A SHIP CALLED DIGNITY
Lagos, Nigeria 2017
Great photographs should implicitly be rare - they tend to be moments in time that can never be repeated. I have said - on occasion - that an affirming year for me would be 3 or more cracking images, but I recognize that this is actually still a demanding target because for an image to transcend at every level requires a material amount of luck as well as creative courage and technical fluency. I cannot judge my own work, but equally I always know what is mundane and I will always remain my greatest critic. Many photographer’s find a reluctance to recognize how boring much of their work can be, but this is an area where I have learnt.
In my mind, if a photograph is sufficiently powerful in content and evocative in light and line to be looked at for a long time. there is a chance that it has something which is art - not reportage. But there is a third variable that is often needed to elevate an image to a higher pantheon - the dynamic of relevance. This is the most elusive of this “Holy Trinity” of factors I strive to attain. Wildlife portraits for instance - no matter how threatened the animal in question is to extinction , often fall down on this criteria. Such images maybe immersive and visually compelling on the one hand - but lacking in a broader contemporary narrative on the other.
Last December, inspired by some aerial footage taken by the renowned Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky, I first started exploring the ground level creative possibilities in Makoko , the largely inaccessible floating slum town aside Lagos. Ground level is actually an oxymoron as there is no ground to speak of in what Burtynsky himself called the “hyper-crucible of globalisation.”
Further encouraged by a US collector to go into this formibable hotbed of wood stilt shacks and truly test myself, we began our due diligence. To enter Makoko is emphatically “the road less travelled ” and even the Nigerian Government don’t seemingly have the answer as to how many people live there - it could be 100,000 , but it could be 200,000. It maybe dubbed the “Venice of Africa” - but with huge irony - there is no wealth or sophistication here, ostensibly just poverty, crime , sewage and waste.
As a result of our kid’s schooling in London , a few Nigerians are now family friends and they laid the foundation of access. Makoko is not safe - it is effectively a no go zone for the “Yevo” or white man . On Saturday, I had my audience with Makoko’s Chief Aladaton and my team’s safety was personally guaranteed. It was one of most surreal and humbling hours of my life.
And late yesterday afternoon - we got what we came for . This is an image that can be looked at for a long time - like my Mankind shot from 2014 there is so much going on. Just with that Dinka community, smoke is integral to the way of life in Makako, but for different reasons. In the slum, they cook on coal and my preconception was that the resultant smoke had to play an integral role in the image.The end result is better than I could conceivably have imagined when we embarked on the planning in December,
But then again what of the aforementioned relevance ? At a time when globalisation is being overun by nationalism and regional eliticism, I think this split second image showcases both the beauty and dignity of black Africa. Of course, I homed in on the 2 central characters in the lead boat - they may have 30 year between them, but both could walk into a Hollywood blockbuster tomorrow. It is my creative right to chose the ideal subjects for the narrative, but they were entirely representative of the physical beauty that personifies many of the inhabitants of the community.
The world may see Makoko as marginalised and irrelevant , but the inhabitants do not appear to see it that way - I saw no sense of self pity - just pride. Globalisation has not helped the slum, so its faltering premise has no consequence. Of course ,family life goes on for both the rich and the poor in Lagos irrespective of changible ideological within G7 countries. There is an uncomfortably patronising undertone to much of today’s politics of nationalism and Makoko is a gentle reminder that human dignity is not exclusive to international communites of affluence.
Aligned to this is the importance of showing and earning respect in alien cultures. We were safe in Makoko, partly because we visited the chief and showed him respect as well as dollars. Equally, in the build up to this photograph, we showed all the respect we could to the many hundreds of people that surrounded us.
I was chest deep in some of the dirtiest water in the world - with unimaginable things floating past my face. With no one of our skin colour ( other than my dry assistant) probably within a radius of 5 miles of our location (and this is second biggest city in the world) it would be excusable to be tense. That never works. But throughout the day, we kept our dignity and manners and mostly just smiled. It was then that we probably earnt Makoko’s respect - after that, all was good. We were even clapped.
I will leave others to decide whether this picture has that “Holy Trinity” but it’s the best I can do. My hunch is that it will stand the test of time.
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Image: 56" x 79" (143 cm x 201 cm)
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