I knew there would be culture shock going from Santa Monica, California to Lagos, Nigeria, but I never expected it to be so profound.
Biggest shocker? Lagos definitely isn’t some little African city nobody’s heard of. Lagos, by most estimates, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. In fact, Lagos is the second fastest growing city in Africa and the seventh fastest growing worldwide. Predictions have been made that Lagos will be the third largest mega city on the planet by 2015! As Americans, we admittedly assume we’re the center of the universe, but the reality is Nigeria alone boasts 170 million people. That’s nearly 60% of the U.S. population in a space the size of Texas.
Alongside my naïve assumption that Lagos was “some small city in Africa,” I inaccurately pictured a quaint, easy-to-get-around, not-so-built-up town. Wrong again. Lagos is huge. I mean HUGE! It’s a sprawling, very densely populated city that is crowded and congested like I’ve never seen before in my life.
Can we talk “traffic?” I arrived at Lagos airport at 2:00 p.m. and was in the car until 9:00 p.m. trying to get to dinner arrangements that included a mere pit stop at my hotel to drop off my bags. The traffic was so intense that my colleagues and I literally gave up on our group dinner only to end up back at the hotel. We managed to coax a dinner out of the staff, which took another two hours. Nothing in Lagos is fast. Lol!
I came to learn that Lagosians plan their life around this deplorable amount of traffic, which means they don’t go far nor attempt too many things in a given day. It was amazing to see how adaptive the people were while facing something we’d find so incredibly frustrating here in the states!
One day, renowned Photographer Joe McNally (National Geographic) and I set out for an early morning photographers’ photo safari. Fun, right? We got as far as the gate to leave the compound and turned back around. Why? You guessed it. Traffic. It was so unbearable we may have only circled the hotel for several hours, so we took our safari to the hotel restaurant and had breakfast instead. One thing we did see “trying” to head out was that many people live in gated communities or behind barbed wire fences with heavy gates and security guards. And the guards curiously wearing flip-flops. I could not help but think how easily a thief could incapacitate a guard by simply stepping on their toes!
The second day I spoke at NiPHEC, the Nigerian International Photographic Expo and Conference. This was the vision of Seun Akisanmi, a local Lagos photographer who, without sponsorship or much support, pulled off a four-day event. I’m telling you, the logistics could not have been easy. SHOUT OUT TO SEUN!
Arriving at the conference was like arriving as a Hollywood celebrity. I have never had so many people wanting to take pictures with me, in my life! The photo-op did not stop for what seemed like forever, but at the same time, it was the sweetest welcome gesture from such a kind, sincere and appreciative group of people that I may have ever imagined.
Lagos the city, with its massive growth, bustling citizens, and intense congestion is prime it for its story to be told in pictures. It’s a photojournalist’s “capture a glimpse of it now” mecca. I hope the conference helped elevate the awareness of photography as art, for photography, parallel to storytelling, is undeniably important to the history of this city and its culture. Photographs of Lagos during this time are literally visual chronicles of a city undergoing immense growing pains, headed for huge transformation.
There was beauty to be found in my experience, the juxtaposition of many unrelated things. Saturday I walked the streets. We saw the sites and took a few pictures, even though we got hounded by people wanting us to pay a fee to take those pictures. One guy at the beach had fake sanitation tickets and wanted us to pay to see the beach. We refused. I guess if you live there it might make compassionate sense to think of it as a civil tax that helps people survive, but honestly, I’m not there yet.
It’s the rawness of the culture that also allowed us to climb up these towers that were surrounded by dangerous construction material. There, we got a spectacular view of the city as we had climbed up one of the tallest places around. You would have never been allowed to do that in the U.S. because of “liability issues.”
Sunday, there was no traffic as everyone was at church, no really!! Sunday was almost traffic-free. It was awesome! I was finally able to move around the city. I started to get a better understanding for Lagos as a whole. It’s a city clashing against itself, it’s massive size, its growing population, and new found oil revenue. You could even go so far as to compare it the wild wild west during the Gold Rush. Eventually, I can only assume Lagos’ success will force the infrastructure to catch up. After all, a city of this magnitude and capacity cannot feature regular power outages during the day or endure streets with crater-size potholes. I‘m just saying…
And a moment to share my thoughts on the people: We often take for granted the remarkable differences in the lives of people, what sets us apart from each other, miles apart, and I’m not just talking geography. It would be hard to even conceive without witnessing it for yourself. For example, in and amongst the city of Lagos lives a tribe, the Egun. The Egun live in the water of a lagoon, between the mainland and Lagos Island. This tribe exists on wood boats and huts that are built on stilts. The inhabitants sail out to the mouth of the channel and fish, living almost independently from the city dwellers around them. Check out my image, of what is known as the Makoko Slum.
What a gift for me to gaze over at this tribe and their way of life, firsthand. There is beauty to be seen in the diversity found among life across the planet. It just takes me back, leaving me humbled, grateful, and curious. Quite a long ways away from the mind-blowing conveniences are famous estates and the incredible restaurants of my native Santa Monica! How easy it is to forget…
…although I did get to see the The Shrine, the home of one of one of my heros, Afro Beat sensation Fela Kuti. I used my Sony A900 with the SteadyShot anti-shake to capture these last two images at 1/4 second handheld, crazy!