Updated: Dec 21, 2022
This story was written by Ado Nkemka, Co-Deputy Editor of Afros in Tha City. Ado is a musician and writer who explores topics on music, arts & culture, and mental health.
On a Friday morning in July, just about halfway through 2022, Sam is at a Banff residency on a Zoom call with me. It’s 8 am and I’m groggier than I’d like to be, but his easy going, jovial spirit makes the timing and conversation absolutely worth it. I’m eager to know his thoughts on navigating the challenges of becoming a business owner as a Black immigrant.
The Early Days as a Photographer in Nigeria
Sam began pursuing photography in Nigeria. After finishing schooling in computer science and working in IT, he initially wanted to study cinematography, but ended up transferring to digital photography. “I’ve always liked pictures, whether it’s moving pictures, or still pictures – always big, bold pictures,” he says. He’s grateful for the support he received during the early days of his business in Nigeria, particularly the support from his siblings who helped out with transportation fare, in order to attend gigs and workshops for exposure. While he’s currently running his business full-time here in Canada, Sam did have a point where he questioned whether he was on the right path and considered settling for photography as a hobby. “But the moment where I was able to start to go out by myself without asking anybody to give me transport fare for Okada or to take a cab, that’s when I knew that ‘okay, I think I’m paying my bills, at least I’m paying my Okada fee by myself. I’m not asking anybody for money for Okada.’ That was when I started to know that I think this will work,” he says.
Learning of His Blackness Through Immigration
On the topic of barriers to entrepreneurship and solutions for those barriers, Sam is careful not to be prescriptive, understanding that everyone’s experience is unique. And as a recent immigrant, he’s also coming to understand his positionality in the West. “I never knew I was Black until I came here,” he says. He continues, “I’ve read and seen –– I’ve heard about what Blackness means, what it meant to be a person of color in the marketplace, in the world, how racism, how structures, how economy, how the politics of the world affect people of color, but I’ve never truly personally experienced it, maybe on a national level, my country would have experienced it, but I didn’t feel it personally.”
Immigrating to Canada “naive and innocent” served as a sort of protection, he says. For one, being here for a relatively short period of time meant that he didn’t move through the West with a level of trauma that some Black people and POC may have. Second, that also meant that some racism and prejudice went unnoticed as he settled and established himself here. “In my early days, I just felt, ‘Oh I’m here! I’m in!’ I just go on, I don’t see any barriers, I don’t see anything. But then I started paying a bit more attention and I started to see stuff,” he says. He was first introduced to his blackness on an interpersonal level, by verbal denigration, but he didn’t understand the structural implications of that interaction until his eyes opened. What he experienced in business was more subtle than that insult, he says. Some of the dissonance he experienced was due to communication barriers. “I saw my struggle as a person of color, who is also an immigrant. I spoke differently, I acted differently, I would ask you to repeat what you said like five times before I understood it. So I had that struggle to connect with potential clients, people that would have been interested in my services,” says Obadero. For him, integrating meant being deliberate about things like enunciation and smiling. Recalling his days of commuting back in Nigeria, he says “I come from a place where if you speak with a smile in Danfo bus, the conductor will take your change, so you have to speak with a frown and with anger [laughs].” He continues, “I brought that with me when I came here, I had to consciously rip it off and intentionally put on a new jacket –– not to lose my identity, but find a place to connect with folks that needed to access my services. I still ‘speak black,’ I still look black, I still carry myself with my culture as my pride but I started assimilating quickly.”
On Paving the Way and The Importance of Mindset (But Not in a “Woo Woo” Kind of Way)
Besides cultural differences in communication, Sam also noticed that he wasn’t receiving the same pay for his photography as his counterparts, sometimes being offered half of what they received, and of course, not for lack of skill. He quickly learned how to speak up for himself, asking questions like “How much do you normally pay for this service? What are you paying this other person for that same service?’” He also stands firm in his pricing, in order to avoid being low balled. Luckily, he’s also been able to rely on friends and mentors to show him the way and navigate being paid fairly for his work. Sam is intent on being vocal about his experiences in order to affect change. He says, “I strongly believe that my voice matters, not just [for] myself, but for my community. So I show up that way.” In not adhering to the status quo, he’s been able to overcome early barriers, of course, to a certain extent. This isn’t to say he willed his way out of experiencing systemic racism with the wave of a magic wand. But in questioning pricing structures and hiring practices within his industry, he hopes to ease the path for the person coming behind him. Sam acknowledges that as a recent immigrant, speaking up may be easier for him than those who have a history of direct racial subjugation to unlearn, but he also understands how the history of colonialism in his native country, and globally, instilled a mindset of subordination in Black and POC communities worldwide. For Sam, raising the bar by asking questions and illuminating opportunities for change is the way forward. And so far, he’s seized the opportunity to do so, particularly in cases where he’s built a rapport with the person and/or organization in question. Since opening Motif Photography, people have asked Sam for advice on opening their own studio.“They were here before me,” he says. “They are probably even now more financially stable than I am. But they just never thought that they could do it because they’ve not seen somebody do it.”
Community Over Competition
So how do you know what you’re worth? Sam believes those in leadership positions, including mentors, have the responsibility of guiding those with less industry knowledge, because you don’t know what you don’t know. On the flip side, he also advises those in need of support not to shy away from asking for help. “If somebody comes to you for a service and you're not sure how to charge for that service…call someone who does the same thing and ask,” he says, suspecting that people hold back from asking due to a fear of competition and mistrust. Sam believes in the power of the complimentary mindset as opposed to a competitive one. He uses apparel to make his point. “We like to compete for resources, instead of us finding a way to use those resources to complement each other,” says Obadero. “You design dresses, I designed dresses, suddenly I feel threatened by you, and then I start to compete with you. Instead of realizing that ‘Oh, you design dresses, I design dresses, we actually complement each other, we can have a space that we can all own and share and not feel threatened by the next person.’” With empathy, he roots this mindset in colonialism and the resulting hoarding of power by leaders who are driven by the fear of returning to poverty. “But they forget that the power actually is in sharing space, it’s in sharing resources,” he says. “We stand a greater chance if we can all complement each other with anything, literally anything, even if all that you have is a hug, that's what you should share. And if what you have is billions, that's what you should also share too. So we must share resources, I believe that that’s the strongest way for us as a community.”
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