was scripted to a particular gender. I should be judged by my professional work, not my gender.
If you meet a young lady who aspires to be a photojournalist, what’s the most important piece of advice you’ll give her?
If I should teach in life, the first question I throw around is, ‘Are you willing to die?’ See, there’s not much difference between you a photojournalist and a soldier. The only difference is that one person is holding a camera and another gun. For a writer, the pen is their power while a solider the gun is their defence. Photojournalism is not about money or fame; it is leaving behind a legacy. You may be lucky in your own path but always follow your heart. Love it; the depression days will come especially after seeing gory scenes. Be brave and tell yourself; my composition matters right now, and getting this story is very important. There are days you will think, “I may never come back alive.” Remember to trust God and your instincts.
What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a lady that came from Akwa Ibom State and has left behind great impact in the North East. I also want to add that tribal division should only exist in books, not in real life. I am looking at redefining photojournalism in Nigeria – leave a legacy. Right now, asides documenting these stories I also direct help to beneficiaries. Some friends and I are supporting the education of twelve Boko Haram orphans in Yola and Michika. We are also working on providing clean water to a community made of IDPs in Adamawa State.
Did your parents have any reservations about your photojournalism career?
My parents did not know what I was doing. They just knew I was working in Yola not until the story in The Guardian gave me away. Now they know.
I had read that you are “not afraid to die” Are you really not? Should we take that literally? Or is that just a figure of speech?
*Laughs* It is not a figure of speech.
I have come face to face with death before, so does not faze me. What is most important is, ‘Are you dying without leaving a footprint?’ Don’t be focused on death but on the impact left behind. When I was very sick in 2016 that was all that was on my mind: praying for a second chance to live life to the fullest.
A day in Nelly’s life… Tell us, what’s your typical day like?
Meditation/Pray/Listen to Steven Furtick‘s Messages
Read a book, articles, Twitter
Hang out with friends
What are the top 3 activities you indulge in to recharge?
Staying on Twitter for banter
Relaxing with a bottle of Orijin
Do you have a list of best-kept secrets you’ll like to recommend and why?
Travel around Nigeria – I realized most Nigerians do not know their history. I encourage people to go to other states. Go to Enugu, learn about the culture, how is it different from yours? How is it similar to yours? Immerse yourself in the society, eat local food. You’ll be surprised how afterwards you might find yourself having a casual conversation with some friends over a bottle of beer and have a lot to contribute.
Stop buying self-help books such as “Get Rich in 5 Days” our life experiences are totally unique and different. Because someone did this and it worked does not mean it will work for you – read it for ideas but do not copy through and through… Instead read about people who inspire you, their journey and their failures.
Buy African literature; discover this Dark Continent from the minds of various authors who have written tremendous books. The mainstream media and books have constantly pushed the superiority complex of its culture to us… This has really affected our visual perception and interpretation; we now subconsciously admit that white is good and black is bad. Before I digress, I am of the opinion that Nigeria’s history is intentionally buried for selfish political reasons because some our leaders who should be camping in jail are still alive. Those who should be jailed for corruption and war crimes are still dictating Nigeria from behind closed doors.
African youths should buy books from authors such as Tendai Huchu, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Akachi Ezeigbo – go online and find what is relatable.
What’s the best place for our readers to find and connect with you and your work online?
Thank you, Nelly. Thank you so much for taking out time to share with me!
You’re welcome, Uduak.
Now… If there’s one singular thing I had to pick from this chat, it will be a compulsion to step out and do the uncomfortable simply because it HAS to be done.
Tell me, what is your takeaway from this interview?