21 QUESTIONS| KUNMI OWOPETU, PHOTOGRAPHER & ART DIRECTOR.
Kunmi Owopetu is one of my favorite Nigerian photographers. His style is so ethereal and we both enjoy candid photography and portraiture. In this interview, Kunmi Owopetu shares his photography journey and future goals to intertwine art and pop culture. He also talks learning how to market himself and why you might have to work for free as a creative sometimes.
1.Tell us all you do for a living and how long you’ve been working at your own business.
I’m a photographer and on and off art director.
2. How did you get into photography and why did you decide to start taking pictures?
I wanted to be a farmer for a while, grew beans for a while, and later snails. Then my neighbour stole them. I was about ten, I think.I wanted to be a farmer for a while, grew beans for a while, and later snails. - Kunmi Owopetu. Click To Tweet
As for art I started out drawing, then got a computer and moved on to graphics and now photography. I’ve been thinking a lot about video lately. I think I’m more fascinated by people’s response to art than the medium it’s presented in.
It’s important to tell stories, it’s how we shape culture. I know its not “cool” to fully embrace pop culture; you’ve got to be arty, slightly bourgeois but I’m genuinely fascinated by the workings of pop culture. In my opinion, art flourishes best when it intertwines with pop culture, both in terms of influence and financial gain. Before I’m gone I hope to capture images that define the best of whatever waves of culture I live through. I haven’t even started that.
I was fooling around with Bola Famuyiwa’s camera (you should check him out, he’s my favorite wedding photographer. His art pieces too @potterclayphotography @artbyoye) when I shot these ants matching up the pole that held up the roof of my room. I thought then, “i can do this” and that was it.
3. At what point did you make the decision to start your business; what convinced you? How did you generate initial capital (if applicable)?
I didn’t start out a business man. I’m still a terrible business man. My mom bought me my first camera, I borrowed some money at some point. with little or no understanding of the market, fingers burnt, lesson learnt. All I had was passion and a misguided idea of what it meant to be a creative in these parts. There’s a big difference between a good portfolio and a relevant portfolio.I'm still a terrible business man. - Kunmi Owopetu Click To Tweet
4. How was the response from your SO/parents/family/friends? Especially if you decided to leave a paid job/not do what you studied in school.
My dad has a background in the Arts so it wasn’t too difficult. The questions were really about the profitability and sustainability of it: can you really make a living off it? Now, on certain days, when I look at my bank statement, I feel like “yeah we can do this”, other days i’m like “meh”!
5. How did you build a customer base and market yourself effectively?
It is an ongoing struggle really. In a saturated market, marketing oneself is a bit difficult. You have to look for ingenious ways to beat the system and I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeves.In a saturated market, marketing oneself is a bit difficult. Click To Tweet
6. What challenges did you face at the beginning, (it’d be great to mention challenges besides the usual electricity and internet hassles)? And how did you cope? What challenges do you still face currently?
I always hoped my art would speak for itself, because I’m not a great salesperson. But, I’m learning to be more aggressive. I doubt I’d ever really know how to be blatantly in peoples faces. Like I said before, the market is saturated. Value becomes a dubious proposition when that happens. You’ve got to add something extra and not look cheap while at it.I'm not a great salesperson. But, I'm learning to be more aggressive. Click To Tweet
7.What do you love most about being a professional photographer/entrepreneur? I know you’re currently doing a number of things: photography, working with Toast Creative Studios for example. How have things changed since you started? (workload, income, whether or not you currently work with a team, lifestyle etc)
The flexibility and the chance to do something different every time. (Toast creatives isn’t mine but I’m looking to put together a creative agency before the year runs out. Ultimately art direction is my next move.)
8. Creative businesses are becoming quite popular in recent times. It feels like a lot of people want to become entrepreneurs especially photographers. How do you deal with competition in your field? Is that something you struggle with?
Well, don’t compete. I mean, I haven’t outdone myself, so nobody is worth my attention.I haven't outdone myself, so nobody is worth my attention. Click To Tweet
9. What’s the biggest lesson starting a business taught you, especially working in photography?
Process and sustainability are the bedrock of a successful business.Process and sustainability are the bedrock of a successful business. Click To Tweet
10. There’s always a bit of a money vs passion debate; What do you think should be the motivation for starting a creative business? What was/is your motivation?
