Paradoxes and Room for Growth

From the series Roadmates © Aderemi Adegbite
From the series Roadmates © Aderemi Adegbite | Photo (detail): © Aderemi Adegbite

The Nigerian photographic scene, centred on Lagos, is booming. The 20 million-strong metropolis is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for photographers, feeding its dramas, energies and relentless contradictions into the development of their art. 

Photographer Uche Okpa-Iroha describes the fascination of the Nigerian mega-city: ‘Lagos is organic, exuberant, dynamic, mobile, always changing. The city is a cauldron of ideas for artists, photographers in particular. It offers subjects ranging from people and society, politics, culture, religion, affluence and poverty, to pop culture and hip hop music.’ For Okpa-Iroha, the rapidly-expanding city ‘starkly highlights the paradoxes of life.’ The urban development challenges it poses are of interest not only to researchers, but also to well-known photographers like J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, Tam Fiofori, Jide Adeniyi-Jones, Don Barber, Pius Utomi Ekpei, George Osodi, Akintunde Akinleye and Akinbode Akinbiyi. The images of press photographers like Peter Obe, Matthew Faji, Cornelius Oyemade and Sunmi Smart-Cole have become part of Nigeria’s national consciousness. Marc-André Schmachtel, Director of the Goethe Institute in Lagos, thinks the many interesting new talents emerging on the art photography scene will wield similar influence in the future. Photography, powered by its impetus towards critical intervention, is breaking through traditional artistic boundaries.

A SHADOWY EXISTENCE

How do you become a photographer if you have no knowledge of the capabilities of the medium? This question was posed by PAN (the Photographers Association of Nigeria) at their 1996 exhibition. On Lagos streets, people often reacted aggressively to being photographed, meaning that even in the context of art school training, photography was an activity that took place in the shadows. It took time for its intrinsic aesthetic value to be recognised by Nigerian society.

Don Barber’s assertion, during the PAN exhibition, that the number of photographers in Nigeria would rocket if more people had access to the medium, has been borne out. Digitalisation has led to an acceleration in the production and distribution of images. A niche market has also developed for analogue photography. The question of what it means to be a photographer has become more relevant than ever. Most professional photographers pay the bills by working on weddings and commercial events, in the fashion industry, in advertising, or for press agencies. But they also strive to make space for their own artistic projects. Schmachtel points out that these different photographic spheres can inform each other:  ‘as a documentary or reportage photographer you can reach a wider public, but you can also approach your images in an artistic way.’

SPACES FOR GROWTH

The turn of the millennium was a key moment for photographic art in Lagos: it began to achieve international recognition. New initiatives like the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), the African Artist Foundation and the LagosPhoto Festival were born. Photography, film, video, performance and installation art are all welcome in the gallery spaces of Bisi Silva, founder and curator of the CCA. Workshops, training and residency programmes have been offered by the Goethe Institute and the Nlele Institute (TNI ACP). Schmachtel speaks of a fruitful expansion, ‘which has led to intensive discussions about the photographic medium. We try to think outside the box, to present different perspectives on what photography can be.’

The Bamako Rencontres photo biennale in Mali generated international attention and was an important milestone in the development of photography in Nigeria, and in Africa as a whole. When Akinbode Akinbiyi joined the curatorial team in 2001, he invited Uche James-Iroha, Kelechi Amadi-Obi and Toyin Sokefun to the biennale. Amaize Ojeikere also attended as a visitor. All four already knew each other from Lagos, but their exposure to the vast variety of African photography at the biennale inspired them to launch a collaborative project. Depth of Field was born, and became a nucleus for a new generation of Nigerian photographers. The group’s name expressed its desire to develop a photographic research culture, to aim for greater depth in projects, and to explore people’s identities by documenting their daily lives.

Amadi-Obi, who contributed to the successful public marketing of Depth of Field, has become a respected fashion and lifestyle photographer in Lagos.  Sokefun has made a name for herself as a portrait photographer, alongside a career as a singer, while James-Iroha has created a space for professional work, learning and exchange in the form of his Photo Garage platform. Emeka Okereke, who, like Toyosi, joined the group later, has worked with Ojeikere to establish the trans-African project Invisible Borders. Depth of Field’s 2005 London exhibition was what inspired Okpa-Iroha, cousin of James-Iroha, to become a photographer: ‘My God, is this photography? I was seeing images of Lagos I’d never seen before, a different point of view, different perspectives. I didn't know photography could be a visual language. Yeah, I'll do photography.’

Thanks to the resourceful attitude of those involved, various initiatives have developed momentum: the Centre of Learning for Photography in Africa, a network of art photography training institutes, grew out of a masterclass run through the Goethe Institute by Akinbode Akinbiyi. The workshop Football Worlds 2006, also led by Akinbiyi, gave birth to the Black Box group, which includes Okpa-Iroha, Andrew Esiebo und Abraham Oghobase. Its aim, according to Okpa-Iroha, is to develop photographers so they can collaborate regularly and critically evaluate their work. A workshop for female photographers offered by the Goethe Institute and Camara Studios in 2011 led to the collective X-Perspective, which Yetunde Babaeko hopes will attract more women to photography.

