Apochi Nelson Owoicho is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, and communication professional based in Abuja, Nigeria, with a particular interest in documenting culture, identity, children, and social change around Africa.
Having worked as a documentary photographer for global organizations like UNICEF for many years, he was often tasked with telling other people’s stories through photos.
But one day, he asked himself: “What if I could flip this and help people tell their stories, in their own words?”
And so, in 2020, Owoicho launched the Reclaim Project, a participatory photography initiative that he says enables communities to tell their own stories.
Owoicho launched the program as a means to allow children to express themselves and capture what matters most to them, but also to draw attention to social issues and their barriers, starting first with access to education in Nigeria, an issue that’s important to him.
The participants are provided with the education and tools needed to capture and share stories from their communities. They are taught the basics of storytelling, photography, and media representation. They keep the cameras, submit photos on a weekly basis, and the project has monthly check-ins.
Students from a recent workshop organized by Owoicho and the Reclaim Project pose for a photograph in Nigeria.
“Storytelling builds an image, stories stick,” he told Global Citizen. “They can define a people and the story of Nigeria has defined the story of Nigerians. How we see people changes when the stories change.”
People in Nigeria are not always empowered with the tools they need to be able to tell their stories, Owoicho explained. They might not have the right training, equipment, language, or ability to write, and so their narrative is left out of the stories we read or see in the news.
Large media companies or nonprofits are not always able to tell all of the stories, especially when it comes to outlets working to deadlines or within the news cycle, he said.
But his work with the Reclaim Project is different as it allows for more depth and variation, and because he’s focused on societal issues, it also creates a platform for calls to action — to create change.
Through the Reclaim Project, Owoicho educates and empowers children through visual literacy, teaching them how to advocate for themselves, and equipping them with the tools they need to tell their own stories — be it a camera, a platform, or training.
The Reclaim Project
The Reclaim Project
The Reclaim Project
The work produced through the project is available for sale, the proceeds of which go towards an education fund for the children.
“Education takes a large chunk of family income, many parents in Nigeria are struggling to make ends meet. When NGOs intervene educationally and the projects end, many of the families are left to struggle,” Owoicho said. “We believe with the fund and sufficient purchase of images, we can secure the education of many children from secondary schools to university level.”
Owoicho would like to expand the project to support more children in Nigeria and across Africa. The right partnership would provide equipment like cameras and phones and help with the sales side of things.
Given the challenges around media freedom and conflict in some parts of Nigeria, Owoicho says that they are careful not to put young people in harm's way as they document their communities.
“The nature of our storytelling is also not to focus too much on perpetrators, we try to focus on the large mass of people facing the effects of some of these issues. There is too much attention on the perpetrators that people often lose sight of the suffering people face as a result of conflict, negligence, or failure of government,” he explained. “We believe these stories need to be told. If people are armed to tell stories in areas controlled by armed militia or insurgents, we want to see what the lives of people in such communities look like from the eyes of an insider.”
The project not only gives children a chance to express themselves artistically, but it also acts as a powerful advocacy tool that connects children, their communities’ concerns, and leaders.
Photography can be a powerful way to enforce freedom of expression, especially now that social media provides such a large platform for it, which goes a long way in telling stories outside of big media outlets. This project teaches the children that they have the right to speak up and provides them with a tool they can use to stand up for themselves.
The Reclaim Project teaches the children that they have the right to speak up and provides them with a tool they can use to stand up for themselves.
Civic space and enjoyment of rights such as freedom of expression are a concern in Nigeria where, according to the CIVICUS Monitor, civic space is considered repressed. Civic society organizations have also raised concerns regarding the arrest, harassment, and detaining of journalists.
Still, Owoicho is optimistic and believes the Reclaim Project can contribute to the protection and expansion of media freedom.
“Journalists in Nigeria have been breaking new grounds in recent times. More people are getting involved in investigative journalism, and there have been many programs targeted at training journalists in Nigeria. This, I believe, is a great investment that will shape the future of journalism in Nigeria,” he said. “The institutions that suppress stories might likely want to suppress the work of some of these young people in the future, therefore having more people with skills and the desire to share the truth will make it difficult for stories to die.”
The students’ photos are published online, but there will also be a community exhibition that stakeholders like local government education officers, civil society, the media, and art organizations will visit to see what the children have created.
“Training these students will create enough community journalists telling a single story from different angles. This training and support will lead to the democratization of storytelling,” Owoicho added. “This, I believe, is the antidote to the danger of a single story. Many more people will get involved in sharing their perspective professionally, leading to a vibrant journalism landscape in Nigeria.”
One day, Owoicho asked himself: “What if I could flip this and help people tell their stories, in their own words?”
Global Citizen joined forces with Owoicho and the Reclaim Project to showcase some of the new students’ work, connecting it to the importance of open civic space and freedom of expression.
We asked them: “How does this project allow you to stand up for yourself?” The photos and captions below capture their responses.
When I am with a camera, I can take pictures that show the many sides of my community so that people can know who we really are. This present story, I took a picture of an old bridge that cars no longer pass. I am hoping someone sees it and takes action. I also took pictures of happy families and people buying and selling in my community.
When I take pictures, I feel like a big person, people look at me and it makes me really happy.
Taking photos allows me to tell stories about my community. I believe if people see the things that are not so good, they will take action and that is me using my voice.
A lot of things happen in my community that people do not know. When I take pictures of them and they are shared with the world, people will know about my community.
Nobody can see the things I see when I hold a camera, the pictures that I take are also me telling people the story I see.
The camera is very powerful. When you hold it, people look at you and some people are happy when I take their pictures. I am really happy when I am taking pictures.
It helps me to go to places that I usually would not go on a normal day.
With pictures, I can tell the story of my community, where I play and the things that people do and I take all the pictures myself.
I am a shy person, but when I carry my camera, I am no longer shy.
Photography helps me to go to different places, even people I don’t know allow me to take their pictures.
To support and/or purchase the work of the children in the Reclaim Project, contact Apochi here: email@example.com.
As told to Gugulethu Mhlungu.
The 2023-2024 In My Own Words series was made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.