“I like to take on projects that I have the mindset to contribute to. If I cannot give it my 200% focus, I’d rather not take it,” Daniel Ehimen said
When Daniel Ehimen first got the call to work on a project late last year about democracy for the Financial Times, he turned it down.
He had already signed on for a limited series to kick off principal photography in October 2023 when his phone chimed. It was an Instagram DM from a rando telling him she worked for the FT as a producer and had been trying to reach him.
“I like to take on projects that I have the mindset to contribute to. If I cannot give it my 200% focus because there’s something in the way, I’d rather not take it,” he told Pulse Nigeria recently.
“Who is this?” he thought before declining the offer. At the time he was to come on the project as director of photography, not director. So the producer asked him to “seriously reconsider the offer.” He did and joined the project. The filmmaker, Juliet Riddell, who is now Head of New Format at the FT was to direct. Then, her Nigerian visa request wasn’t granted. So he became director on his first project working across shores. “All of a sudden, I found myself at the front of the line, doing like a lot,” he said.
After a series of meetings with the FT headquarters in London, there was alignment. He was to work on a visual project on democracy, as part of the FT’s strategy for a year marked by important elections in the world which they have dubbed “Democracy 2024.”
The writer, Lola Shoneyin (The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives), had already come on the project and written the piece, A Fragile State. He had been a bit apprehensive of her, jaded by years of working with celebrities that bring the diva to the set. Shoneyin was different.
“At first I had fears. You know some high-ups could be ‘interesting.’ And they could literally not work with you. but (have you) working for them? Whatever you get is what you get. But (Shoneyin) was very simple to work with. She was on time and we worked within a time limit and she gave it all. And she was like ‘What do you want me to do? How can I help you?’ She was like ‘I want to give you what you need to make this work for you.’ It was a joy working with her,” he said.
Then the work began. It went from a tiny project to the highly impactful piece on democracy that has been watched millions of times, if you include Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and streams on the FT website.
“It was supposed to be a small project. And myself and Juliet were like ‘How far can we push the envelope beyond what is possible?’ We were both on that wavelength of go big or go home. Empty all your pockets. Empty of your favours. Do the best that you can do,” he said.
“We talked about how we can make it more expressive, bringing all those dancing. We had the narrative interpreted. And we discussed how we can use several colours, the light, the mood to develop the contrast that discusses the idea. A lot of that was funneled into a three-day window that we had to manage,” he added.
When Made Kuti’s name entered the group chat, he knew how to bring him on board. They had worked together on the musical show, Trophy Extra Special Band. At the time, Made was preparing for Felabration, the annual festival celebrating the life and legacy of Nigeria’s iconic musician, Fela Anikulakpo Kuti, his grandfather. But he made it work.
“I heard the raw recording of the spoken word. But I was like there is no background to it. But immediately (Made) stepped into the room, there was a background to what we were doing. Music contributes a lot. It’s such an unwritten language that sends so much to the feeling that provided me with much clarity,” Ehimen said of working with Made.
Before Daniel Ehimen started declining DMs from higher up at the FT, he started out as a sound engineer at Daystar in the late aughts, an unmotivating job that paid very little, so much so that he post-dated his resignation letter two years in advance. When the resignation date came, he filed it and bounced.
Word reached him that there was a video/photography gig in Abuja; broke, he jumped on the offer. From the proceeds he built his portfolio. Still raw, he invested in training and learning.
“The journey is quite rigorous,” he said. “Because you will come up against access to expression, breaking into the industry. The truth is nobody will give you stuff. Very rarely do you have someone who has blind faith in you and says ‘Go do this. I trust you.’ I didn’t experience that kindness so I had to learn and try. And that just kept increasing the kind of value I could bring to the table,” he added.
He misses those days, when the plan was not clear and it was on the grind, living that Lagos creative life of hustling, jumping from set to set. He also plans to give back, organise workshops and work on some scripts. “I’m trying to get back to my reckless self, the one who just jumps off the cliff,” he said.
See the final work below: