From the glow that radiates his sturdy figure, 80-year-old Sunmi Smart-Cole looks too young and too agile for his age. Most of his peers are customarily agonising over one illness or the other — or being carefully helped and fed by caregivers as a result of their waning grip on life, but the internationally recognised photographer appears to be going against the grain.
It was in Lagos that Smart-Cole started his sojourn to great feats, acclaim and stardom. Despite being a driven teenager, he was unable to afford a university education — but his financial disability did little to douse his hunger to succeed.
Like one with an itch that needs to be scratched, he never stopped chasing his goals.
He first worked as a teacher at the age of 17 to upskill younger children in a rural area in Port Harcourt, but the gig was never a career path for him. According to Smart-Cole, he was always exasperated at himself and everyone over his situation but his eyes never parted from the bigger prize.
“Can you imagine a young person here now, who doesn’t have the necessary qualifications to go to the university? My education stopped at Standard 6, I couldn’t go to any other school. What happened was that there was no money. I had passed entrance exams in three schools but I couldn’t go. I became a teacher without the necessary qualification. For two years, I was teaching and [was] annoyed with everybody,” he said in a calm but nostalgic tone.
After his short stint as a teacher, Cole proceeded to train as a draughtsman, and within a few years, he became an expert in the profession before he transitioned to being a road manager in 1966 with Steve Rhodes, a famous musicologist and bandleader who had a company that managed artistes.
Working with Rhodes was quite an experience as he was opportune to meet with popular musicians and the Lagos socialites at the time, but things soon turned sour when he started performing with the Nelson Cole brothers at a nightclub.
Following their first performance, Cole met a sack letter on his table after he had just returned from a lunch break on a sunny afternoon. He was let go over what his boss described as a conflict of interest.
“I had to play music, and I was also working for Steve Rhodes, a company he called Rhodes Sound Vision, then he sacked me because we went to play at the Maharani night club,” he said.
“In the morning, a man called Norris, a trumpeter — he used to lead his own band — came to see my boss, and informed him about our Friday night performance. People had thought that since he(Rhodes) was in the business of putting groups in nightclubs, that he must have put us there.
“But to him, it was a different thing, it was as if I was trying to compete with him. I went out to Bristol Hotel, one of the leading hotels in Nigeria then, to buy a sausage roll. I came back to my office to meet a letter on my desk that I have been sacked for conflict of interest.”
The destabilising turn of events was what led him to choose barbing as a profession. Cole wasn’t a fan of staying idle, besides, he had to fend for himself.
Without allowing the dismissal to render him redundant, he called on Niyi Soyode, his friend at the time, who took him to his father, saying to Cole, “my father would like your kind of story”. On meeting Soyode’s father, the man expressed an interest in his business idea and he provided the funds for him to open a barbing salon.
On opening the shop at Yaba, Lagos, it quickly became famous and a hub for the Lagos socialites which included young soldiers and expatriates from all over the world.
To Sunmi Cole, the Steve Rhodes sack letter “opened the door”.
“What made me open the barber’s shop was that when he sacked me. I didn’t want to wait around doing nothing, so I came back to Yaba. I was very angry. Then I suddenly remembered that I use to cut my friends’ hair with scissors, so I decided to open a barbershop,” he reminisced with his eyes filled with excitement.
“I told a friend of mine, one Niyi Soyode, that I was looking for a place to borrow money. He took me to his father, that the man would like my type of story.
“He gave me £25. I went to an older barber called Ojo, he sent me with a list of things to buy at Idumota, so I went and bought those stuff, and used £12 to pay rent. I made some chairs and started.”
In 1972, Smart-Cole “managed” to obtain a visa and travelled to the US, where he started working as a draughtsman — the skill he had learned in Nigeria later became handy across the shore.
In June 1976, he went on holiday in Dublin, Ireland, when he came across a camera shop and he instinctively realised he needed one of those visual devices.
The draughtsman said he bought an Olympus OM-1 and the parts of OM-2 for £5, without the intention of becoming a professional photographer.
Unbeknownst to Cole, he had just bought his way to success. Getting the camera further dawned more light on him, as he proceeded to enroll in a part-time study of Photography at Foothill College, California.
“It wasn’t until June 1976, I was on holiday in Dublin, I was passing by a camera shop and I said ‘let me buy a camera’, which I paid £5, one shilling. I didn’t think of becoming a professional, I bought the camera with the lenses. It was an Olympus OM-1 and the body parts of OM-2 and I started taking pictures.
“Then later, I said why don’t I start taking classes. There were so many schools around, so I went to one Foothill College, at a place called Los Altos, and I registered. Within two years, I was good enough. It was not a full-time thing, I still had my job as a draughtsman.”
Two years after finding his true “calling” in photography, Smart-Cole attracted a life-transforming bellow from Stanford University, an Ivy League school, in 1978, who agreed to sponsor his first exhibition. In the years since that time, his works have been exhibited in five continents. He has done exhibitions in Brazil, Yugoslavia, London, among others.
In 1978, he was invited by the National Council for Arts and Culture to mount an exhibition at the National Arts Theatre, Lagos.
Smart-Cole has won numerous awards including the prestigious 3rd Commonwealth Photography Exhibition award in Hong Kong, Wole Soyinka Lifetime award for journalistic excellence, the first TINAPA Movie Awards Achievement in Entertainment Award (Golden Camera Award); the Vivante award as a Champion of Nation Building (category Unique Value Innovators), and the Photo-Journalists Association of Nigeria (PJAN) award for Inspirational Support.