Chief S.O. Alonge, First Nigerian Court Photographer During Colonial Times

I was recently inspired by a Smithsonian profile of the life and work of S.O Alonge. In particularly made think a lot about the role of photographers in culture and the relationship between the photographer and the subject.

The British took control of Benin City, Nigeria, in the late 19th Century. Capital of the Edo state, the city had provided a home to the Benin people for more than 800 years. The British exiled the reigning ruler in the 1800s, but in 1914 the instated a new chief or Oba. That ruler’s son took the reigns in 1933. S.O. Alonge took the position of the Oba’s court photographer.

Alonge took photography and created an avenue for the Nigerian people to show themselves with dignity. Instead of the country being only represented through the Colonial viewpoint, this first native royal photographer changed the picture of history. His work can be found in an exhibit in Nigeria that opened September 2014.

The photographer avoided the rigid style of the Colonial British. His photos captured pageants, rituals, and the Nigerian equivalent of ‘street photography’. He operated a portrait studio in addition to his royal photography duties.

Half a Century of Art

During his childhood, Alonge learned photography. His grandfather was chief at the time and later on, thanks to the position of his grandfather, Alonge was able to be court photographer. IN 1956 he photographed Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the city. When the British left the area in 1960 S.O. Alonge helped create a new reality of dignity, representation, and history preservation.

Not only did Alonge help preserve the past with his photography, he became famous for the way he would hand color prints. Editing was something of a specialty for the royal photographer.

The Exhibition

On September 17, 2014 an exhibition opening in the National Museum of African Art in Nigeria. S.O. Alonge passed away in 1994, but during his lifetime he captured many subjects. Of the ones still living the majority are in their 70s or 80s. Some were children or teens when Alonge took their photos.

The photographer’s daughter, Christiana Uzebu, found her own photograph taken around 1950. She was three years old. The Smithsonian Magazine reported that she said, “When he takes photos, it doesn’t fade in time.”

Another visitor to the exhibit, Samuel Arasomwen, was assistant to the photographer for seventy years and was a student of Alonge’s. He spoke o the photographer at a press conference, also quoted by the Smithsonian – “Alonge is the one who brought me up. He made me what I am today.”

Looking Back

The cultural eye is often blinded when only one culture is allowed to capture entire sequences of events. Without S.O. Alonge’s photographs, the dignity o the Nigerian people and their history during Colonial times could have been lost. The importance of all photographers cannot be stressed enough.

Without the eye of the photographer, too much could be missed. In the future it will be difficult for historians to piece together the real, every day life of people during the early 20th century. The romantic versions of history will cover the slightly tarnished, beautiful real life scenarios people lived.

One Response to Chief S.O. Alonge, First Nigerian Court Photographer During Colonial Times

  1. Thanks for the historical insight…along with many other rolls, the collective body of photography provides depth and meaning into time. Looking at Alonge’s images on google, he played one of those valuable rolls providing a full body of work that bridges Colonial to the unique cultural milieu of Africa in the 1800s.

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