Gideon N Gabriel, mostly known as Blaq Sleek, is a portrait photographer from Zaria, Nigeria. His photos are characterised by dreamy, intimate feelings. He envisions a photography practice that seeks to uplift his muses and make them see the beauty within. In this chat with The Moveee, Gideon discusses getting into photography as a means to make ends meet, the challenges of commercial photography and the role of a photographer in mental health intervention efforts.
HANEEFAH ABDULRAHMAN: What does it feel like to be a Black person?
BLAQ SLEEK: Black is powerful and there’s so much about being Black. I attended this school when I was very much younger, where my friends would laugh at me for being very black. They will make jest of me every time especially in class when the teacher is teaching. I am just a kid who is darker than they are but they made me feel like being darker was a bad thing. But then again, I had so many admirers who told me, “Your black is shiny” or “Blaq, you look so fine and fresh.” Over the years, I have learned to appreciate myself, and my beauty. Looking at myself in the mirror, I would say, “You’re fine, you’re handsome.” So, to me, Black is beautiful, awesome and powerful.
It’s amazing that such discrimination against a darker shade of black would happen in a Black nation like Nigeria. Have you ever imagined what it would be like living in a country like the USA where there are actual non-coloured people of other races?
Growing up, we didn’t really take things seriously. We just wanted to play and consequently, we make jokes at the expense of another. I won’t really say that it is discrimination. Although that experience almost affected me, however, it made me stronger. Meanwhile, I don’t really imagine myself in the USA on such terms. I see myself going to the USA to do greater things and explore more meaningful things. I would rather not bother myself with thoughts about what it will be like to be Black in the USA.
Do you think this particular experience you had as a kid has had any effect on your work as a photographer? I ask this because your photography seems to mostly portray the Black beauty in people.
No. The discrimination I faced while I was much younger doesn’t necessarily reflect in my pictures. Photography is art. It is literally everything. I enjoy taking pictures of people, thinking out the best in them and making them believe in themselves—that they are beautiful. There are a lot of people who do not believe in themselves like they do not believe that they are beautiful and handsome. This stems from a self-esteem problem. That’s where we, as photographers, come in and we take pictures of them and make them feel so special—as they ought to feel. My goal as a photographer is to make them know that they don’t need external validation of their beauty, we reveal the hidden reality that they’ve been oblivious to all the while.
I joined the industry about four years ago as an apprentice. I wasn’t schooling at the time, so instead of staying at home doing nothing, I decided that I wanted to go learn a craft.
I was a sportsperson at the time. I love sports a lot. I used to play American football when I was in secondary school. But when photography came, I quickly developed a passion for it and I quickly improved. I have never stopped growing since then.
As a commercial photographer, what kind of responses do you get from client muses after you present their pictures to them?
Do you want to hear the positive side or the negative side?
I want to hear both sides.
Okay, I’m going to talk about the negative side first. We have different kinds of clients. There are clients that are happy when they look fine. There are clients who are never satisfied no matter what you do—it’s always never good enough. I’ve come in contact with so many personalities, and different kinds of people. When you shoot some clients, they will have something to complain about, then you have to explain to them that this is the mood of the picture because each picture has its mood and what you’re trying to portray. Even after attempts of explaining to these people, some will still go-ahead to look for a reason to cause a scene. I have learned to keep calm around such clients and deal with them with a controlled demeanour. Some other clients will tell me, “Your editing is too much,” and no matter how much I try to inform them about evolving techniques and new styles in photography, they fail to understand. I usually end up calming them down by assuring them I will revert to and use the olden days’ style of editing images. This happens mostly with older people who are used to the olden days’ style of photography.
You need to understand your clients first. The irony is that sometimes you understand them and sometimes, ‘omo’ (Laughs).
Then I have people who just looking at the shot from the camera screen, they scream in excitement. They are not problematic. They just want to see their images coming out so beautiful, feeling empowered.
Ultimately, getting wonderful compliments about your work from a client makes you feel satisfied. It makes you feel like yeah, I have delivered.
I understand that you do different kinds of photography. Which is your favourite type of photography, and why?
There are many types of photography. We have food photography, wildlife, nature, wedding, and portraits. I enjoy portrait photography more. If you put a wedding photographer in the portrait field right now, he won’t really perform. But if you put a portrait photographer in a wedding, he will shoot well.
Why do you enjoy portraits? What is its significance?
I love portrait photography because it utilizes personality. Capturing essence. And with proper lighting, you can create beautiful images. Lighting, backdrops, and prop. Portrait photography is amazing. I love the lighting, the background, and the manipulation. I just love portrait photography. Sometimes we like things even when we don’t even have reasons for liking them, we just like them.
So, what makes your portraiture different and unique?
As a photographer, your ideology matters. Let me give you the scenario: If you put together four photographers and one model, there is no way that the shots each photographer will take will be the same, because of their ideology. Their ideologies are different. So your ideology matters.
What ingredients—like the kinds of photographic tools, editing tools, and so on—do you add to make it unique and different?
I use Photoshop for all my editing tasks. That’s about it.
Are you satisfied with your current level as a photographer and what are you excited about in the future?
I cannot be satisfied with where I am right now, because there is so much to do. I’m still learning because of what I see other photographers doing. So, I am not satisfied. I’m not satisfied at all. We have this saying that in photographs you cannot know too much and when you don’t know you don’t say know. Learning never ends.
What is the best thing photography has done for you? And do you think you will leave photography at gunpoint?
Now, that’s a difficult question you asked. At a gunpoint? I love my life o, where there is life there is hope, so… Photography has done so much. Photography actually made me stand where I could not stand before. It made me bolder, it made me stronger, wiser, and sharper. Especially in the midst of so many photographers. Photography has brought me closer to people who I would not have met otherwise. Older, more experienced people have become friends. So photography has done a lot.
Finally, what words of encouragement do you have for people out there?
What I have to say is “WAKANDA” stay real, stay focused. Do what you love and keep moving forward.