A Heartfelt Conversation with Nigerian Cinematographer Emmanuel Odihiri: “Find Your Own Way To Tell Your Stories.” 

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Emmanuel Igbekele Odihiri would introduce himself as a cinematographer based in Lagos Nigeria. Keen on traveling, Odihiri enjoys listening to music and meeting people. As he would describe himself, he’s “sometimes a photographer.” A graduate of Dramatic Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, upon completing National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), Odihiri and a group of friends would form a media group with a vision to produce music videos, short films, and feature films. 

In this interview with Cheesemonger, Odihiri recalls the first time he got to film and direct a music video. The director and cinematographer contracted to shoot the music video was unavailable. And his friend, who was working on the set, called him to save the day. As Odihiri, who has now built an admirable portfolio, will recall, that was the first time he would handle a RED camera —a RED epic. “It took courage to jump on it and I was also asked to direct, “ Odihiri said. Strangely enough, Odihiri has never listened to the song whose video he was supposed to direct. But, in the company of other creatives, he was able to come up with a story.  Recalling the day, Odihiri said, “It was a crazy day. But, we did some series of shots and played around with lightning.” Surprisingly, for Odihiri, the video was well received and it was repeatedly played on MTV and Trace. 

Although good and promising, Odihiri was troubled about how competitive the market was.  With top-tier music directors like Clarence Peters and Mo Musa in the mix, getting a musical artist to trust you to shoot their video was challenging. Additionally, Odihiri, at that time, didn’t have a solid body of work to show clients. Hence, getting clients was hard. This influenced Odihiri’s decision to cross carpet into the film industry to start as a second camera operator and editor. Years after that decision, Odihiri has displayed his skills as Director of Photography in some Nollywood films- Soole (2021), Ponzi (2021), Breaded Life (2021), Introducing the Kujus (2020), Love in a Pandemic (2023), About a Boy (2021), Chao Calling (2023) Adire (2023) Ajosepo (2024) amongst others. 

If you were to recommend one film in your filmography, which would it be? 

I would say Afamefunna, the 2023 film directed by Kayode Kasum.



For me, it was something different, shooting a film that spoke about the Igbo apprenticeship system. It is a very important story and an interesting concept that I’ve not seen on screen in a long time. Reading the script and getting to know the history of the Igbo apprenticeship system) was very interesting for me. For me, it was a great opportunity for me to tell the story through my lens.  

Was there any shocking cultural discovery for you during filming?

Well, for me, not really. During NYSC, I served in Onitsha so I was quite aware of some Igbo customs that we explored in Afamefuna. Nothing was shocking to me. 

What would you say about the “Igbo man”? 

They are very serious with their business, you know, very straightforward. There’s no mago mago (cheating). Everything is business. They just keep it business. I would say their women take education more seriously than the men. The men are always in the market. I made friends in Onitsha during my NYSC service year, with some of the indigenes, the teachers, and the principal in the school. From my interactions with them, I learned that they are very welcoming to individuals who are straightforward and serious.

What was the biggest lesson from filming Afamefunna?

Shooting the film made me realize why, as an industry, we need to tell more of our stories.  After the screening of the film during the premiere, someone walked up to me and shook my hand so hard. They said, “I have not heard of stories like this before. I have not seen stories like this before. I was living through this. Living through Afam’s character.” For him, he could relate to everything that happened. What this told me is that we have different stories that we haven’t scratched. We have stories that haven’t seen the light of day. We just need storytellers who would tell these stories. The world wants to see these stories. Even in Afamefuna, there are different stories about apprenticeship that haven’t been touched. Other cultures have their own stories that we don’t know about across Nigeria, and these are things that the world would like to see. So let’s sell it to them.

What’s your artistic process? Your process for filming Afamefuna

So, in Afamefuna, I wanted the story to be told without any camera gimmicks because it’s drama. I didn’t want the camera to distract the audience. You know? So, I wanted the characters to look live through the lens. With attention to production design and screen treatment, I wanted the characters to be true and alive in that world and give the film a documentary feel. That was my vision for the film. This influenced some of the shot framing and composition in the film. You’d see a lot of close-up shots that allowed for intimacy. For some scenes with the chief,  I wanted his house to feel very big. You know? The Igbo man is a businessman. There are certain kinds of furniture you see in the house of a typical Igbo man, they are usually enormous, larger than life. So, when we see Afam’s master’s house, it is always very large in our eyes.

Working with Kayode Kasum

Kasum and I have come a long way. We happen to be secondary schoolmates too. Just after we met in the industry, we realized that we shared similar visual language and shared the same synergy. So whenever we were working together on a project, we would always discuss how best to approach it, in style and technique. How can we create something fresh?

We bounce off each other. It’s always like there’s a telepathic language or understanding that we both share. He gives me his look, I share some sample images in terms of lighting, and color, and then we play around with it.  He’s always asking for my advice and we have these types of dialogue before and during every project. And off-set, we are cool. He’s my guy. We banter from time to time. Someone I can send Instagram reels to and we laugh and talk about other stuff, you know? Sadly, we don’t get to travel together a lot. 

Other directors, you’ve worked with…

Well, I’ve worked with a couple of directors. I’ve worked with Biodun Stephen. She’s a very technical director — down to post-production and everything. She’s very detailed and, working with her, you have to read the script to be in her head space. She always wants to try new styles with the camera. She’s always researching and looking out for what to try next in a project.  She likes people with that same energy. 

I’ve worked with Adeoluwa “Captain Degzy” Owu. Captain Degzy is also a cinematographer. For him, he enlists you, as a cinematographer, to interpret camera shots and lighting so he can be more focused on directing the actor’s performance, except when he’s specific about what he needs in a particular scene. 

