Four years ago I interviewed Azu Nwagbogu, director of Lagos-based African Artists’ Foundation and the annual photography festival LagosPhoto. At the time the interview appeared in Guernica, LagosPhoto had just finished its second year and Nwagbogu’s ambitions for photography in Africa’s most populous country were still developing. On the occasion of LagosPhoto’s five-year anniversary, I spoke to Azu again to get a sense of how far the festival has come and how much work there is left to do.
It’s been five years since the first LagosPhoto. You’ve written “one of our stated goals was to establish a community for contemporary photography which will unite local and international artists through images that encapsulate individual experiences and identities from across all of Africa.” How do you feel about that statement now, after four years of shows covering a wide range of topics?
We were never going to achieve that after the first edition nor would we after the 5th. It is one of those goals institutions have to ensure that you never stop searching, striving, seeking because once the goal is fully attained then there’s nothing more to be done.
About the progress? We’ve set a standard for local and international artists, photographers interested in working in Nigeria and Africa, and we’ve demonstrated that there is a need and interest in well-thought-through photographic projects that do not hold up the usual stereotypes.
Also, one of the best things you can do as a facilitator is to give people the opportunity to create. I’m not the one creating these things, but when you get people like yourself or Mario Macilau, Chantal Heijnen, Glenna Gordon, Peter DiCampo, George Osodi, Andrew Esiebo, Nana Kofi Acquah, Akintunde Akinleye together, in the same space at the same time, then you can get things that are powerful and useful, like Everyday Africa on Instagram, for example. Everyday Africa led to Everyday Asia, Everyday ME and Everyday Whatever. It is actually because LagosPhoto, I imagine, provided that platform for people like Peter and Austin Merill, photojournalists and photo-enthusiasts who have an interest in Africa to unite and to support their interest with the capacity and ability.
The Everyday movement really took off because not only are these photojournalists giving commentary of Africa that is unusual, but also they engage people like Nana Kofi Acquah and Andrew Esiebo and other local photographers. All of these guys first met at LagosPhoto. We’re not trying to control it or dictate it because we don’t have the capacity to do all of that. But what we can do is get the right people in the room, then open the door after a while, and things happen.
In the second year we had an open call for entry, so the curatorial team actually selected work based on potential. And we’d like to think that our judgment was right, because a lot of the individuals we invited four years ago, three years ago, were not even on the radar, but today they are taken seriously as photojournalists and artists. We can be proud of that achievement.
It’s important for me to think of LagosPhoto as a platform for people to dialogue. Last year we launched a photo book project. Photo books I believe are crucial in evolving contemporary photography on the continent because it gives photographers a real target beyond “What magazine am I going to get this work published in?” or “Who is going to show this work in a gallery?” or whatever else it is. You have a target that is very personal. But technical expertise in doing this is crucial. You don’t want to say “I’m making a photo book” because you have InDesign for your pictures. We got Teun van der Heijden to come to Lagos and he gave a workshop and met with local photographers. I believe he also met with Bisi Silva of CCA whilst in Lagos and I’m happy that there will be a quality world-class monograph on J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, based on a retrospective of his work.
How has photography in Nigeria changed in the course of five years?
It has exploded. I think photography in Nigeria has become so powerful and important to many more people. Access to it has been made easier with smart phones and more affordable cameras too. The cultural landscape of Nigeria is so vast now. We’ve got music, literature, film, performance, photography and the plastic arts in general booming. And there isn’t a creative expression or medium or genre that photography does not do justice to, grant depth to, explore; that it does not illuminate, does not inform.
Photographers are now playing a more active role in the creative industry, in the creative space, and saying “I’ve got the idea to make your work important or to give it deeper penetration,” and this has improved since LagosPhoto. The role of photography in contemporary culture was somehow relegated. I think that photography is embracing contemporary culture; contemporary culture is embracing photography. And this is empowering and providing opportunities for local photographers. Do not get me wrong: all of this existed before LagosPhoto, but I believe the festival has been a catalyst.
