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Opinion / Editorial

Nigeria Camera Men As Weapon of Mass Obstruction -By Wole Soyinka

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It is time to call a spade a spade or, in this instance, name the Nigerian media camera a weapon of mass obstruction. What used to be mere occasional infraction, soon corrected, is fast becoming a Bill of Rights – for a minuscule sector of the professional community. We are galloping towards an order of social fascism of which – it must also be stressed – that same society is the prime facilitator of its doom. There are times when tolerance becomes acceptance, then tacit and even overt encouragement. Otherwise, why does it take so long to make the media photographer understand that he or she has no fundamental viewing right that overrides those of the lowest member of any gathering, anywhere and under any circumstance. Let us not beat around the bush – mobsters have taken over community, armed with nothing more lethal than the camera and a monstrous will to capture and monopolise space that belongs to the totality. The media camera has become a pest, an aggressive voyeur. Its wielders imagine that they own the world and its contents, that they have a divinely endowed right over the rights of all others, be they paying audience, invited guests, families, participating others, and indeed – most insolent of all – even the event initiators and rightful proprietors.

They snarl, they hiss, they deliver what they consider looks of withering contempt when they are politely requested to move a little to this or that side, just so that the rest of inferior humanity can share in the event. When successfully dislodged, they merely turn recurring decimal. They shove their variegated bottoms right against the faces of others in some warped notion that that this is what the rest of humanity has gathered to see – their backsides – rather than the unfolding event. Never content to melt into the rest of the gathering, they preen themselves at ridiculous angles, stroll up and down sizing up guests like predators looking for their next meal, then – pounce! But do they depart, having obtained their scoop? Do they observe the camera courtesy norm of – Shoot and scoot? Not they! They pause, linger, block audience view while they look inside their lens as if to ensure that whatever prey has been captured within the ‘magic box’ has not escaped, survey the rest of the gathering like zoo keepers presiding over caged mammals, even when those mammals are virtually frothing at the mouth in frustration, then resume the same process with the uttermost condescension. To summarise: today’s media cameraman or woman, genus Nigerianensis, believes that the sun shines through their buttocks, and that their mission is to shed light on the rest of humanity from that lower orifice.

On Saturday, June 11, 2016, I attended one of the most nauseating of such unsolicited, substitute presentations. The event was the installation of the new Iyalode of Sagamu, successor to the late illustrious Iyalode, Madame Dideolu Awolowo. I had re-organised my calendar months ahead to ensure that I could share the occasion. So, I am certain, had hundreds from all walks of life, then converged on that historic city. The day was ruined, the climactic moment stolidly obscured by the ungovernable, egotistical and abusive performance of media cameramen. They desecrated – I repeat – desecrated that event with their thuggish performance, one that saw off one hapless interventionist after another. The sacral moment was degraded. None of the audience was able to share in that solemn heart of the investiture, when the sacred akoko leaves are placed on the head of the celebrant. Not one of the friends, family, relations, colleagues and circle whom Chief Mrs. Folasade Ogunbiyi had invited was able to witness the ceremony for which a sizable number had even traveled across the Atlantic. Is that just? Equitable? Civilised? Or simply plain rude, unfeeling and insensitive? One half of the semi-circle of Chiefs and royal retinue seated on the dais itself were totally blocked from sight – what with the backsides of the photographers pressed against their faces! These disrespectful, uncouth cameramen clambered over one another, expanding their opaque zone until any remaining viewing apertures were lost in a general congealment. I counted them – perhaps no more than fifteen – but then they were joined by a handful of typical Nigerian copycat delinquents wielding their pathetic little phone cameras – i-pod, i-pad, i-do-as-i-please, and other ego feeding contraptions. After all, they were also armed with a camera, so they had a right to mount the royal dais and contest media thuggery with citizen thuggery.

Were we witnessing a solemn but joyous occasion, I asked myself, or a rugby scrum in the wilds of Australia? In vain did the Master of Ceremonies, one chief after another, relations and even frustrated ‘viewers’ approach to plead with them to ‘break it up’. In desperation, I even sent the granddaughter of the celebrant to them, hoping that the sight of a child would shame them, make them understand that they were setting a vile example for children, that they, in their homes would not tolerate such unruly conduct from their own children, wards, or home staff. It made no difference, They nearly trampled my poor emissary beneath their flailing legs. She threw up her hands in despair and I quickly recalled her to safety.

My rights were violated that Saturday. I swear it will not be repeated, not at any event at which my presence is an undertaking of my own free will! There will be citizen action, and If all fails, the two legs that brought me there know how to find their way out. Unlike what appears to be the condition of today’s average Nigerian public, I am no masochist, cannot tolerate cheats – even of space attribution – and insist on my fundamental viewing rights.

