Abi Yeni Rotimi is recognized internationally as one of the best African wedding photographers. He photographs a maximum of 35 exclusive wedding adventures a year worldwide. He believes photography is 90 per cent psychology and the remaining 10 per cent technical work. He said he began his current career by mistake.
Rotimi lives in London but travels the world over with his Canon 5D Mark I and II cameras capturing one of the happiest moments of couple’s life – weddings. He was in Ghana recently and I caught up with him at the La Paradise Inn in Accra, Ghana, for my news firm Africanews.com and he talked about his inspiration, passion and future plans.
AfricaNews: Briefly tell us about yourself?
Abi Yeni Rotimi: I am a social documentary and wedding photojournalist. I was born and raised in the United Kingdom but I have ancestry primarily in Nigeria and Ghana. As far as I am concerned the sky is the limit.
AfricaNews: What do you read?
Rotimi: When I was growing up I was very inquisitive. I enjoyed reading encyclopedia, history books and autobiographies. It has expanded my horizon now and gave me vision and ideas. They have enriched my photography career a lot.
AfricaNews: What about blogs and websites?
Rotimi: I try my best to stay away from blogs. I want to keep my work as authentic as possible that is why I try to get inspiration outside of photography. Sometimes during my wedding projects I picture a movie scene that suits the occasion. Two films that have really impacted on my photography are Steven King’s Shawshank Redemption and Titanic. I have watched those movies more than 30 times without getting bored and any time I watch them I get something different. It’s lazy to copy other people’s work from blogs and unfair that is why I stay away from blogs and websites.
AfricaNews: But we learn from other people.
Rotimi: Absolutely, we do learn from other people but photography is 90 per cent psychology and the remaining 10 per cent is the actual capturing of the image. So you really need to learn to read people, understand people and know what they want. I don’t think people would ever criticize me of copying because I try not to duplicate my own work. Anytime I pick up a camera it becomes a challenge because I want to do what I have done before differently. Of course, I might be influenced by other photographers from time to time but I try and go deep within myself to tell a story in the same location differently.
AfricaNews: Do you have a leisure time with all these travels here and there?
Rotimi: Indeed I have travelled quite a lot but I do have a leisure time. I’m learning to put the camera down. I’m learning to observe and not necessarily having to hold a camera. With that I have discovered some of my hobbies like cooking and reading.
AfricaNews: Who’s the greatest love of your time?
Rotimi: God. Sometimes in life when you start in a journey you can’t envision that direction it is going to take you. I started photography by mistake. This is how it all began; a friend of mine had a wedding but he couldn’t cover it and asked me to sit in for him. By then I was an editorial photographer. I didn’t want to but upon lengthy argument and persuasion I gave in. The couple were blown away and even I was blown away after looking at the final result. So that was how the interest grew up to this stage. And the inspiration came from a higher power – God. I have taken photography very seriously because weddings are one of the most important moments of people’s life. My pastor said there are three very important days in one’s life – the day you were born, the day you get married and the day you’ll die. So I can’t mess up with that stage in a client’s life who have entrusted that in me to capture that moment. I give 200 per cent to it.
AfricaNews: What inspired you to go further in photography?
Rotimi: There are certain things that people say to you that gives you encouragement. One of the reasons why I delved into wedding photography was that at the very initial stages there was a lot of influential Ghanaians that gave me the inspiration to keep my head up. My first commercial work was for Mr Kwaku and Stella Amponsah and up to now I remember what the man told me – ‘I trust your work and I trust you and I trust that you can deliver.’ It was so powerful to me especially when he gave me the money upfront. So in life people think and believe in you and are willing to invest in that. So for me I feel society has trusted in me and I have to give back to them especially Ghana.
AfricaNews: Where would you have ended up if you had not taken up this job?
Rotimi: I think one way or the other I would have eventually come down this road. Because the type of photography that appeal to my nature is very organic. I actually started as a print maker then a portrait studio photographer. I did studied mathematics and physics at the university but I knew I wasn’t going to do nothing with it upon completion. In future I might decide to go back to that but at the moment I am really enjoying photography. I like shooting things that are deemed chaotic like weddings because you can never pre-plan it.
AfricaNews: But political rallies are more chaotic than weddings?
Rotimi: I have always told photographers who come to me for ideas that try and put the camera down first and learn about things that appeal to you first. It makes it easy to do photography. Politics or current affairs do not hold my attention so I don’t go there. With politics you can always get it wrong and do it all over again at different rallies but with weddings you just have a limited time, one day and one chance to get it right for two people from different walks of life. I might decide in the future to just travel around Africa and document different cultures and tribes. I am thinking about it at the moment.
