For Lakin Ogunbanwo, there is beauty worth capturing in ordinary moments. Whether that’s an intimate portrait of a bride preparing for a traditional wedding ceremony or headwear that reveals unspoken codes of masculinity, the goal is to lay bare Nigerian life and preserve it for future generations.
“There’s a huge responsibility I put on myself to document the times as is,” said Ogunbanwo, pointing to the work of iconic photographers like J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere and Malick Sidibé, whose documentary-style photos serve as a window into life as it was between the 1950s and 1970s in Nigeria and Mali. “In 50 years, [I want] people to see [my interpretations of being Nigerian] and challenge it and build an updated version of it in some way or form.”
Ogunbanwo’s work transcends fashion but such is the subtle potency of his aesthetic that he has attracted the attention of the fashion establishment. His arresting imagery has been featured in the digital editions of both the Italian and American editions of Vogue magazine and indie titles like i-D and Vice.
Ogunbanwo is among a growing crop of acclaimed photographers from Africa whose art provides a counter-narrative to many of the deeply rooted stereotypes about the continent that still exist today, creating images that strive to capture its fashion and culture as well as the political and economic forces that help shape them.
From Stephen Tayo, who is known for turning his stylish lens on everything from celebrities to deceptively mundane aspects of Nigerian culture, and Aida Muleneh’s searing images of her native Ethiopia, some of which are a part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, to Yves Sambu, who captures the inimitable swag of sapeurs in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya’s cityscape specialist Mutua Matheka, the range of their work is as diverse as the continent itself.
Careers Built on Authentic Stories and Aesthetics
According to Kristin-Lee Moolman, who turned her lens on Rihanna for T Magazine and has shot for Dazed, Another Man and British Vogue, the most important aspect of her work is being able to create imagery that is authentically African. Through her images, she hopes to empower others but most importantly provide a counterpoint to the images of poverty and violence that are still used to reference many parts of the continent in popular culture.
“I’m South African through and through,” said Moolman, who collaborates with local fashion designers like Thebe Magugu. “I want to shine a light back on to Africa for the beauty, the creativity and the vision that is here.”
That’s not to say that Moolman and her contemporaries are afraid to tackle tough subjects or hard-hitting issues. The laureate of last year’s Dior Photography & Visual Arts Award for Young Talent, Congolese photographer Pamela Tulizo won for her series of images depicting women in the war-torn region of Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tulizo later described the series as an artistic tool to denounce the media’s portrayal of the women there as victims and to highlight their incredible resilience.
They are not looking for outward validation and are creating work that speaks to their own cultures, heritage and contemporary experiences.
With so many disparate styles, motivations and backgrounds, why are the photographers who make up this new wave of African photography having a collective and global impact now?
Because of “the growing economic might of Africa, growing internet penetration and connectivity, social media, education. All of that,” said Helen Jennings, Editorial Director of Nataal, a media brand focused on contemporary African fashion, visual arts, music, travel and culture. “But mainly, it’s that the new generations have the tools and confidence to do it for themselves. They are not looking for outward validation and [are] creating work that speaks to their own cultures, heritage and contemporary experiences.”
Gender and Black masculinity is another hot topic. “There are many artists inspired to create their own afro-futurist narratives. There’s excellent work being done around innovating crafts and textiles, upcycling, sustainability and climate change. There [are] a freshness and confidence that shines [through their imagery],” she added.
Beyond the growing notoriety of the photographers themselves, the impact of their imagery is far-reaching even though the photography business on the continent requires more investment to become truly sustainable and allow photographers to gain more commercial success as artists.
According to Papa Omotayo, founder of a Whitespace, a creative agency based in Lagos, the sector’s financial deficit stems from a long-standing notion of a photographer as someone who provides a utilitarian service rather than a creative industry leader. People in Nigeria still tend to imagine “that guy amongst ten other photographers at a wedding just taking a photo,” he said.
“So the idea of ... photography being stylistic, or photographers having distinctive voices or visions, is a very new kind of thing in the mainstream. And I think that feeds into why it’s very difficult for photographers to earn a living simply doing [photography] because the foundational understanding of its value is still not there.”