What exactly is the problem with these aggressors? Is this an evolving shape of status consciousness, or could it be that they are simply too arthritic to kneel or stoop so others can see over their heads – that is, if they are incapable of finding other effective but unobtrusive positions. Are these closet sadists who delight in frustrating their fellow humanity? Is it a kind of professional arrogance conferred by some mystic Super-Lens up in the skies? The older hands, who should know better, are the most culpable. If they set the right example, their rookies will learn early that the camera is not supreme – and so will the thoughtless public eager riders of this runaway bandwagon, totally out of control. The camera is supposed to augment, not supplant. “Shoot and Scoot” – that is how their colleagues operate in other lands – Sit. Kneel. Stoop. Shoot and Scoot! That is the professional media camera culture in most parts of the world, Everything else is a travesty. There is something known as manners, and basic to any code of manners is simply: consideration for others! Nigerian media camera believe that they are above manners. Maybe they’ve never heard the word. Well, it is time that their faces are rubbed in that word, and its opposite – boorishness! These photographers must go back to school and learn the basics of their trade before angry audiences react as befits their basic entitlement as paying audiences or guests. The trend is escalating. It is time to terminate the long, demeaning posture of supine toleration.

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There was apparently worse to follow the marred investiture. After the traditional rites, a Thanksgiving service followed. I did not attend. The outraged report was that the media camera once again behaved true to form. In church, not only did they tramp up and down the aisles and invade the nave and altar space, they proceeded to hawk their pictures right within the church. Who was guiltier – traders or clientele? Both are indecently culpable. Apparently – thank goodness – not all remained complaisant. Unable to endure it any longer, one lady stood up, went after the malefactors, stuck her fingers in their shirt-collars and dragged them out one after the other. That lady should be canonised for humanist action against the demonism of camera fiends. Isn’t there an exhortation somewhere in the bible that reads: “Go and do thou likewise”?

Photography, an art form with a long pedigree of innovations in technique and expertise, is being turned into an affliction, an ‘anything- goes’ occupation that nonchalantly transgresses the borders of equity. To repeat what has already been noted, the public itself is to blame, what with its lethargic shrugging of the shoulder, its grumbling formula of ‘what can one do?’ and – in Fela’s phrasing – a “shuffering and shmiling” disposition in the face of aggression. So here, in conclusion, is what qualifies for perhaps the most overpowering experience of camera obscenity I have ever undergone.

It took place in the United States, about three years ago, where I had presented myself, all spruced up, to fulfill a granddaughter’ wish that I attend her wedding. Right from the beginning, I smelt trouble. It was impossible to miss who was the self-designated star of the day. I endured the exhibitionist, intrusive antics of the camera festooned young woman who managed to be everywhere at once, turning herself into THE EVENT, at the expense of every other member of that gathering. She was probably armed with only three or four cameras, but she wore them like ponderous necklaces, and they were manipulated like a battery of NASA telescopic lenses beamed at the solar system. Each camera appeared loaded, not with digital technology, but with gamma rays, ready to subdue and convert any image into her own self-augmentation, or perhaps detect and pulverise any dissenting frown or gesture. Short and stocky, a sigidi presence in stolidity, she ensured that her presence dominated the environment in inverse proportion to her height and girth.

Her crowning performance took place at the core moment – the equivalent of the akoko ritual. Having subdued the main body of worshippers, it was time to take on the altar itself. I watched her – disbelievingly – as she built up towards the assault, timed to hoist the victory flag at the climactic moment. She had already demolished the peripheries of the church’s own “territorial imperative” in masterful strides, obliterated those invisible parameters which you and I, believers or non-believers alike, respect as off-limits for the laity. She positioned herself for the final assault, awaited the moment when bride and bridegroom pledged their troth by placing both rings on the bible for blessing before the exchange of rings. Then, wait for this – and may I interject here that, in my theology, Bible leaves or akoko leaves, all are mere vehicles of progression along spiritual invocation, and that trampling on either is an act of desecration. Not being Boko Haram or any of that demonic throng however, we shall leave the deities to fight their own battles and concentrate on ours – which is the right to view without profane obtrusiveness. However, let us get back to the wedding…

Assault camera leading, Ms. Sigidi thrust herself between bride and bridegroom, edging aside one of the two officiating priests to make room for herself. I gasped, but thought to myself, now it’s going to happen. That priest is going to shut that heavy tome, turn it into a corrective rod, and biff her in the midriff. Or simply switch his lines to the Book of Imprecations but – no – this was, after all, a camera on divinely appointed visitation – and so, that insipid man of God meekly side-stepped to allow her more room! Elated at this cheaply bought, victim assisted victory, she pointed her metallic snout downwards, and dived hungrily to ingest the bible leaves, took several shots – and then, swaggered away – back to her reconnaissance tour of the altar zone. From there she took her time to survey the congregation before switching to her lordly repertory of slow, self-adoration strides to bestow her lens benediction on the next selected target.

I am no Christian, but I did undergo my regulation abuse of religious conscription, so I still recall what we learnt was the shortest, yet the most trenchant verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept”. That day, it was I who wept for Jesus!

Afterwards, between still gritted teeth of superhuman restraint, I said to my daughter – I now believe in the devil, and today it came in the shape of a social photographer. If that was not a fiend from hell, then she is an ambassador plenipotentiary of that domain. I came to see my granddaughter’s wedding but who was the officiating priest? That Afro-American she-devil!

Which American? She corrected. She’s Nigerian.

Wole Soyinka is the first Black Nobel Laureate in Literature

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