I have been an outsider most of my life. As an immigrant or photographer in the countries where I have lived and worked, I have not truly belonged. I’ve been a foreigner for so long that I don’t really know anything else. It has become part of who I am.
In our industry, some argue, convincingly, that the most authentic stories come from people who live in the communities being documented. But that closeness can also blind a storyteller to a place’s unique characteristics. And cultural rules, which don’t always apply to an outsider, occasionally limit what can be photographed. Counterintuitively, access and seeing can be easier when you don’t belong.
In Africa’s biggest city, Lagos, I was often reminded of my foreignness. While I was welcomed as a friend many times — because that is the way guests are usually treated across Africa — I was also regarded with suspicion and aggression, because people of my skin color do not have a flattering history in these parts. Just as many doors were opened to me because I was not from there as doors were closed in my face because of what my skin color represented.
Intimacy and exclusion, love and hate, laughter and insult regularly rub shoulders on Lagos’s streets. It’s a complex place.
I was trying to grasp, through my camera, life in this massive metropolitan area of more than 20 million people. As an outsider, I needed help. My Lagosian fixer and constant companion, Yinka (who did not want his full name used), drove me through the streets and translated languages. More valuably, he guided me through the maze of a seemingly impenetrable place, unraveling the rules governing this megacity, which to an outsider just looks like chaos.
Located in West Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, Lagos is as much an experience as a place. The local experience and the foreign experience are certainly not the same. But that difference is not the only meaningful one. The city’s residents experience it differently: the businessman and the fisherman, the prostitute and the entrepreneur, the housewife and the bricklayer. There are more than 20 million Lagosians, and, one could say, just as many Lagoses.
It is a fascinating city, but one where life can be hard. One survey placed it as the fourth worst place in the world to call home, and another ranked it as one of the world’s most unequal cities. Yinka often remarked: “Lagos, ain’t no small t’ing,” meaning, life is not easy there. But many of the people I met also expressed how they saw Lagos as a place where dreams come true, where hard work pays off and where, with a few good connections and smarts, one can rise from the streets and into the mansions of the city’s big men.
My new book, published by Editions Bessard, is called “My Lagos,” but only partly because it is my view of the city. It comes mostly from the interviews I conducted with the subjects of my portraits. I asked them to describe what Lagos meant to them, and they would answer, “My Lagos is. …”
Their quotations in the book and their portraits connect us, in a small way, to a people most readers will never meet, and through them we experience a piece of a place most will never visit.
Photography, for me, is about connections. The design of this book is too. The vertical, large-format Polaroid portraits rest atop of and half-cover the wider horizontal photo reportage below, until the portrait is turned to reveal the entire picture underneath. The two images are separated stylistically, by the border of the Polaroid surrounding the portrait, a page fold, even different paper stock. But they are part of each other too, joined in a narrative created when the two are placed together.
Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, is huge on the continent, no more so than in Lagos itself. I collected Nollywood film posters as I roamed the city. The posters are cheaply produced, the postproduction often amateurish. But there is a raw, unpretentious beauty in their gaudiness, much like the films themselves. The posters become dust jackets of the book, folding around it to form a colorful introduction to the people and city of Lagos. Each book is unique in this way, and the reader gets to take home his or her own piece of Lagos. The printers we used couldn’t understand why we would want to use all these different, poorly produced posters. They wanted to print them themselves, not understanding that the authenticity and uniqueness of each poster was exactly what gave them their charm.
This book is a journey, a search for a series of pictures that capture Lagos. But it is just one view influenced by many: the Lagos I stumbled across, the Lagos Yinka introduced me to, and the Lagos described by the people in the portraits. There are infinite ways to see and experience this city, of course, so don’t get this book expecting to know Lagos by paging through it. There is no real, true knowing of a place like this. Expect, instead, the Lagos one photographer came to know and love. And what did I find? In the ugly, I found beauty; in the chaos, form; and in the voices of the people I met, I found my Lagos.”