Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko captures the beauty of people with albinism
Taiwo Olateju is peering at a photo of himself and his twin brother and memories of a dark time come flooding back. He remembers when he considered suicide because of his skin color.
Olateju, 27, has albinism. His hair, skin and eyes lack melanin, the pigment that gives the skin its color and helps protect it from damage by the ultraviolet light from the sun.
“Everyone in my family, nuclear and extended, is dark-skinned. I am the only albino,” Olateju told CNN. “For a long time I felt alone in the world,” he added.
Persons with albinism often have yellowish or white hair and skin, the exact color depending on how much melanin their body produces. It is a genetic condition that leads to little or no pigment in the eyes, skin and hair.
Olateju says he was bullied and discriminated against in almost all spheres of life for simply having different eyes and skin.
“When I was in secondary school someone actually told me that I was a mistake and deserved to die. It really messed with my self-esteem and till this day I hate that school,” he said.
Grace Adeoshun is the secretary of the Lagos chapter of the The Albino Foundation of Nigeria, an organization that works to end discrimination and dispel myths surrounding persons with albinism.
She tells CNN that there are many dangerous health myths about persons with albinism.
“Can you believe there is a myth that the freckles on the faces of people with albinism is because of light from the sun? And that the cure is depriving them of salt?” Adeoshun said.
“Growing up, my parents fed into this myth and did not put any salt in my meals,” she added.
In parts of Africa, some people also believe they possess magical powers and their limbs can bring good fortune.
Persons with albinism in countries such as Malawi and Tanzania can be kidnapped and dismembered for body parts, fetching up to $75,000, according to a United Nations report. The UN also warned in 2016 that persons with albinism were facing extinction in Malawi, which has around 10,000 people with albinism, the agency said.
Olateju says he is afraid to walk on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, where he works as a model and fashion designer, because of these widespread superstitious beliefs.
“I have been told repeatedly that people who look like me have body parts that are good for rituals. I don’t like hearing it because it is my life on the line.
“It makes me scared to walk freely on the road,” he said.
To commemorate World Albinism Awareness Day on June 13, Nigerian photographer Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko was inspired to create a photo series and exhibition to capture the beauty of people with albinism.
Lagos-based Ayeni-Babaeko says she created the photographs to challenge the preconceived notions of albinism.
“They are very strong people and have learned to live with being discriminated against. As a photographer, I wanted to do something different, to show another side of people with albinism,” she said.
Ayeni-Babaeko spent more than one year working closely with members of the Albino Foundation.
The result is a series of powerful and thought provoking images titled “White Ebony,” which are showing in Lagos until July 19.
While advocacy on albinism continues in different forms, Olateju reiterates that a lot of people with albinism need support so that they don’t feel alone.
“The only thing that prevented me from suicide in my dark days was the love I got from my family. School and the outside world was tough, so coming home to an understanding family meant everything to me,” he says.