Photographer Andrew Esiebo chronicles the people and culture of Nigeria against a backdrop of rapid economic development. Through a series of personal projects, he has explored topics ranging from popular culture, gender politics and sexuality to sports, religion and spirituality. He talked to us about his most recent project, “Highlife,” which examines the charged, colorful atmosphere and social dynamics of the party scene in Lagos.
PDN: How did you get started on your “Highlife” project?
Andrew Esiebo: I love music, I love going out. Every weekend you have tons of parties. And I thought this was an important world to explore: What goes on in those spaces.
PDN: What were you trying to show with this project?
AE: As the economy of the country keeps booming, there’s more money coming into the hands of people, and one of the ways to enjoy or express this wealth is through parties. And that’s what I was trying to show. I was looking for images that reflect consumption: People have money to wear expensive clothes, to drink, and they enjoy the music through dance. There are tensions, and sometimes confrontations. I try to reflect all manifestations of things that happen in parties in Lagos, and the esthetics of the spaces as well.
There are few global representations of Nigeria. When people talk about Lagos, they only talk about slums, they only talk about crime. Now they also talk about business, but this party culture is becoming big and very vibrant and I thought it was important to reflect that aspect of Lagos life.
PDN: How is “Highlife” related to your other projects, like the Barbershop project, or the project about soccer?
AE: If I look at the common thread, I would say it’s about how people strive for a better life, or how people strive to attain happiness, regardless of their condition.
PDN: Was it difficult to get access to the clubs as a photographer?
AE: The access was not difficult. I went mostly through the DJs [telling them]: “I want to photograph how people enjoy your music.” So the DJs give me good access into those spaces.
PDN: How much did you interact with the party-goers?
AE: They rarely noticed me. I was invisible, more or less. Sometimes people feel so cool they want me to photograph them. They want to give you that gesture, that body language that shows: This is who I am. And I’m always happy to photograph them.
PDN: The lighting conditions look challenging. How did you handle that?
AE: Shooting in these lighting conditions is tricky. I try to use the available light because it reflects the ambience of those places. It was hard, but I used to shoot a lot of concerts in the past, so I’m used to shooting under such light conditions.
PDN: Do you use flash at all?
AE: No. For me, the flash would kill the ambience of the place.
PDN: What gear were you using?
AE: The key was the lens: I made sure I was using fast lenses. At one point I was using a 35mm at f/1.4, and at one point switched to a 28mm lens at 1.8. and an 85mm lens at f/1.8.
PDN: Do you have formal training as a photographer? And who has influenced you?
AE: I didn’t have formal training. I was lucky I got some books given to me by a U.S. photographer called Paul Udstrand. I met him in 2001 through the Internet and we kept corresponding so I could send my pictures to him for feedback and at some point he gave me books of photography. In 2005 I met George Osidi, a Nigerian photographer who was working for a wire service. Before then, the only images I saw of my country were coming from non-Nigerians, so I had this notion that good images are done only by non-Africans. When I saw George Osidi doing great images, that gave me confidence to take my photography to the next level. I got more confident I could make it in photography as a Nigerian.
PDN: You mentioned how outsiders depict Africa. Are the representations of Africa changing?
AE: The new vision of Africa these days belongs to social media platforms like Everyday Africa. But otherwise, things haven’t changed. Journalists come to Africa and the first thing they ask you is, “We want to go to the big slum.” And you say, “Can you think of something other than going to the slum?” Every photographer [wants] to reflect the slum, and for me, it’s nothing new, it’s nothing original, it’s nothing refreshing.
PDN: What do you want non-African photographer to know and understand about working in Africa?
AE: Nigeria, and Lagos, is a very complex society. Rather than make it black and white, if you have the time, [try] to understand the complexity. To be fair, some photographers have done that—Glenna Gordon for one example. [Nigeria is] complex. There’s poverty, there’s hopefulness, there’s happiness, there’s tension. I would rather people reflect [all of] that, rather than show everything just one way which we’re used to.
Picture Story: Everyday Africa on Instagram
Photographer Zanele Muholi on Fighting Homophobic Violence with Portraiture
Glenna Gordon’s Diagram of the Heart
Gerd Ludwig on His “Invisible Flash” Technique