Passion should drive you. It’s what keeps you through those days when the financial gain isn’t there. But there has to be a valid economic value if there’s going to be a business at all. I get that there art for the sake of art, if that’s what you want to do, fine. That’s also a valid thing.there has to be a valid economic value if there's going to be a business at all. Click To Tweet
11. What would you say has been the worst time/experience so far in your journey as an entrepreneur?
There was a year I wasn’t making any money at all. Flat broke.
12. If you had to choose three qualities anyone starting a business needs to develop/have what would they be?
Tenacity, running the numbers, networking skills.
13. How do work through times when things are at a low? How do you get back up? How do you deal with criticism and bad feedback?
A loss ain’t a loss, it’s a lesson/appreciate the pain, it’s a blessing. Art being subjective, it’s difficult to accept criticism based on someones taste. While it’s important to tick off certain quality and technical requirements, having the sense to turn down work that doesn’t fit in your creative sphere will spare you a lot of headache. Accept criticism, it will grow you up. Know your craft, so people won’t have to tell you crap in the name of feedback.having the sense to turn down work that doesn't fit in your creative sphere will spare you a lot of headache. Click To Tweet
14. What sacrifices have you had to make to grow your business, if any?
I definitely think certain relationships have suffered. Also, I worked on certain projects mostly for free. The experience is priceless. The contacts are priceless.
15. What has been your proudest business achievement so far?
I’ve worked closely with a media brand for a few years and watching it finally take flight is priceless.
16. What do you wish you knew about starting and running a business in Nigeria before you started; what would you do differently? Do you think there’s enough support for small business owners in Nigeria? What is one thing you think would be helpful?
Understanding market fit is important. You can convince people that they deserve more but if they cant afford it, they can’t. I was busy trying to sell ideas and content that I felt the people around me needed but no one could pay for it and I got mad when I was offered so little.
Also understanding that creating something is only half of the job, getting it attention is something else.creating something is only half of the job, getting it attention is something else. Click To Tweet
17. How did you figure out how best to price your services? That’s something a lot of business owners struggle with.
Its a game of perceptions so you better spend your last dime building your brand. The market has no respect for skills.
18. How would you best describe your style of photography?
I’m a mood and story guy. My best shots happen when people aren’t paying too much attention. I love making portraits and I could do that for the rest of my life.I'm a mood and story guy. My best shots happen when people aren't paying so much attention. Click To Tweet
I used to think I hated weddings, I don’t. One of my favorite jobs this year was a wedding. The joy and energy around me was intoxicating. The images turned out better than I could have imagined. I think they fed me well too, that had a lot to do with it.
19. What are three things that are part of your morning ritual?
Plug my ears and get on Tidal. Turn on the the focus playlist and do some reading. A few months ago I began to notice a dreadful lack of thought and soul. I could still spot good stuff when I saw it but my mind wasn’t growing. I hadn’t read anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary or wasn’t five minutes short in years. Anyway, I get to work after that. Edits, emails… I get straight to work immediately if there’s a deadline. By the way i need to find a way to stay off Instagram. It’s definitely a time muncher.
20. What three people in your field or not inspire you the most?
Shawn Corey Carter. His music has inspired me for the longest time. Seeing someone evolve and stay relevant is inspiring.
Emmanuel Oyeleke remains the one of the few people in the industry that has grown as an artist and a business man. He is continuously growing and curious.
I’m currently studying Tim Walker’s work. It’s shockingly good.
21. What do you love most about yourself as a business owner i.e any personal qualities you feel have helped you excel? What advice would you give to anyone currently struggling to stay afloat/ just starting their business/contemplating starting a business in Nigeria?
Its key for me to deliver a certain quality of work, whatever it takes. I think its important to go the extra mile in business. That helps me satisfy clients.
A part of the pie is better than the whole pie you may never get. I mean partnerships, understanding that things are more readily accessible if everybody sees that there’s something to be gained by working together. Also, don’t let people put their own fears on you. If you believe something can be done, find a way to do it.don't let people put their own fears on you. If you believe something can be done, find a way to do it. Click To Tweet
Kunmi Owopetu is a Nigerian photographer and occasional art director. He is also the Strategy Lead at Toast Creative Studios, Nigeria.
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