AfricaNews: If I gave you ten times what you earn now to go into political photography would you dare?
Rotimi: I have always advised photographers not to think money first but do it for the joy that the profession brings. I don’t think I would ever do photography just for the sake of money. It is a discipline and an art that requires respect and must be treated delicately.
AfricaNews: How many weddings do you take in a year?
Rotimi: I started doing a lot of weddings in a year but at the moment I more or less vet contracts that come my way. I want to focus more on quality than quantity so in terms of number wise in a year I average about 30.
AfricaNews: What is your favourite camera?
Rotimi: I have moved into digital photography now but my favourite is still film. I used to use Kodak among others. I have got Canon 5D Mark I and II among others.
AfricaNews: What is the most difficult aspect of wedding photography?
Rotimi: Crowd control especially in our African setting. As a wedding photographer you have to learn how to manage people because at the end of the day they are important to the couple while you are just a photographer hired just for the day. You have to find a balance between capturing the day and managing the people. You have to be friendly.
AfricaNews: Black and White and colour photographs what attracts you?
Rotimi: If I could have my way, personally I would issue black and white. Apart from the contrast and the colours, black and white have a bit more character. Colour at times can be a bit disruptive although at times you can have vibrant varieties especially when you take traditional African weddings. It’s a difficult topic though.
AfricaNews: How many photographs do you take during weddings and how many do you present?
Rotimi: That’s interesting and a debate going on in the industry. However, I try not to get trigger happy. It is about how you can tell the story and anticipate the moment. That is why I said photography is about 90 per cent psychology – learning about the people – and the remaining 10 per cent is having the technical know-how to respond to the people’s request. So what happens on a particular day determines the amount of photographs I shoot. I try my best to end up with what I need.
AfricaNews: Most memorable assignment?
Rotimi: It was a double wedding I covered in 2008. I had to rethink how I shoot because I was shooting for two different brides on the same day with one camera and one set of eyes. I was actually on my feet and I enjoy such challenges. It pushes one beyond what you are used to. One thing about photography is that you should never be complacent but always willing to learn.
AfricaNews: Whose wedding are you dying to photograph?
Rotimi: That’s a tough one. I don’t have anyone in particular. But I think it would be a challenge to shoot a top photographer’s wedding.
AfricaNews: Where are you yearning to be for a wedding assignment?
Rotimi: The only place I haven’t done so far is South America. I have a potential wedding next year  in Cuba. I would also love to do a wedding in Mexico.
AfricaNews: Who would you love to take your wedding photographs?
Rotimi: All my friends are actually photographers so we have come to the conclusion that on our wedding we are going to hire someone who doesn’t know that we are photographers to shoot our weddings. All my Best Men are going to be photographers too.
AfricaNews: What time frame should we consider before someone books you for a wedding?
Rotimi: We are looking at six months to a year.
AfricaNews: Where do you see the industry in the next five years?
Rotimi: Well the transition between film and digital in Africa especially in places like Ghana, Nigeria, Gambia and Togo hasn’t been that smooth. You still see photographers using traditional film cameras. Some of them are creative but you can’t tell whether it is due to lack of appreciation for the profession or affordability. I’m trying to aspire photographers I am training to believe that they can support their family with the profession but not until you place value in it. It is wrong to see a photographer having a glass of wine in one hand and the camera in the other. It is not professional. They need to dress up properly. When photographers learn to appreciate what they are doing then people would invest in them. Nevertheless, we are going to see some fantastic photographers in Africa in the next five years judging from the kind of photos I have been seeing with the limited resources.
AfricaNews: What do you hope to achieve in the next 5-10 years?
Rotimi: I would probably get into film as a script writer. That does not mean I would stop photography but I’ll tone down.
AfricaNews: Role models
Rotimi: At the early stage of my career some photographers in the persons of Bambi Cantrell, Man Ray, Herb Ritz, Danny DA Costa and Thabo Jaiyesimi inspired me a lot.
AfricaNews: Advise to upcoming photographers
Rotimi: First, Be yourself because people buy into you first before your photography. No matter how great your photography is if you are a nasty person people would not respect you. Secondly, learn to take pictures without a camera because it is just an extension of your eyes. The camera doesn’t take the pictures you do. If you learn about what appeals to your nature it helps you to know the kind of photography that would interest you. It is good to specialize in a key area and perfect it.
See more of Abi’s photos here