Investment in the Creative Commerce Ecosystem
Industries like manufacturing, oil, and banking, which continue to drive the lion’s share of economic growth in African markets, have failed to engage with homegrown photographic talent, relying instead on generic stock images for advertising campaigns. And while the fashion industry is a growing business opportunity on the continent, investment is rarely earmarked for the creative industries.
According to Jodie Ennik, owner and principal at Lampost Productions, a talent agency for creatives in South Africa including photographers Paul Samuels and Lesedi Mothoagae, photographers in the country are now battling an increasingly challenging landscape with reduced budgets and limited clients. Photographers looking to survive the turbulence of the pandemic crisis and the tough economic times that are likely to follow in many African markets must curate an even stronger portfolio of work on social media platforms and become far savvier at using them as a marketing tool.
“The balance and symbiosis between a photographer’s creatively rewarding personal projects and more lucrative commercial work tend to be essential in attaining a fulfilling career with longevity,” she added.
Kola Oshalusi, a photographer and creative entrepreneur in Lagos, has built a whole business around teaching photographers how to monetise their work properly. Oshalusi is behind The Business of Photography, a conference and online resource for photographers in Nigeria. His advice to young photographers looking to get involved in fashion photography? Diversify your income streams.
“Living strictly on fashion photography now in Nigeria is almost impossible,” he explained.
Many have pointed to the recent decline of the continent’s print media industry as a contributing factor. “It’s a numbers game,” said Ogunbanwo, referring to the dwindling number of African household names. In South Africa, storied magazine publisher Associated Media Publishing shuttered this year under the pressures of digital disruption and Covid-19, resulting in the shutdown of local editions of Cosmopolitan, House & Leisure and Good Housekeeping among others.
However, in the widening gap, a small but significant number of independent publications have cropped up. For Stephanie Blomkamp, founder of Oath Magazine, a South-African based publication featuring photography in Africa, the magazine’s rise was in tandem with the growing popularity of photographers from the continent.
Resilient Image-Makers in a Challenging Environment
“[Oath] was originally born out of this giant void for print publications, here, specifically dedicated to the art of photography, and my observations with the amount of talent around me,” said Blomkamp.
Born in Johannesburg and having lived in both London and Canada, the photographer and self-proclaimed print magazine junkie decided to move to Cape Town in 2017. The next year, she created Oath, with a pledge to showcase and highlight the work of emerging African photographers. So far, Blomkamp has featured artists like Ethiopian documentary photographer Hilina Abebe and Johannesburg-based photographer Roger Ballen in Oath’s first issue.
“Magazines, they create culture, they create awareness, and they can create a movement, which for me, is like a lighthouse on the continent. If you want to try and get your work out there, it’s a good place to come,” she said.
You just don’t have the luxury of doing [ridiculously experimental projects] without somebody giving you a heads-up.
But even with her contribution, Blomkamp believes that there is still so much that needs to be done to support photographers currently in the industry and those looking to enter it.
“I think a lot of young photographers could really benefit from being mentored by either industry professionals, curators [or] somebody in the commercial world. Young [photographers] want to experiment, and they want to learn with film, and they want to do a ridiculous project. But in South Africa, you just don’t have the luxury of doing that without somebody giving you a heads-up with equipment or funding.”
Into that vacuum, organisations like Goethe-Institut Senegal have stepped up to support not only photographers but fashion designers. In June of 2020, it published a special shoppable issue of Mode Senegal magazine to showcase the creative talent in Senegal.
At the end of the lens of talented photographers like Seyni B were clothes by local designers Adama Paris, Sarayaa and Madeleine D’Arabie, among others, amidst the backdrop of Senegal’s vibrant streets and attractions like the Lac Rose.
“Outside of Senegal, people don’t know much about Senegalese designers. [The magazine] is really to improve the income of the designers. So if people want to buy something from a Senegalese designer, they know where to buy it,” said Valeria Nabatova, project coordinator for the Goethe-Institut Senegal’s Cultural and Creative Industries Project.
In Nigeria, publications like The Native positions itself as the cultural pulse for young Africans at home and abroad. The magazine, which covers music, fashion, and art, has featured Nigerian creatives, like Mowalola, who are often aesthetic leaders of Millennial and Gen-Z style tribes. The edgy covers are often shot by young photographers based on the continent, a point of pride for the publication and a deliberate strategy.
