Interview by Olisa Tasie-Amadi Jr.
Random Photo Journal, created by Patrick Arinzechukwu, is a free-form creative label that merges the worlds of literature and photojournalism to study the social ecology of neighbourhoods and living conditions of all parts of Africa. From cultural traditions to nightlife, from street chronicles to the skate scene, Patrick has motioned towards capturing moments from all the spaces he finds himself in a raw, unedited, and mundane manner. “At the end of the day, when I take that photo, whether you’re rich or poor, man or woman, whatever it may be, everyone is brought down to the same level of being human.” His philosophy of human documentation extends far beyond its classical conception to simply observe and reflect — using his work as an opportunity to merge societal groups and nurture a sense of transcendent unity between the subjects he captures, divergent as they might be in entirety.
The day had just started for Patrick, and our conversation begins with him waving off to someone on his phone over Facetime, as he puts out a cigarette on the tabletop to the left of him. For this interview, we discuss philosophies on art and photography, studying ecological surroundings, moving away from home at an early age, and so much more.
What would you consider yourself? In regards to who you are or your work?
Patrick: [laughs] That’s gonna be hard, like what am I exactly? I’m a creator. I don’t like to get bored, so I’m always trying to do something new, especially once I finish a project and I see that it’s flying, I start looking for the next thing. Basically, I would consider myself a writer, a photojournalist, and sort of in-between that exist as someone who’s constantly finding ideas. I enjoy studying the social ecology of neighbourhoods, living conditions, culture, nightlife, and all the spaces I can find myself in.
Talk me through your childhood, and in addition, any key moments that you feel sparked your relationship with writing and photo documentation?
Patrick: Grew up in Nigeria. I was born in FESTAC. Moved to Ogun State to study, and after that, came back to Lagos to finish studying, then I moved to Accra when I was 14. Answering the second part, that would easily, off the top, be my mum. She worked in immigration, so always had a lot of numbers, but with the phone she had, she couldn’t really save a lot of them. She used to memorize all of them, before getting an actual journal, and one day I just see her pouring out all these numbers into it. She also had a lot of analogue and VHS cameras at the time and was constantly photographing events and most family motives. I also used to talk to her a lot, so all my first few short stories were most of her experiences. I think the reason was, I tried to write about myself and all, but I sort of realized I hadn’t really lived through much to write about.
Speaking on Random Photo Journal — Is there a singular moment that led to its creation?
Patrick: Yeah actually. I was in Accra at the time, and I had left school to interview this guy called Afrogallonism, and he had an assistant called Asanti Immigrant. He travels to a lot of different places and makes pictures at each one, and they’re always amazing ...but the difference is that that’s his personal page, and then you see his story, and it’s him just dancing and having fun, and then you realize there’s nothing official about the whole concept. At the time too, I wasn’t too confident about my images, enough to share them. The reason I started posting was that someone DMed me once about buying an image but it was a repost, so I went through this thought phase of trying to avoid copyright issues, and decided to just start posting my own images.
Would you consider Random Photo Journal a magazine? A journal [from the name itself]? An ongoing documentary? Or something totally different?
Patrick: I think it’s a chronicle. Yeah, that’s what I’d call it. I think so because I could do an issue about the whole four years of my time in Ghana ...for example the skateboarders from when they started till now because I’ve got photos from when it was just five guys, and now it’s a whole crowd. I think it could also fly as a magazine but I don’t know. I’m trying to capture it all: bikes, buses, taxi drivers, muddy roads, dusty markets, pickpockets, drug dealers, anything and everything, but I’ve decided not to post locations of where the images are taken so people can understand that everyone being captured are all the same. At the end of the day, when I take that photo, whether you’re rich or poor, man or woman, whatever it may be, everyone is brought down to the same level of being human.
That’s amazing and it sort of leads into my next question of relevance. You’re capturing an era’s narrative, the culture, the people, and all aspects of their lived experiences, and I’m curious, what value or importance do you think Random Photo Journal gives or holds within its ecosystem?
Patrick: It holds the fact that in 2018, I was telling my friends that all the African kids in diaspora are gonna come back, and it was gonna happen one after the other. And way before we got to Year of The Return in Ghana, I was already seeing little signs of it happening outside of that. And I made the decision that I had to be there to photograph them when it happened. I was there when Odunsi came back, same with Adesuwa, same with Phillip Raheem, Little Simz and all the rest. Wherever they are, I know that randomly I will be there to document it. So I think me, and RPJ, I’m gonna be that photographer that took all the archive-worthy or relevant-to-the history photos. I want it to get to the point where people need Patrick just to be in the room somewhere taking pictures.
“Each photo of mine is taken in this three-second window, because humans are always acting, and there’s always this slight moment where their true self becomes visible, and that’s what I look for.”
On approaching your subjects and interacting with the people you capture, has that helped you gain more confidence in your work and how you approach it?
Patrick: Nah, I’ve always had confidence in my craft. I think also from the places I find myself in, a lot of them being gruesome as fuck like before you get in and get out, you’ve get robbed, you’ve got to have the confidence. Like my next project, taking place in Port-Harcourt, I’m going deep into the slums and all the areas where, if you don’t know who’s there, you can’t pass, or places you can’t wear a certain colour because of cult affiliation. And I’m gonna bring all these different gang guys together, guns out and all in one room, all dressed in full fraternity clothes. So you know, any little mistake in situations like that, there’s gonna be a shoot out.
