PDN Photo of the Day

What’s a Nigerian Identity?

Though currently based in New York City, Ima Mfon was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, where his work will be exhibited at the 2015 LagosPhoto Festival this fall. Mfon pursued photography while working full-time as a technology consultant, and recently received his Masters in Photography. “It has been one of the best decisions of my life,” he says. Though new to the field professionally, Mfon has a number of projects in his portfolio, and is working on building his Instagram following. We asked Mfon to explain his interest in photography, and what he’s currently pursuing as a photographer.

Photo District News: How long have you been making pictures?

Ima Mfon: I played with a few toy cameras and digital cameras growing up, but I first started shooting seriously about 8 years ago while I was completing my undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

I’ve been a professional photographer for 11 months now. I used to be a full-time IT consultant, and I quit my job last year to pursue my Masters at the School of Visual Arts and start my photography career simultaneously. People thought I was crazy, but my family and friends have been extremely supportive and it’s been a great year so far!

PDN: What attracted you to photography?

IM: I’m a very nostalgic person. And I think I developed a habit of documenting my life and my surroundings. My first memory of consciously documenting my life was when I was on a vacation with my mother and brother in 2004. My mother bought me a 4-megapixel digital camera. We visited Kew Gardens in London. I took a lot of pictures, and printed them on our home desktop printer. I never did anything with those pictures; I just kept them in my room. So I think I was inspired by an innate desire to preserve the moments which I considered important. My father was also a photographer when he was younger. He photographed all of us, and looking at his pictures also triggered a sense of nostalgia in me.

Spending most of my childhood in Nigeria and my adulthood in America, I’ve assimilated two very different sets of social and cultural values. I try to reconcile them and figure out who I really am, which causes a lot of introspection. I end up expressing this through my work.

PDN: What is your project “Nigerian Identity” about? Is it ongoing?

IM: When I said I wanted to do a project that talked about my culture, I got a lot of feedback asking “How will you depict Nigerian culture?” I felt there was an expected idea for what a project dealing with Nigeria should contain, and it caused me to think about what “Nigerian” really meant. I began interviewing Nigerians, and most of their responses to the question “What makes you Nigerian?” were intangible things like their name, family values, work ethic and so on. I began to see a lot of individuality, and I came up with the idea to try to express the individual.

The end result is a portrait series which presents images of people devoid of cultural or ethnic context. Everything is shot against a uniform plain background, and I allow each individual to be defined by their unique features, rather than any internal or external racial stereotype. The project is still ongoing; I’m going to be spending a few months in Houston, Texas and will continue shooting there.

PDN: Are you concentrating on personal, fine-art work or are you also getting commissions, assignments, etc?

IM: While I am developing my personal/fine art work, I am also freelancing and looking for assignments and commissions to make a living and cover my costs. I plan to move back to Nigeria, my home country, later this year and open my own studio. I’m very interested in the commercial and advertising world. I would love to shoot for Vogue one day.

My goal is to get a book published. I am also in the early stages of a project in which I want to explore colonialism and the effect it has had on Nigeria as a country.

PDN: Have you run across any photographic challenges because of your identity?

IM: I haven’t run into such challenges yet, but I do recognize the issue. I am glad to see organizations like the LagosPhoto Festival doing their part to help showcase some of this talent and bring exposure to places where it wouldn’t have previously reached.

“Nigerian Identity,” is currently exhibited with the Photographic Museum of Humanity online through July 20. And, as an exhibiting photographer in FRESH 2015, the annual summer show celebrating new and emerging talent, Mfon will also be showing his Nigerian Identity project at the Klompching Gallery this summer. FRESH 2015 runs through August 1, beginning with a gallery reception at 6pm this evening the gallery. Other exhibiting artists include Matthew Arnold, Bill Durgin, Johanna Warwick and Kimberly Witham.

Related: PDN July 2015: The Fine-Art Photography Issue

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