“We put together a team that was just pure African talent,” said the magazine’s founder Seni Saraki in an interview with American Vogue in July of 2020 where he referenced the fourth issue, featuring Nigerian singer, Tems, surrounded by a ring of fire and styled in designers like Andrea Iyamah and Geto. The magazine tapped Lagos-based photographer, Isabel Okoro, who shot the cover in January and has since been featured in other publications.
“I think The Native cover really helped when it came to people taking me [seriously] as a professional photographer,” said Okoro who was making mostly personal work up until December of last year. “Right after, I was approached by publications like Dazed and The Face to make work for their new issues.”
Beyond magazines, art fairs and exhibitions have been instrumental in the dissemination of the work of African photographers globally in cities like London and New York. Though Touria El Glaoui, founding director of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, has made stops featuring African artists in both cities for years, it was important for her to bring the acclaimed event back to the continent. After launching it in Morocco two years ago, Glaoui says the most interesting outcome is often the connection between the featured artists that extend long after the fair is over.
“We’ve seen all sorts of very long-lasting relationships with galleries from Morocco now representing artists from the rest of the continent, which was not the case before they participated at the fair,” said Galoui. Artists associated with the fair include photographers like Nonzuzo Gxekwa and Kvvadwo among others.
“I’m thinking of galleries from Morocco representing artists from Côte d’Ivoire, but then we also have galleries from Ghana representing Moroccan artists in Ghana. It’s that exchange that is very important and I think the openness of the audience and this ecosystem to the rest of the continents is very important.”
Generating Publicity for African Designers and Collaborators
For some African photographers, shooting for international publications isn’t seen as the goal, but they are aware of the benefits that come with the exposure. Lagos-based photographer Stephen Tayo also tries to use such opportunities to help promote the wider African fashion industry.
“I feel some kind of responsibility to make sure that if I’m shooting [Nigerian musician] Tiwa Savage, it makes more sense to push an African or Nigerian based designer [for the styling],” said Tayo.
In a recent feature in the New York Times, Tayo photographed Savage, whose recently released album Celia landed her rave reviews at home and abroad and a billboard in Times Square. In the main image, Savage sits languidly on a stool dressed in a jacket and trousers combo from breakout Nigerian designer Kenneth Ize, who was a finalist for the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers and a joint winner of the Arise Fashion Week Award for Designer of the Year before announcing a collaboration with the Karl Lagerfeld brand slated for release in April 2021.
Photoshoots like this are necessary, Tayo says, but can only happen when creatives of colour, of all stripes, and from all over the continent are in positions where they are the decision-makers. “It changes when we have more people who look like us in these spaces.”
Crossing over into film and video is a natural step for many fashion photographers and, with the African film industries of Nollywood, Ugawood and others as dynamic as ever, it only follows that there will be more opportunities in the years to come. In the meantime, Hollywood has woken up to image-makers from the continent thanks to some powerful advocates.
Beyoncé's Disney film “Black is King,” which was released in July of 2020, was shot in both the US and across Africa. While many have celebrated the film for its resounding message of Black pride and power, the cross-continental collaboration featured more than two dozen African creatives spanning different countries and fields such as fashion designers, photographers, directors and music artists. Joshua Kissi, who served as a second unit director on the project calls the film a diasporic love letter to the continent — one that left an indelible mark in many ways.
“I think [Beyoncé] understood the position she played, you know, with being an African-American and also still very connected to Africa as a continent. ‘Black is King’ is a perfect example of a family album, a love letter. Every page represents a different person with different communities and different cultures,” said Kissi, who has since gone on to shoot covers for magazines like InStyle and People.
In addition to Kissi, other talents included award-winning Nigerian photographer and director Dafe Oboro, who has produced campaigns for brands like the e-commerce company Zalando; stylists Daniel Obasi, Trevor Sturman from Nigeria and South Africa respectively; and fashion designers Adama Paris and Loza Maléombho.
According to Maléombho, sales at her brand went up 300 percent after the film was released. It’s clear that an investment in the continent’s image-makers will contribute to overall growth in the fashion industry, for designers and other professions alike. What’s more, it will create a pipeline of images that reflect the continent in authentic and meaningful ways, from artists with a true understanding of its potential.