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How photography lifted 10 young Niger Delta women

Seven young women from the Niger Delta were, in Lagos, on Saturday to exhibit photographs they had taken under the Street Dreams Project–a Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) initiative to empower them and draw attention to environmental issues. Initiator of the project, Jennifer Uchendu and some of the girls shared their experiences with KOFOWOROL

It all began with Maria Okese needing a camera.  The 26-year-old hearing-impaired woman had been practicing photography for about six years before she met Jennifer Uchendu, founder of Susty Vibes, at an event in Port Harcourt last year.

Jennifer was there to speak at a conference on youth development as a result of her work for Susty Vibes, the social enterprise she founded in 2016 to promote action on the 17 United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which included educating young people about the goals, promoting gender equality, a cleaner environment and seeking partnerships to achieve the goals.

Jennifer said she was attracted to Maria when she saw her taking pictures at the event and wanted to help her get a camera to boost her passion for photography.

“I was in Port Harcourt to speak at a conference when I met Maria.  She was taking photographs at the event. I asked if she was a photographer and they told me she was an enthusiast but did not have a camera. I was committed to getting a camera for her.  So, I began a crowd-funding project.  I began telling people to solicit and get her a camera,” Uchendu said.

The programme that followed, the Street Dreams Project, did more than provide Maria with a camera.  It benefited nine other young women who, together with Maria, learnt about photography, and got to take photographs of the environment that are now on sale.

“An organisation, Lensational, picked up the project and decided to provide Okese and nine other girls with cameras. So, we decided to have training for the girls. We put out a call for young people in Port Harcourt to apply and worked with Global Shapers and Partnership in Niger Delta Foundation.  We did the selection based on their previous history with photography and their passion for it.

Seven of the girls were in Lagos on Saturday for an exhibition tagged “Arts for SDGs” that Susty Vibes organised in partnership with the African Artists’ Foundation, Victoria Island.

The photographs on display were focused on women and environmental issues in the Niger Delta. Each photograph sold for N15, 000 and Uchendu said the money would go to the girls for keeps.

After the exhibition, Uchendu said Susty Vibes would continue to market the unsold photographs to firms that “do things around the environment.”

Two out of three of Maria’s works were sold at the exhibition. Maria is very happy that the programme gave her the needed exposure to grow in her career despite her disability.
In a chat with Niger Delta Report, she said she met Uchendu while working with Lensational.

“I started photography after my secondary school education. I did it for four years before I worked with KIR and Lensational for two years. I was working with Lensational when I learnt of this programme.
“I have learnt a lot from this project. I am happy that the platform is giving me better opportunities to get established,” she said.

The 22-year-old Victoria Akeere is another person grateful about the value which Street to Dreams Project has brought to her life.

She has been into photography since 17 after her secondary school education.  A combination of health (mastoiditis-disease of the ear bone) and financial challenges robbed her of the opportunity to continue her education as she had to work to survive.

“A combination of my health and finances are the reasons I am not in school. It (mastoiditis) started since childhood.  I visited government hospital in my state; I tried to get drugs and was told it is either I undergo surgery which the chance of survival is 50-50 or get a hearing aid which cost about N300,000, which I could not afford.

However, with the Street Dreams Project, Victoria’s ambition to become a photojournalist may be fulfilled.
She said the project had nurtured her interest in documentary photography given all that she has gone through in her young life.  She now likes taking photographs that tell people’s stories and celebrate their efforts.

She said: “I have been into photography since 17.  When I finished my secondary education, I was looking for what to do. So, I ventured into photography. I worked with two photo studios in Port Harcourt; I focused on studio photography, kids, maternity photography. Now, I have ventured into documentary photography. I love traveling and I needed something that would take me out.  I also want to be a photojournalist.

“I saw this project as an opportunity to tell stories about the environment aside other parts of photography.  I learnt how to take pictures on the phone, edit them and get good composition. I am able to tell stories about the street. I have an Instagram page where I post my photographs.  At first, I took all kinds of photographs.

But at a point, I had to ask myself what interests me and I discovered I am attracted to stories about people, more of their struggles and hustles.

“So, on my Instagram page, I have pictures of people who are on the street-inspiring stories. I was once hawking on the streets. I have sold periwinkles, moimoi (bean cake) sugarcane when I was in school.

“After my secondary school education, I still did some odd jobs before I got into photography.  And I still do. I have done cleaner jobs, fabrication (welding). Right now, I am thinking of venturing into tailoring and shoemaking. That was the attraction to my picture storytelling.”

Violet Maxwell-Benjamin, a 200-level student in the Department of Applied and Industrial Chemistry at the University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT) said participating in the Street Dreams Project enabled her to develop skills in a field that had always fascinated her.

“I was doing a volunteer work in Port Harcourt and my boss then wanted me to take pictures of an event. I didn’t have a camera then so I used my phone.  He saw the flyer online and asked me to apply.
“The training was for three days.  But it was really intensive. They brought in tons of photographers, even
President Buhari’s photographer, Bayo Omoboriowo, Bernard Kalu.  It was really interesting. They did a refreshers’ course this year too,” she said.

She captured the level of environmental degradation in her environment in some of her photographs, particularly one that showed a refuse dumpsite at the edge of a water body – with boats and ships on it.
She seeks to educate people about the damage they are doing to the environment through their activities.

The Applied and Industrial Chemistry student said: “The whole thing about the environment is how people are living every day.  They don’t know that this is actually affecting them; they are not mindful of their environment and the damage they are causing to it. Like the picture of my backyard, the people living there have shacks and they even dump out and they don’t know it is harmful to them.

“One day you hear snake bit a child; another day you hear of malaria. But this is just at your backyard.  You guys dump refuse; you don’t go to dump them where they are supposed to be dumped.  People need to be educated about all these things. Most people don’t know that plastic takes about 100 years to decompose. It is sad.

“When I was going to take that picture, the boys involved in bunkering were pushing their trucks. I told them ‘bros no vex, I know say this na your hustle, but you know say this thing no too good for the environment. We dey live for here, when you finish you go comot’.

“They said they try to check that their barrels were not leaking but they just had to survive because ‘that is the kind of economy we find ourselves in.’ And they believe ‘last government go clean am (eventually, the government would clean the oil spill).’”

Uchendu is glad that the Street Dreams Project was successful and hopes to empower more girls in future but lacks funds to do so.

The 26-year-old Biochemistry graduate of Covenant University said: “I feel very happy about a project this novel and the fact that the girls are able to receive income through photography skills shows that we are doing a lot to promote SDG Five in Nigeria.

“We want to train more girls in the Niger Delta. We are applying for grants to train more,” she said.

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