BEST LOCAL PHOTOGRAPHER: Benson-Jaja, better known as Somi

"I always had a camera in my hand and was always playing with a camera, but it was never with the intention of becoming a photographer."

Sometimes, the stories that define us take time to unfold.

Someari Benson-Jaja knows that all too well.

Benson-Jaja grew up with a camera in his hand, yet never thought he’d become a professional photographer.

Even with a nickname like Kodak. Even with his portfolio of family photos. Even with multiyear stints taking pictures, shooting videos and producing media shows while a student at then-Armstrong Atlantic State University (now Georgia Southern University).

Instead, Benson-Jaja, better known as Somi, majored in music education, became an elementary-school music teacher and kept photography as a hobby.

“I always had a camera in my hand and was always playing with a camera, but it was never with the intention of becoming a photographer,” Somi said.

All that changed at the urging of his former Armstrong classmates, who pushed Somi to make his childhood passion his adult profession.

“They would call and say, ‘Do you still have a camera, because I need some photos of this or that,’” Somi recounted. “So they were the ones that actually kind of pushed me into photography more than myself making a calculated movement into the area. Those people saw that talent in me before I saw it in myself.”

Now, everyone’s seeing it, including Somi. Not for the first time, he has been recognized for his artistic eye and the quality of the images he creates.

“Photography was my hobby then my side hustle,” he said. “And then it slowly became the main hustle.”

Today, Somi is the president and founder of Shot by Somi, which started life as a hashtag, blossomed into a brand and later became a business.

Ask Somi about his passion for pictures and he gets a far-away look. For him, photography makes the impermanent permanent, freezes not just the moment but the feelings that surrounded it. Eliminates barriers and builds bridges. Ultimately, a picture is never just a captured image. It’s so much more.

“I think sometimes images, without us knowing, strengthen us or strengthen our awareness in who we are and our self-worth,” he said. “You look back on those pictures of when you were a child and with your family, and they remind you of nostalgic good times. Or you might look back on your senior yearbook and the pictures with your friends, and it reminds you of the experiences that got you to where you are, and they become an imprint. I think that’s one of the most amazing things about photography.”

Somi’s own childhood started in Kentucky, where he lived until the third grade when he moved to Savannah at the behest of his minister father. He was reluctant to move, he said, because he’d heard about the hurricanes that sometimes struck the coastal city. He wanted no part of that.

Now, he’s embraced Savannah and everything that comes with it. Working hard to give back to a community that has given him so much, Somi serves as the president of Buy Local Savannah and is on the board of the United Way of the Coastal Empire and the Emmaus House. After making the difficult decision to leave teaching, he knew he’d pursue a life of public service to balance his entrepreneurial interests.

From his studio off Chatham Parkway, Somi shoots a broad range of subjects from people to products. Ultimately, though, it’s people — and the happiness they hold — that he enjoys capturing the most.

“A lot of times when you’re taking portraits or shooting an event, people are happy and, for the most part, they’re smiling,” Somi said. “There’s something appealing about seeing adults smile. We don’t see adults smile all the time. I think that happiness that comes from being able to take people at their best moments and capture them to where they can hold onto this one image that lasts a lot longer than the time it was taken is one of the most appealing things about photography.”

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