Film

Photojournalist Lanre Fehintola didn't just record life on the edge – he became the story

Leo Regan's new documentary is an intimate look at the life and death of his close friend, the photographer Lanre Fentihola

Lanre Fehintola and a local on Camden High Street, 1986, by Leo Regan

My friend, Lanre Fehintola and I met over 30 years ago, two young idealistic photojournalists wanting to change the world, running around with our cameras, obsessed with the idea of immersive photography. There’s a famous saying from photographer Robert Capa, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” People dismissed this as simplistic and naive. We took it as gospel. Chasing the story was the passion that drove us. Lanre took it to another level.

Lanre applied the method approach to his journalistic research, for him it wasn’t authentic until it was authentic. Documenting the experience was never enough, Lanre wanted to live it. While working on a project about people experiencing homelessness he unwittingly ended up becoming homeless himself. When he turned his cameras to the world of crack cocaine and heroin, alarm bells started ringing. 

It didn’t take long before Lanre started using heroin. He told me, “It’s the only way to understand what addiction is really like.” Lanre believed his photography would protect him, keep him focused and pull him through. Instead, it pulled him under. He became a character in his own story. And then he became the story. Which was the subject of our first film, Don’t Get High On Your Own Supply

It was a brave and audacious move to expose himself publicly in this way. Typical of the man. His fearless dedication to documenting his decline was remarkable to witness, portraying an honesty, humour and integrity that was, and still is, powerful, devastating and inspiring. 

London, 1986, by Lanre Fehintola

We started working on our new film, My Friend Lanre a few years ago. Lanre was photographing a group of people living off-grid in a woodland near his home in Taunton. He’d spent five years working on the project and wasn’t sure what to do with it. Lanre had also been diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer. Our plan was to document Lanre’s cancer treatment and recovery while he finished his project. You know what they say about plans. 

Lanre never made it back to the woodland. He finished his cancer treatment and was doing really well, until he wasn’t. His consultant told him she could do nothing more for him. We talked about whether we should continue filming. 

For Lanre there was never any doubt. This was his ultimate challenge, facing his own mortality. He wanted to document it, learn from the process and inform others. Unsurprisingly, he embraced the challenge with characteristic fearlessness, candour and humour. 

Fehintola and Regan take a self portrait

Lanre was an extraordinary artist who never got the recognition his talent deserves. His life was his art and his art was his life. It’s what I loved about him. His friendship and collaboration through the years has been a huge honour and privilege for me. Sure, he made mistakes, took a few wrong turns. So have I. 

And he was always there for me. Motivating and encouraging me with his relentless optimism and his lust for life. 

In My Friend Lanre we feature a sequence from Lanre’s final project, The Children’s Wood. The images are mesmerisingly beautiful. Talking about his work, Lanre shares his thoughts about the enduring love of his life:

“Photography saved my life. I know that for a fact. If I hadn’t discovered photography I would have been going crazy out there. Photography gave me some kind of a boundary. It gave me reason. Once I got into photography, things changed. I had no idea what photojournalism or reportage was. I didn’t know these names. I was taking photographs. Then I learnt what I’m doing is called documentary photography. Oh, OK. 

Camden High Street, 1986 by Leo Regan

“When I discovered documentary photography I found there was a whole line of documentary photo-graphers and I belong to this family. I’m a modern version of this. I felt proud then. I belong to something. It taught me humanity. I learnt patience. I’m not there to give an opinion. I’m not there to push my thing. Before, in the early days, things would happen in front of me. It might be me doing that. But now, as a photographer, I can use my camera and hide behind it, in a sense. And this became something.
I became something. 

“The energy I used in that naughty stuff is the same energy I put into this. Because the energy is there anyway.”

My Friend Lanre, directed by Leo Regan, is available on Curzon Home Cinema until 31 March.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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