In 2013, Okpa-Iroha founded the Nlele Institute, a photography school where photographers ‘develop their vision, define their positions, find their voice and engage critically with their surroundings.’ He says: ‘we work with unknown photographers on principle. We find them, incubate them, then give them exposure through our projects, Lagos OPEN RANGE and PHOTOPARTY Lagos.’ The Lagos OPEN RANGE exhibition, complementing the LagosPhoto festival, is aimed primarily at unknown but promising local photographers with a consistent portfolio. Because many Nigerian photographers work across national boundaries, the national scene communicates closely with the international one.

Andrew Esiebo: from the series Transformation / © GIZ Nigeria Andrew Esiebo: from the series Transformation / © GIZ Nigeria | Photo: © GIZ Nigeria

PHOTOGRAPHIC ENCOUNTERS

One article cannot hope to do justice to the multiplicity of photographic voices in Lagos. Just three snapshots of the photographic art of the city are offered here. The profound changes occurring in the social and spatial spheres in Nigeria have led to a dominant role for reportage and documentary photography. Andrew Esiebo elevates reportage photography to the level of art, describing himself as a ‘visual narrator’ of social themes such as religion, sexuality and popular culture. Esiebo says ‘what I’ve noticed in the course of my work is that my stories are always human stories, about people struggling for a better life.’ He sees social media as an opportunity ‘to get closer to people and get direct feedback from them. Your images can prompt people to consider how they feel about the places you depict.’ In his 2015 exhibition Transformation, Esiebo investigates urban change in Lagos and Abuja. While, in Lagos, change is inscribed in the urban infrastructure itself, in the young capital city it is principally visible in the ways in which spaces affect the lives of those who have come to occupy them.

Finish Line / © Uche Okpa-Iroha Finish Line / © Uche Okpa-Iroha | Photo: © Uche Okpa-Iroha Uche Okpa-Iroha belongs to a group of photographers - including Abraham Oghobase, Uche James-Iroha, Adeola Olagunju, Chidinma Nnorom Chinke, Nneka Iwunna, Adolphus Opara, Lakin Ogunbanwo and Jenevieve Aken - whose work is more conceptual. Okpa-Iroha started out in 2006, with reportage and street photography. This continues to be an influence, as he says: ‘it would be impossible to overstate how much Lagos as a city influenced, inspired and shaped my early works.’ The turning point for him was a residency at the art school Rijksakademie van Beeldene Kunsten, in Amsterdam: ‘I had easy access to research materials and information. Being in that environment helped me to develop my critical position on a variety of issues. That was when I started working conceptually and using cinematic narratives in my projects. But I still go to the streets to take photographs […].  That impetus towards the street will always be with me, because it was so crucial to my beginnings as a photographer.’ In Okpa-Iroha’s images of Lagos, people often seem to be moving between being subjects and viewers of the picture: the series Finding features country borders, in Plantation Boy, Okpa-Iroha transplants himself into scenes from The Godfather. Through this interplay between spontaneous, constructed and conceptual moments, Okpa-Iroha prompts both identification and critical engagement with the environment.

Artists like Aderemi Adegbite, Abraham Oghobase, Charles Okereke and Tunji Lana have opened up new photographic vistas through their cross-media work. Adegbite came to photography via writing, discovering it in 2010 to be ‘another way of writing…I was captivated by the ability of images to walk the delicate line between positive and negative.’ When, in 2012, he documented Nigeria’s mass protests against the abolition of petrol subsidies, he discovered the power of the image as a tool for social change. His current project, Roadmates, explores the street as a place of both convergence and divergence: ‘the collage of multiple exposures is both a physical and a metaphysical portrait of  people working on the commercial bus routes in Ghana and Nigeria. Although their job description is the same, their mannerisms distinguish them from each other. I see my own nature, the structure and patterns of my own life, in these people.’ Adegbite’s photo-collages project an individual’s movements through space and time onto an image of the city. Within the outlines of the urban space, drawn by the socio-politically dominant, the inhabitants seek to create their own personal spaces.

The marked social consciousness of many Lagos photographers has gone some way towards uniting artistic and social concerns. For Okpa-Iroha, the biggest challenge is ‘creating more awareness by engaging people and communities, through projects that address exclusion and other relevant collaborative processes that can lead to visible and tangible social change.’ The fabric of the megacity of Lagos is made up of varying elements, often unknown to each other until they appear together unexpectedly in a photograph. At the same time, Lagos is only one of the many towns and villages that create the distinct character of Nigeria, and offer opportunities for dialogue between different photographic perspectives.