“Being in Lagos broke my own stereotypes of what it was to be African” | An Interview with Photographer Yagazie Emezi
Born and raised in Aba, Nigeria, documentary photographer Yagazie Emezi left Nigeria to go to high school and college in the United States. After a period of trying to assimilate to American culture, Yagazie decided to return to Nigeria and pursue a career in photography, needing to assimilate to the buzzing and intense metropolitan life that Lagos comes with, instead.
Looking back on her journey from wanting to be an Egyptologist as a child to working as a self-taught photographer for publications such as Al-Jazeera, New York Times, Vogue, TIME and The Guardian, Yagazie’s life might seem like the result of a conscious and thought-out career plan. But like most of us, Yagazie’s journey has been anything but paved and uncomplicated. Breaking social norms of what is expected of her career as a young Nigerian, and dedicating her life to telling stories that the mainstream media often fails to share, Yagazie Emezi is a young woman who truly inspires confidence and empathy.
As an admirer of Yagazie Emezi’s work, I was so pleased to be able to call her up to discuss the Nigerian art scene, trying to fit in as an African teen at an American high school, and applying anthropological studies to her profession as a photographer.
How did your career as a photographer come about?
I’ve always been fond of stories and storytelling, and moving to the states – I wouldn’t call it an enlightenment because I wouldn’t give the US that much credit, but it definitely is a less conservative society. Moving to the States in high school opened the possibility of you can do more, you know? You don’t have to go straight down the more conventional pathways that a lot of African children are raised in, where you have to be a doctor, an architect, x, y, z. In college, I started blogging and writing about my experiences of being homesick, and I would take and share images from around that.
Initially, I moved back to Nigeria because I had gotten an offer to help produce a television show. And when that fell through, my sister was like: “you know, you’ve been taking pictures, why don’t you give that a shot?”
Oh, so you were initially supposed to do something completely different but then resorted to photography as your plan B?
Yes! I started off with giving photography a try just because I really liked being able to share stories visually, especially with moving to a place like Lagos which is not my hometown and was quite new to me. Despite being Nigerian, being in Lagos broke my own stereotypes of what it was to be African.
What do you mean by that?
Stereotypes in terms of – I moved to this big city, and it was so advanced and developed. I’m talking about five plus years ago, and not now where there is a focus on pop culture in various African countries. Back then there wasn’t anything being hyped up extensively in media. So coming to Lagos and seeing the exploding entertainment and fashion industry that I didn’t know existed having grown up in such a different part of Nigeria. And so I started taking pictures of that and put it on social media.
I’d love to hear more about the art and entertainment scene in Nigeria because there are so many things going on over there and as you said, over the last five years, so much has happened.
In Nigeria, we have one of the largest fashion and entertainment industries on the continent and we do have a generation of successful artists that came before us. However, I do think that the attention on the individuals of the fashion and photography industry here focuses, or rather, has access to a certain class – myself included. People who are privileged in one form or another, to have connections to international media, whose families could sent them to fashion or music school, who like myself were educated overseas. We are all lucky in that sense because that sort of ‘exposure’ and experiences outside of Nigeria has been beneficial, but what about those who could never afford to be sent to art, fashion or music school? Those who are massively talented and still creating? What I am trying to say is that there is still so much more than what the world is seeing of the art scene in Nigeria.
Do you feel like this is changing?
I don’t, for now, honestly. I think there are still a few artists and photographers who are definitely making a name for themselves despite not having the right connections and whatnot. But there is still a repetition of what spotlights are being shined on who.
This is something that isn’t unique for Nigeria. It’s happening all over the world. But maybe it’s more prevalent in Nigeria because there is a bigger gap between the social classes?
Circling back to your time in the States, what did you study at college?
I ended up studying social anthropology and African studies which really just translates to “what are you going to do with your life?” And I think every step I’ve taken, intentional, unintentional, and sometimes accidental, has lead to where I am today.
In a way, you could say that with your photography you are executing anthropological field studies and African studies but through the medium of photography.
Anthropology stems from a pretty problematic way of talking about other cultures, and studying African studies from an American perspective, what was it like studying these subjects as an African student in America?
I had a really hard time assimilating to American culture. I think the biggest culture shock was with the African American community. Coming from the most populous black nation in the world, I’d go to high school and I’d see these other black kids so of course, I tried to navigate to what I was most familiar with but there was a sharp distance and unfriendliness in response to my approach for friendship. Looking back, I mean, that’s high school! We were kids! And also, at the end of the day, it’s naiveté because we really didn’t know each other. So high school was a really rough time. I was that person that came into the lunch hall and didn’t know where to sit and ended up having the rest of my lunches during my time in high school in the art room because I was too anxious to find somewhere to sit in the cafeteria.
It got better going to university and slowly becoming part of the African American community there. I joined the BSU (Black Student Union) and made the decision to study African studies which included African American history and really coming to learn and understand about two similar yet two different histories when it comes to the African diaspora.
With studying anthropology and its approaches, I took from my studies little things that I still implement into photography. One of my favourite stories from an expensive university textbook was about a man who went to a village in Zambia and noted that they had no agriculture despite having fertile land. So he planted these tomatoes on this huge field because he wanted to help. They grew beautifully, and when they were ready to be harvested, all of it had been trampled and eaten by hippos. He was in shock and said “why didn’t anyone tell me?” and the community responded, “well, you didn’t ask.” He had just assumed that they were ignorant of their own land. It’s common sense but you’d be amazed by how often people fail to simply ask. In my approach to photography, I do my best to gain insight to how people would like to be photographed and represented rather than having a firm idea of how I alone would like it to be.
What are you working on right now?
I just received funding which I’m really happy about, to continue with a series I’ve been working on for the last two years. It’s called The Here Project where I work with and photograph survivors of sexual violence in environments similar to where the trauma took place. I work strictly with volunteer survivors who are keen to help add to the truth and awareness of the several spaces, often close to home, in which abuse takes place.
Having found a home in Lagos after a few years abroad, where do you see Nigeria 10 years from now? And what are your thoughts on returning home to this very complex country?
Nigeria is such a large country, and there is so much that I don’t know about in terms of politics, culture and economics that contribute so much to its many ups and downs. But I have immense hope for my country. Regardless of what happens ten years from now, with my work of sharing stories, representing parts of us to the rest of the world, I’ll know that I was a part of it, you know? Even in a small way, I was here. I think that is the most important thing, that I was present with other Nigerians working towards something good.