I mean that’s certainly crazy as much as it is artistic in its nature. Though, looking at what Random Photo Journal studies, which is capturing the living experiences of these different people, and acknowledging that all those gangs would not usually be in the same room together, would you still say it’s authentic to what it is documenting?
Patrick: I’m trying to unite the gangs in my own way, because when I was young I had all kinds of friends. Runs girls, prostitutes, drug dealers, frat boys, cult boys, and all kinds of stuff. So when I was young, I would be with a Black Axe guy, and he’d put me through the whole orientation, so I’ll start feeling like I’m one of them. Two years later, I met a different guy from Buccaneer and he’s teaching me all their slang. So now when I talk to people, I’m using slang from four or five different fraternities, and they’re cheering me on, and then I realize like bro you guys are all saying the same thing. Since they’ve not been able to get into one another’s spaces, they feel like each of them is doing something completely different, but in reality, it’s literally not the case. I also want to be able to present Nigerian gangs in a proper way, because it’s not always about violence.
You’ve since released two issues since creating Random Photo Journal — could you talk me through the process for each one? Where do you start? What is the story being told with each issue?
Patrick: I’ll start with saying Random Photo Journal is personal. It’s personal as fuck. The first issue was me being on the road for six months with this girl, and obviously, we broke up ...painful as fuck, but then you go back and see all these photos you’ve made. And then my new girlfriend at the time said you should probably just make a magazine with all the images. So yeah, the first issue was about that friendship. The second issue is everywhere I went with Adesuwa, from Accra to Lagos. Literally everywhere within those places. Ended up being like 1000 images in this one folder. And since it was with Adesuwa, I focused it more on women, from the images to the contributors, to the editor’s notes, and everything else involved. It’s also a new team that works on each issue because when the focus is changing, you need to find new faces who understand what we’re trying to communicate.
You place a lot of emphasis and attention on having a diverse team in regards to self-expression or their identity. Would you say it makes for a stronger narrative with each issue?
Patrick: Yeah, I think it definitely builds a stronger narrative being told, and at the same time, it makes the journal a lot more stylized because it’s bringing together different people’s perspectives but on the same images or stories. I’m also someone who doesn’t like listening to people. I left Nigeria for Accra when I was 14, left home when I was 9. I was still living in Lagos but I wasn’t at home. So, I’ve always been doing stuff on my own, but then making a magazine is when I realized you’ve got to learn to listen and learn from other people collaboratively. You can’t know everything, and you’ve got to put your ego to the side if you’re actually trying to create something good.
In my opinion, you certainly would consider yourself a storyteller — what defines a share-worthy story?
Patrick: First of all, it has to be random. I featured this guy who was in Eritrea, and I was curious why he made all the pictures that he did. And he talked about being bored on set while shooting a campaign for Redbull and needing something to do. So that’s where the random notion comes from. There might be a reason for every encounter, but how you end up in the situation or get there must be random. A lot of the images are also left unedited because I prefer to leave the natural aspect of things as they are.
Was it hard building a following for Random Photo Journal on social media?
Patrick: I started with a website under my own name, and then I had a blog called The Random Thoughts, and at the same time I also had Random Photo Journal, so they each had their own Instagram page. And at some point, I thought to myself that they both have Random in their names, so I just slapped it together. I think that I also tried changing Instagram names at least three times, before finding out no one had @randomphotojournal, so I went with that.
Which photographers or photojournalists from the past would you say offer you any form of inspiration?
Patrick: I always liked ...well obviously when you start doing something, people are always going to say it looks like this person’s work or that person’s work, but I think the one person no one told me about and that I find closeness to is Ousmane Sembène. He’s like the father of African films and theater, and I think he started to write much later in his life, but he made so many amazing films. Even when he was invited to the US, he declined because there was no point in finding validation or working outside Africa to build something.
People today are consuming journalism in very small tidbits — do you think that, as this space is shrinking, there will still be room for strong journalism?
Patrick: I think for now the main thing seems to be films… with people’s attention spans, all they’d rather do is watch things rather than read. Or pictures, they look at it and they move, which is why the Random Photo Journal captions have always been short. I want all their attention to the image itself. Even when editing, once I feel like I’m getting bored, I caught it off right there cause then you start to lose all interest. I’d say with Journalism, the first lines have to grip them or else they’re not reading it, and try to put pictures as breaks. You’ve got to learn how to manipulate people with your work that actually gets them interested.
Any key artistic, social, and political references that particularly trigger your creative process?
Patrick: Yeah, I think once you make a bunch of photos about African people, it automatically becomes political at that point. Because now, you’re doing what the whites did before… studying and making all these projects about a foreign group of people, but the difference lies in the fact that you have the right or more entitlement to do that because these are your own people, and it’s more meaningful than just documentation for you.
What do you envision for Random Photo Journal in five years? Or even when it reaches its peak long down the road?
Patrick: I think issue 3 would be its peak. It’s gonna be called ecosystem, but like Lagos is called “Eko”, so it’s pretty much going to be a Lagos issue. Everyone I’ve met, and everywhere I’ve been since being in Lagos with my camera. The plan is to make 100 cover-style photos so I could literally use any, and then I’ll add some other good photos in there around it. I think it’ll reach its peak because I’ll finally be leaving fucking Africa. I’ll be going to Paris in December, and then Berlin till Spring, and maybe Poland. So many exhibitions coming.