It was not in his plans but Paul Ninson bravely embraced his mistake. Ninson was only twenty years old when he welcomed his first child. In Ghana, it is a shame to give birth out of wedlock but that wasn’t Ninson’s main concern. He was unemployed, had no money and was still living with his poor parents.
As Ninson became a father, so did his responsibility become enormous. His job was to pay the bills, including providing money for the upkeep of his daughter and the purchase of diapers, clothes, and baby foods.
In college, Ninson was engaged in brisk business to make money to provide for his daughter. Aside from classes, Ninson would print T-shirts in his dorm and knock on every door and sell them to everyone including churches, businesses, schools. Almost all the money he made went to his daughter’s upkeep.
Three years passed and Ninson could not provide his daughter with the great life he had wished as every dollar he made went toward daily supplies. “I had no savings. It began to seem like my daughter would suffer for my mistakes,” he told Humans of New York (HONY).
Things took a different turn for Paul when a friend returned from overseas with a camera. His friend was using it to photograph weddings and events and in a few hours, he made much more than selling T-shirts.
“If I could only get a camera of my own, it would allow me to be more of a father,” Ninson told HONY. “But this friend came from a wealthy family. I grew up on a farm, with no electricity. Photography didn’t seem like an option for someone like me.”
Nonetheless, Ninson ventured into photography. He sold his possessions and even let go of his apartment but it wasn’t enough to get a camera. He turned to his mother, who sold second-hand clothes for a living. His mom took a loan and supported him to buy a budget model camera.
“It wasn’t professional quality. But I was so proud of it. I wore it around my neck like a shoeshine boy, so people would say: ‘Look! Here comes a photographer!’ I was determined to learn everything about photography, but it wasn’t really a thing in Ghana,” he said.
At the time, photography was not a mainstream job in Ghana and so many photographers either learned the trade on their own or through the teaching of those already in the craft. Ninson spent hours in the internet café watching tutorials on photography from overseas and committed to taking 200 shots per day.
He recalled signing up for a photography conference but was not made to attend the event because he was not a professional photographer. He has also been rejected several times for a scholarship to study photography.
However, luck smiled on him and he was offered a half-scholarship to study at the International Center of Photography in New York. He was expected to raise $20,000 for the programme but the reality was that Ninson did not have the means to raise the money to pay for his tuition.
He met Brandon Stanton, the owner of Humans of New York at the University of Ghana, where Ninson was hired to photograph an event. After telling him his story, Stanton offered to assist him to study at the International Center of Photography in New York.
“When I landed in New York I was full of joy. I spent the first few days exploring the city. I saw places that I’d only seen in photographs: Times Square, Central Park, The Empire State Building. During orientation, I met other students from all over the world. There were so many subjects to choose from, and I signed up for the maximum number of classes. I knew what I was sacrificing to be here. And I was determined to take advantage of every resource,” he said.
Ninson now wants to build a photography library and a learning center in Ghana. According to him, he has so far collected 30,000 books for the project and intends to use them to provide a rich resource for Ghanaian and African photographers who are unable to access such a wealth of knowledge on the continent.
“I filled up my entire apartment with books, then I rented a storage unit. Then another. Then another. I’ve collected 30,000 books so far. Enough to build the largest photo library in Africa. The books are currently in a shipping container en route to Ghana. But as my collection has grown, so has my dream. I want to build more than just a library. I want to build an entire learning center. A home for photography in Ghana,” he noted.
With the help of Humans of New York, Ninson has raised over $1 million in crowdfunding toward the project. He has also received a land pledge from Ghanaian legislator, Sam George.