What are some of the obstacles to the expansion of photography?
As a general rule I only think about obstacles when we can create an intervention. We need a physical space where photographers can meet and get information, get books, a learning center for photography like a media center.
There needs to be a space in Lagos like FOAM in Amsterdam or the ICP in New York or the Photographer’s Gallery in London. LagosPhoto happens for only a month. That month has amazing possibilities and ramifications but if we had a physical space that was dedicated to photography and we were able to do all of things that we want to do like bimonthly exhibitions, workshops round the year, then we would be able to empower a lot more photographers. We would have a better discourse between local and international photographers on a year-round basis. And the infrastructure to do that is important. AAF has been able to manage to this alongside our other projects but at this point a clear disambiguation and demarcation of resources is necessary.
Another issue that requires an intervention is the problem of archives. There are extant images that relate to Nigeria and Africa from nearly 200 years up to 30 years ago that are rapidly deteriorating and not properly archived. Restoring, indexing and archiving these images is crucial and urgent. I went to the National Museum and they are in plastic bags. The heat emanating from the bags is deteriorating the film. This is a terrible situation. We want to be able to archive all of these images and keep them because they are part of our national history and heritage.
I remember at the launch of the World Press Photo exhibition at Freedom Park a photographer came up to AAF staff and complained that there were no Nigerians in the exhibition, asking why are you just promoting foreigners? Do you feel like expectations in Nigeria are difficult to live up to?
It’s a number of things. The first and most important thing is education. AAF is open to everybody, but people are intimidated to walk through the doors because they think it’s elitist and that we’re exclusive. But our doors are open: they are never locked. We welcome everyone. The second problem is people parroting. A lot of people just basically rehash something they’ve heard someone say. They’re wearing their opinions like it’s fashion. They haven’t understood that you have to apply for World Press to get selected for World Press, and that we do not decide who gets selected as winners in any of all the categories on exhibit.
Nigeria has over 5,000 photographers working part time or full time. But each year we never get more than 30 Nigerians applying for World Press. This year there were 10 or 11, last year there were maybe 8. Then you have India with 200, 300 people. You have the US, with 1000 people applying in different categories. So they don’t understand the way it works in the first instance. But someone has said to them, don’t mind AAF, AAF is only about foreigners. We need time to make them aware of what we’re trying to do.
Sometimes with LagosPhoto people say we don’t show enough Nigerians. And I say well, that’s up to you guys, that’s not just up to LagosPhoto. Contemporary visual culture isn’t relative: it is vicious, relentless, and reductive. You have to do your part. The world is shrinking around us. Your work should be good enough to stand up to scrutiny in Lagos as it is in London, Paris, New York and wherever there is an interest to view. This is the loudest criticism leveled against LagosPhoto and the crowd rarely ever sings out of tune.
We’re going to give you the tools to develop your craft and your art but we will not show your work just because we have an obligation to show Nigerians. I don’t think in that way, I don’t believe in it. I think we do an injustice to the George Osodis and the Akintunde Akinleyes, the Nigerians we’ve exhibited, if we support the view of people who say: “well, we’ve got to show these Nigerians with inferior work because they are Nigerians.” The other guys are working hard and we show them. So you want to be like them, work hard. It’s right there for you, it is up to you. But we don’t do so in isolation, we do it with the right sort of support.
We have many layers of support for Nigerian photographers. Right at the elementary level, we teach photography in schools, in secondary schools. We have an intervention in Makoko, in Mushin, in schools where they have no art training. We have interventions in universities, we have “The Maker,” where we invite young people to come and we have workshops for them. Most of the workshops we organize are free. The most relevant names in contemporary photography come to give workshops to help support their own industry.
Today the dominant news narrative in West Africa is the Ebola virus epidemic. How do you see coverage of Ebola affecting images of Nigeria and Africa in general?
