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Oli Hillyer-Riley documents a close knit, and under-threat, surfing community in Nigeria

Oli Hillyer-Riley documents a close knit, and under-threat, surfing community in Nigeria

Lena Marus

Oli met the young community while in Nigeria working on a job for Vans, and was immediately taken by the love and passion they had for each other and the sport.

Born and raised in Bournemouth and now based in London, photographer Oli Hillyer-Riley uses his camera to capture “the emotions, reactions, experiences and friendships of whom I’m with,” he tells us. Borne from his fascination with people, Oli’s practice also stems from his love of extreme sports growing up. “As a teenager, I would hoard hundreds of sports magazines, Thrasher, Carve, Ride Bmx were amongst my favourites. I remember being inspired by the individuals who were pushing the boundaries to get the shots. I aspired to be in that position.”

Oli, therefore, relishes any shoot where he’s pushed physically or mentally, “whether it’s treading water in 20-foot waves (more elegant than getting out the water with flippers) or being in a studio for a highly demanding commercial job,” he adds, “anything to get my adrenaline going excites me.”

Recently, Oli was commissioned by Vans to head to Nigeria and photograph some of their professional surfers. And it was in Lagos that the photographer discovered more than he was bargaining for, in the form of the Tarkwa Bay surf club. “The community, which is primarily made up of children and teenagers, don’t have a lot, but the ocean and the connection between the two is unparalleled, something that I hugely admired,” Oli explains. This admiration prompted him to, not only carry out his commission for Vans while in Nigeria, but also to produce another body of work titled No Wahala. Now published as a book of the same name, the series documents this young surfing community, and the process of them getting to know each other.

“It was the love and passion these surfers (using broken boards) had for each other and the sport which made me spend a week side by side with them,” Oli explains. “I wanted to know everything, what made certain individuals tick, what made them laugh and what pissed them off.”

Coming into a community for a short while and photographing it, only to then leave, often presents photographers with a moral dilemma. And Oli was keenly aware of it. While he was meticulous in making sure he documented enough to create a strong body of work, “I would only photograph when necessary” with the majority of his time spent simply enjoying his newfound company. It’s an approach he often takes when working, and before picking up his camera, he will “read and observe those I am photographing,” he tells us, “[if] I see a situation or behaviour that evokes emotion and reality, then I make it my aim capture it.”

GalleryOli Hillyer-Riley: No Wahala

In turn, the images in No Wahala possess an effortless joy to them, feeling more like an album of photos from a holiday with friends than a standardised documentary photography project. To achieve this look, Oli worked with what was around him – natural light. “We made certain aesthetic decisions partly due to the light, as the children would only hang around in two spots. You’d have dusk at one location which created a hazy ‘golden hour’ look and the other location creating a blue cool hue,” he explains. “From this, certain portraits and action shots were captured in one or the other location, but personalities also had a big part to play. You’d have some individuals who were real live wires, full of energy and the golden hour haze really matched this, in comparison some older teenagers were timid but kind and caring, and as a result, the blue cool hue location felt akin to them.”

Initially, the goal was for the profits of the book to go to NGO worker John Michelletti who oversees the progression and development of the surfers through the Tarkwa Bay surf club. This money would be used to buy new surfboards, swimwear and even subsidise travel to nearby countries for surf competitions. But, on Tuesday 21 January 2020, this peaceful beachside community was violently evicted by the Nigerian Navy during an operation to stop oil theft from pipelines that run across the island. Hundreds of innocent families were left destitute – their homes and personal belongings destroyed. “Right now, our main priority is taking care of the kids and their families,” says John. “We’re using any funds that the club had saved to provide food, aid and assist with rebuilding homes, or relocating affected families where this is not possible.”

The profits from No Wahala will now go to helping the community of Tarkwa Bay in any way possible and is available to purchase on Oli’s website.

Oli’s next project will also focus on a community of young adults, this time in and around London, he tells us. Having been several years in the making, it looks at teenagers who have found a passion in their specialised bicycles as a means of escaping gang life. “At the moment my interests lie in telling the stories of youth culture no matter where in the world or what the background,” he says, concluding, “I find them to be surprising, diverse and full of personality worth showcasing.”

GalleryOli Hillyer-Riley: No Wahala

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