Ebuka Mordi prides himself in his ability to "pick up any device" and create an incredible image. To him, what matters is 'how was this photo made?', not 'what was used to take this?' He spoke to Signal about the method behind his rapid success in the space, and why web3 is a much better place to produce his work than in his native Nigeria.
When Beyonce shot the cover of US Vogue in September 2018, she reportedly had creative control of the entire shoot — from writing captions, curating images, to recruiting the team. This level of editorial control was unprecedented as she also recruited the photographer, an up-and-coming black professional whose career seismically changed post-shoot.
After interviewing Nigerian NFT photographer and visual artist Ebuka Mordi, it jolted a memory. Flicking through fashion magazines in the 90s and early 2000s, few black models were featured on the pages. The ones who were lucky enough to make it were styled and lighted in a way that was never quite relatable. The hair, the make-up, and the skin tones always felt foreign, never familiar, never aspirational, and not like me.
I am on Zoom with Ebuka, a hugely talented photographer turned NFT visual artist. His work is fresh, the style is clean, and the photographs are crisp. Either you are staring at his portfolio thinking, ‘how were these images taken’, or you are thinking, ‘have I seen this photo in a campaign.’ If there was ever an up-and-coming photographer that a black celebrity needed to recruit for a shoot, Ebuka Mordi’s name should be on the recommendations list.
Ebuka is an accomplished photographer himself. His images are featured in Vogue Italia, and he advises Adobe on improving their Lightroom suite, an opportunity that came about due to his highly sought-after post-production skills. Browsing his portfolio, images are immaculately lit, perfectly colour graded, and models look relatable — like friends, relatives, or people we’ve met.
Mordi has grit, the type you hear about on TED Talks, a level of persistence born out of necessity. Ten years ago, he picked up an iPod Touch and started shooting his friends at school. It was a hobby, and he knew the low-budget gear would never produce the same quality as a DSLR, so he developed an edge, focusing on post-production editing techniques.
“When I produce photos people don’t ask 'what was used to take this photo?' Instead they think 'how was this photo made?' I think those are two different questions. I focused on my editing techniques and it gave me confidence to pick up any device.”
Ebuka's efforts paid off to the extent that, when he entered NFTs on his first day, without even listing the item, someone made an offer for a piece, which sold for 0.2eth. It sounds easy, but he has worked tirelessly to get to the point that he is at today. He has been posting evocative and captivating portraits on Instagram for almost a decade. “In Nigeria, photographers are not respected, people think it’s a side-hustle, and they don’t value your work even if you’re booked. Once I charged $30 for sixty photos and three videos, which was around 12 hours of work, so this shows how bad it is.” In the past, when he sold his prints to an international collector, prohibitively expensive international shipping costs made it virtually impossible to make a living from his craft. Now, as an NFT artist, the distribution costs are significantly reduced, and potential collectors are located anywhere.
Ebuka takes a two-pronged perspective on his career. Firstly, he uses blockchain technology as distribution; secondly, he leverages content creation on different platforms. Both of these avenues allow him to grow exponentially faster than his peers. Whether it's Instagram reels, Skillshare, or YouTube, he makes content about the process of creating art, which is extremely popular with his audience.
“I had this idea, I documented the whole process, and I found out that many people loved the documentary because they saw how art was created. They watched every single detail; and putting that into a video is also a form of art because art is about relating to something.”
This creative process is predicated on practicality, but his followers love the content because they see his mistakes, intuition, and vulnerability. It is like watching Kanye West create a new beat in real-time: an illuminating artistic process for the audience.
Including his followers in the creation process is part of Ebuka’s magic. One of his stand-out collections was born from a tweet. He asked his Twitter followers which device he should use for a self-portrait — iPhone, DSLR, or a drone —, and his audience answered ‘drone’. This sparked an idea to create a piece in which he would photograph himself in hundreds of different poses, dressed in the same clothes, and then pool the images together in post-production. The outcome is an original collection called Amongst the Corporate Giants, a series telling the story of “societal giants and those who wish to follow in the paths they create”.
Ebuka’s post-production skills are his speciality; he can pick up any camera and produce exceptional photography. His collection Ibinola made the OpenSea front page after he photographed images of his friend and model performing a wind dance. Ibinola dances in the blazing sun, shirtless and sweaty, wearing jeans, flat shoes, “reflecting on the year 2021 and how he hopes to soar further in 2022 as he expends so much energy.” The series is evocative, a testament to his talent that you don't need a state-of-the-art camera to yield art of this calibre.
As an artist, Ebuka goes the extra mile for his collectors. He shipped physical prints from Nigeria to France, paid out of his own pocket because he knew the collector would appreciate having it in their home. He believes in creating art that does not need to be introduced or described. It’s for the observer to interpret the work and find moments within the piece that evoke an emotional response.
Photographers do not have the same level of attention that collectibles achieve. Ebuka believes this is due to photography being an individual profession rather than a community activity. He believes that this can change however if “communities and artists come together and build a roadmap of what they want to create or what they want to portray.” Indeed, the voices of photographers in NFTs are not as loud as collectibles, but the two realms co-exist alongside each other. Profits from collectibles rotate into art, and notable artists set the example that art can appreciate and be appreciated; beautiful things can still yield a return.
Artists like Ebuka who started their NFT journey even in the past year are at a considerable advantage over those yet to discover the technology. By being considerate and thoughtful to the body of work he wishes to make, he creates a loyal community of collectors who choose to support his talent. The next Peter Lindbergh will not be anointed by the industry, they will be moulded and born out of web3 because they were curious enough to learn about the technology, build a community, and continuously add-value.
“In Nigeria, photographers are not respected, people think it’s a side-hustle, and they don’t value your work even if you’re booked.”
— Ebuka Mordi
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