Tosin Rufai, CEO of Teefal Studios, describes herself as a proud female Muslim photographer breaking numerous cultural barriers by being in this field. In the mostly male-dominated industry of photography, Rufai is making her mark as one of the top female portrait photographers in the country- with a specialization in child photography. With degrees in Psychology and Sociology from the USA, another degree in Business Management from Shanghai University, China and a Master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from Texas, USA, Rufai moved back to Nigeria to explore new opportunities. After venturing into several fields, she found her calling in photography and with rigorous training and several professional certifications in photography under her belt, Rufai is one of the most-sough- after child photographers in the country. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about her journey into the world of photography, her struggles with conception and infertility and how this experience ushered her towards her true calling.
Tell us about your journey into the world of photography?
I came back to Nigeria from the USA for my NYSC after my studies. Shortly after, I moved to South Africa for a year to pursue some interests but my parents wanted me to move back to Nigeria. So, I applied for a job at NLNG as they were recruiting at that time, but I was not shortlisted at the last stage unfortunately. My mom’s friend then advised me to go to makeup school and I reluctantly enrolled, but I was more interested in the sales aspect so I went ahead to open a full service beauty lounge where I also sold makeup products. I went to Bio Sculpture in Dubai to learn how to do gel nails and it was included in our services. Thereafter, I decided to get a website done so people could order makeup products and perfumes directly and so I got a camera to take pictures of my products for our website. The photographer I employed to teach me the basics then advised me to look into photography because of the quality of pictures I was creating, even as a beginner. I did not think much of it but I realized I could not put my camera down after the class and the more I researched about it, the stronger the passion for it grew. I then decided to go for further training and the rest as they say, is history.
Why child photography and how is it different from the photography we know?
I started out as a beauty and fashion photographer. Being a Muslim, I started feeling uncomfortable working with semi-nude models and sharing those images online, so I decided to specialize in child and family photography when I had my son. My style is also classic and timeless and I did not see that in the industry, so I decided to brand myself to cater to people that appreciate classic portraits. I also love working with children because they are innocent and beautiful souls. It also amazes me how rapidly they change and it is a privilege to help document that.
You moved back to Nigeria from the USA. How has this experience been like for you?
It was rough at first especially when I became an entrepreneur because I quickly realized the work ethics in Nigeria is very different from other places, but things have gotten much better. Most of my clients have also lived abroad or visit frequently so they understand my business model and that makes things easier.
What are the challenges you face in this line of work and how are you overcoming them?
The biggest challenge is when some potential clients complain about pricing and undervalue my work. I have learned that everyone is not my client and that is perfectly fine. The other thing is lack of access to quality prints and frames. I order albums for my premium clients abroad to solve that issue.
What has been the highlight for you so far?
It has to be when I launched my fairytale package. We create customized magical backgrounds for clients. We can pretty much bring anything to life and those photos can be used for personalised storybooks, too. It was exciting sharing what I had worked on for a long time with everyone. It was well received and has become our most popular package now.
Most people think one doesn’t need special training to be a photographer. Do you share this opinion?
Photography is an art that requires some level of skills if you want to be well recognized and respected. Personally, I believe one should attend extensive training in any field one decides to go into, the moment you decide to do it professionally. You have to invest in yourself and your brand. I personally attended several trainings and I keep learning more.
Would you say your background in psychology and sociology sets you apart from your peers and why?
Absolutely! I am able to connect with my clients on a deeper level. I understand them and respect their unique individualities. I study people and cater to them and give them an experience that goes beyond photography. My clients become my family in a nutshell.
Tell us about your struggle with conception and infertility and how it has shaped your journey?
I had some fertility issues after marriage. I suffered miscarriages and I was put on bed rest. While I eventually scaled through, that period gave me time to do a lot of research. I knew exactly what I was doing by the time I came into the industry and I was well prepared for foreseen obstacles. That made me very focused as I had a business plan and was not distracted at any point. It also made me appreciate children a lot as I did not have one easily.
In your opinion, do you think enough women are going down the entrepreneurial path?
Yes. It is very refreshing to see an increase in the percentage of women in business. I believe it has made us stronger and more creative.
Would you say you are shattering misconceptions in the male-dominated world of photography?
I believe so. Female photographers were not taken seriously years ago and I came into the industry aiming to change that notion. I am a very technical photographer; meaning I do retouching, compositions and other complicated techniques that may be mostly associated with male photographers.
Who do you look up to and what keeps you going?
There are few international photographers I admire, especially Joanna Galant. My passion for the art, my husband’s unwavering support and my son keeps me going on this journey.
What would you tell anyone that intends going down this path?
Do not be in any rush to be famous. Money should not be your driving force because you will get frustrated if you are not passionate about the job. Keep practicing; do not copy other people’s work, as we are all unique. Find your own style, never stop learning and enjoy the journey.
Where do you see yourself personally and professionally in the next couple of years?
I hope to be a better artist and person generally. We are currently in Lagos and Abuja and are launching our Port Harcourt Studio very soon as well. I also would like to do more editorial shoots with children-oriented brands and magazines. I hope to have more branches in major cities in Nigeria and outside the country by God’s Grace.