He’s also a cinematographer, are there usually conflicts? 

When I work with Captain Degzy, he trusts my own vision as a director of photography. We have conversations where he tells us his vision for a project. During the conversations,  we align and agree. Then, we move forward. There are times when Captain Degzy has specific demands. Times when he wants us to shoot in a particular way. In this situation,  we find balance and make it work without any party intruding on the creative process of the other.  I’ve worked with Isioma Osage. Isioma is another technical director. I worked on her first feature film, JAPA (2024), which is now streaming on Prime. She’s picky about the way she wants a scene to play out, down to the camera position, lighting, and everything. She’s always asking “What’s the easiest way to film this?” without having too many downtime setups. She is a minimalist in the sense that she believes every shot you take on set should be useful in the editing room. She advocates for working fast. And the essence of it for her is that you tell the story with clear consideration for good shots, lighting,  composition, and all. 

I’ve worked with Basketmouth & Diji. Basketmouth is very detailed and keen about what he wants. He knows the scenes inside out. He’s the type that comes into the room and says, “Okay,  this is what I want, Let’s go.” He is particular about the scene, the acting, the relationship with the actors, their space, and everything. Diji, for me, is more stylistic. For Diji, the visual should have a language. He wants everything to be very fancy, very nice, and very stylized.

I’m working my way back to the music video industry, and I’m currently working with Pink Films. When it comes to Pink, she’s very dramatic. Since it’s a music video, Pink wants everything to be dramatic. Judging that I am coming from a film background, I have to find that balance. I have to give her something dramatic, appealing, and scenic. 

Emmanuel Odihiri on the set of Farmers Bride (2024)

How would you describe Nollywood now? And what future do you see for it?

When I joined Nollywood, people wanted me to deliver quality movies and content, and so the demand for expertise was very high. If you were an editor, you had to know how to color grade, and do sound design, you had to know everything, because budget was usually the challenge. It was very tedious at the time. Right now, there is more demand for quality movies and technical mastery. Our films are traveling to film festivals across the globe so there’s the encouragement to be better. So, what I think we need right now are companies who are dedicated to uplifting our stories. 

I also think that the industry needs foreign experts, not to replace local talents in industry but to have a marriage between them, so that there can be a transfer of knowledge, distinguished knowledge. I think that needs to happen for us to grow and appreciate our craft better.  We also need government support, serious government support because if you look at it, Nollywood employs a large number of people in Nigeria. So I think the government needs to step in now to help make it bigger and lucrative. Imagine we have film studios in different states that are well-equipped and maintained, they will help create more jobs for filmmakers. Even in Abuja, there’s no big rental house where you can rent equipment.  If every state had all these kinds of rental houses and studios,  it’s going to help the industry and Lagos would not be the only state where big productions can happen. Big production will happen in other states. This will increase tourism, and cultural exchange, and diversify our story worlds. 

We also need strong associations, one that unifies all industry personnel, cast or crew. I know there are unions, but I don’t think they are very effective. When you are signed into an association, there’s a level of rights and career protection that it gives. 

You’ve made very solid points. How do you manage the life of being a filmmaker?

I’m an introvert but I enjoy travelling. If I’m not working, you’ll find me playing games on my TV and visiting friends. I love football, adventure games, and any game on PlayStation. I like taking pictures and seeing the world through my lens but because the country is not safe I can’t do that anymore. I don’t want anyone to come and slap me on the street. (Laughs)

Photographed by Emmanuel Odihiri

I like seeing beauty in those kinds of places. The world is beautiful and we might not…we won’t be able to see everything that the world has to offer us because of the way the world is. If so many policies did not police the world, I would probably be a nomad. I like to just travel and see the world.

I think we have that in common

I also like gadgets a lot. Gadgets interest me. Anything that fancies my taste and if I have money for it, I buy it. 

What was the last gadget you bought?

A digital music player. They call it DAP. 

What kind of music do you listen to?

Any music that sounds beautiful to my ear. I’m not a fan of rock, only if it is melodious and sounds pleasing, then I could listen to it. 

How do cinematographers create a niche? 

You see, everybody has their own style. For instance, if you watch anybody’s film and you can point out who shot it, that means they have a voice. When you see Barnabas Emordi’s work,  KC Obiajulu’s, or Muhammed Attah’s work, you’ll know. The kind of lighting they’ll use, the way they’ll use colors, compose their pictures, and every other means, is different. There’s a language that you have to coin for yourself; one that is original to you. Though we are learning and perhaps copying from a source, there’d be a particular style that is just peculiar to you.

Ajosepo(2024) – Odihiri’s favourite frame from the film.

How does a cinematographer maintain that voice?

I will use Bradford Young as an example. Young shot Mother of George (2013) and  Selma (2014). With Dennis Villenenue he shot Arrival (2016) which was Villenenue’s first sci-fi film. But the way Young brings his visual style to these films is the way he lights the scenes. Young did not compromise his soft lighting style even for a sci-fi film. So that’s how his cinematographic voice is maintained across his filmography.

To young cinematographers

Be knowledgeable. I would always tell people – there’s no small time for you to learn. Anytime I get off work and go on YouTube, I see something that will improve my learning. YouTube is my school. Also, as a cinematographer, you must learn how to light effectively. Study how light illuminates your everyday environment. You also have to keep thinking. You have to stay informed and don’t be scared to get your voice. Don’t be scared to explore. You can do it. Try to find your voice, find your own way to tell your stories. The blueprints are there but the ultimate question is “What makes you different from the rest?” 

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