With every story, you have the start, you have the middle and you have the closure. And if you’re not in charge of your story, you cannot narrate your experience. The Ebola story in Nigeria is actually a brilliant example of lack of proper communication, lack of proper story-telling. Because if you tell the Ebola story in any accurate fashion, you will understand that there are so many heroes within this story. That Nigeria is more or less free of Ebola is due to a few people, and this story needs to be heard. The doctor who insisted that the Liberian patient not leave the hospital, she saved countless lives by her actions, and unfortunately she lost her life in the process. She followed best practice in public health guidelines for cases of infectious and communicable diseases. This is what I’m talking about, empowering local photographers, local journalists, training them in best practices, following the story.
There are so many heroes in this story. But as I say, we’re not telling our own story. We’re not telling it in a way that people have confidence in our system. So the story is going to be told with a tainted brush where people blend Nigeria with Guinea, with Sierra Leone, with Liberia—and it’s too much, just call it West Africa. “Ebola is ravaging West Africa.” The sad thing is that it is not constructive and the learning points are lost with this lazy narrative.
If we were controlling our own narratives, the world would have a lot more confidence in our health professionals, despite our failing healthcare system—they will understand that we are able to deal with it. That’s the thing about Nigeria; we are able to rise to the occasion when the chips are down. We have a population of people who are always willing to rise to a challenge, always willing to push the envelope. And this is the kind of story we should have been celebrating rather than all the money that has been lost, all the business that has been lost.
Governor Fashola’s intervention has been remarkable. You talk about images, he posed with the Ebola survivors, people who actually had Ebola and recovered. He took group pictures with them. They shook hands. That image has done more for businesses and the image of Nigeria, than anyone can quantify.
Why are other people still controlling the narrative?
In truth, we need to reformat our thinking. We need to start thinking African; we need to start thinking from within. We can learn a lot from China, Japan or from more insular countries about how you retain your own culture whilst getting the best from the rest. That’s what innovation is about: you borrow the best ideas, but you imbibe yours to make it your own. But here we discard ours and we just swallow hook, line and sinker the ones from the West, and it doesn’t help us. We need to be innovative and creative. We keep our own things and we get the best tools, the best brains. And until we do that and build capacity, this is going to be the same story. And it’s not just photography, it’s in movies, it’s in music, it’s in lifestyle, it’s in fashion, it’s in everything. Our identity is evolving but we need it to evolve in a way that we can understand and in a way that is authentic, intelligible and coherent.
The topic for 2015 is “Documenting Fiction.” Why is it important to include narratives of fiction and fantasy?
Because we feel like we have made gains in other areas but imagination has been discouraged (in Nigeria). Imagination is the first step in creativity. If we’re going to create any kind of intervention, if we’re going to have a better future, we need to stimulate our minds. I think stories that are more fantastical can be just as informative as what we call reality. A lot of what we learn in the world about our culture is through fiction—fiction in literature, in music, in drama, in poetry and in photography. It’s important for us to allow our minds to run wild a little.
Hollywood is America’s biggest cultural export. So you can imagine that Nollywood is ours as well because Nollywood is huge all over Africa and even parts of your ‘hood in Brooklyn. But what are we really exporting? Are we exporting our culture? No, we’re exporting borrowed fetish culture that is not based on any reality on the ground here. So a lot of people you meet from the West or from Cameroon or other African countries, they’ll tell you that Nigeria is such a fetish country from looking at Nollywood; it’s all superstition, it’s all wickedness, it’s all adultery.
So we’re promoting something that’s actually not an accurate representation because we’re not conscious of its power. And this is the thing: when we become conscious of its power then we can begin to create a new narrative. More fantasy, more fiction, more stories that are based on things we can imagine to improve our welfare and our well-being.
Image Credits: (1) and ( 2) “Turn It Up” by Jide Odukoya; (3) Anoek Steketee and Eefje Blankevoort; (4) and (5) “Red Gold” by Bayo Omoboriowo; (6) and (7) Cristina de Middel; (8) “Nigerian Punishments” by