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Depth of Field

Depth of Field (DOF) collective, a group made up of six Nigerian photographers, whose work, often centred on the street life of Lagos, mingles between conceptual photography and documentary. We join them on the streets.

The sun beats down mercilessly, burning the very inside of my frailness. I wander the streets in an abject daze looking for I don’t really know what. Other pedestrians glide by, they too suffering under the intolerable heat. They used to say that only mad dogs and Englishmen walk about in this heat. These days it’s the impoverished and jobless, those unable to buy air conditioners and the requisite generator, or electrical fans that swirl the air in cooling arcs, or the simple shade of an enlarged umbrella. Mad dogs, Englishmen and in recent years, in ever more numbers, photographers. They weave their paths throughout the cities and towns of the Federation, working in various ways to image the nation. They form a perception of the country, a picture of the geographical area known today as Nigeria. Their images grace our billboards, fill the celebrity pages of our newspapers and magazines, and imprint themselves in our image of ourselves. We are family, appropriately clothed, going out to the shopping mall, to the beach, to the insurance expert who smiles beneficently back. We stride forward confidently to the bank, the car dealers, that bottle of so cool beer. In the celebrity pages, opulence overflows. Well-fed faces stare back at us; politicians, business tycoons, the rich and powerful, in expensive dress, in wondrous settings.

Sweat pours down my sides as I continue on my wanderings. I am almost oblivious to the traffic sounds and the cries of hawkers, so imbedded are they in my exhaustion. And then suddenly I become acutely tense. My senses key in on a particular sight. I focus from within, not even bringing the camera up towards my eyes. My whole body moves without moving back and forth, or from side to side, or around and back. People look awkwardly at me, gradually understanding what I am about.

These days, there is a breadth of understanding for the street photographer. We are tolerated, sometimes even encouraged. There were years when there was almost a deadly aversion against taking photographs in public. And before then, a golden decade or so when the images of Sunmi Smart-Cole graced the pages of the Guardian. This writer, an inveterate wanderer, met street barbers in Kano who immediately understood his requests.

That was some twenty years ago, when we were younger and in many ways more innocent. Photography was younger then too, more clearly defined. There were studios for taking portraits and for hiring out their proprietors – for marriage, convocation, or party pictures. There were press photographers like Sunmi Smart-Cole and the already then famous Peter Obe, whose searing images of our ignoble civil war are part of what is called our national legacy. Perhaps more than any other photographer of his time, Peter Obe understood the inherent visual message of the turmoil before and around him. A turmoil that continued in a somewhat different form even after the hostilities had come to an end. There was studio photography, press photography and a third vital branch, commercial or advertising photography. Here we meet an important personality in J.D. Okhai Ojeikere. In the late fifties he worked as a documentary photographer for the first ever African television station, WNTV in Ibadan, in the then Western Region. He later moved to Lagos and worked successfully for many years as a commercial editorial photographer. All the while he photographed personal projects, one of which has become an icon of West African art, his work on Nigerian women’s hairstyles. Working unobtrusively, he built up a body of work that is rigorous and powerful in its visual stringency. Spare black and white images that sing praise songs to the ingenuity of our women hairstylists. The images go in close, focus strictly on the subject matter, leave hardly any room for superfluous detail.

This work shows the close relationship between photography and the concept of being, the ‘we’ and the ‘us’ out there. The beautiful heads of our women graced with their latest hair-dos, the frontal, side and back shots that show us, the viewers, how they, we look like photographically.

It is important to stress that the photographs are just that; well wrought images of ladies who stood before the camera and allowed their hair-do to be photographed. In this magic moment we perceive an inkling of both the personality behind the image and the personality who took the image. In this coming together – in the moment the shutter tripped, the latent image on the undeveloped film, the art Pa Ojeikere brought to bear in development, editing the contact sheets, printing – we partake and eventually receive a mediated image that tells us something about ourselves. The almost indefinable ‘us’ becomes visible.

Studio photographers still ply their trade though they often work in coordination with videographers. The advent of digital imagery makes the workflow faster, almost frenetic. The press in Nigeria has literally mushroomed, generating masses of poorly printed newsprint. Magazines too dominate the urge to celebrate the celebrity. And more than ever billboards vie for space on the edges of our city streets and highways.

Into all this comes a new generation of camera artists intent on having their own say. Coming out of Nigeria’s few art schools, like the Yaba College of Technology in Lagos or the university art programs at Port Harcourt, Zaria, Nsukka, or having learned from older, well-established photographers, these younger artists are noticeable for their energy and drive. Those in Lagos often meet at exhibitions and or workshops, exchange ideas amongst themselves, talk and socialize, give encouragement to each other.

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It is in Lagos where a collective of such young photographers are gradually gaining notice, nationally and internationally. They are two women and four men, all of whom are from the South of the country and range in age from early twenties to the mid thirties. Initially Toyin Sokefun, Amaize Ojeikere (son of J.D. Okhai Ojeikere), Uche James-Iroha, and Kelechi Amadi-Obi came together after participating in the fourth edition of the Bamako photo biennale in Mali in 2001. Toyosi Zayna b Odunsi and Emeka Okereke joined the group after they all attended a workshop in 2002 in Lagos.

Their collective’s name is Depth of Field (DOF), a double-entendre. The words refer to the zone of visible sharpness in focusing in on a particular subject matter. They also refer to their future goals as serious artists. They seek depth in the fields they intend to explore. They work individually and together, cajole, help, joke with each other. Close friendship bonds them. When time permits they meet regularly and discuss current work. They are not exclusive but bring in and enjoy the company of other artist friends, be they other photographers or painters, singers, dancers.

All six DOF photographers negotiate Lagos in their own particular way. Toyin Sokefun has a strong inclination towards the portrait and, whether working personally or on commission, constantly attempts to portray the personality before her. An outgoing person, she often engages with the sitter before her, coming across with such warmth and energy that barriers break down and people relax. Toyin works intuitively, honing in on the face within the face.

Uche James-Iroha is also interested in portraiture but from a completely different angle. In a powerful body of work he lines up his protagonists and photographs them as a group, be they workers in a slaughterhouse, mechanics, friends, young schoolchildren. Uche studied sculpture at Port Harcourt University and you can recognize this hammer and chisel aspect in his visual images. His photographs often appear bleak, pared down almost to the bone, the essential thingness given to us in subtle measure.

Toyosi Zaynab Odunsi engages herself in long term projects. In images that appear to come from the reportage school of photography, she delves as deep as she can into the lives of her friends and companions. Gradually she builds up a body of work that tells us something about the life of the person portrayed, but that in its depth also says a lot about Zaynab herself. In this Zaynab exemplifies what all the members of DOF are doing, ultimately saying something about themselves as artists.

Saying something about themselves and even more, showing something of themselves. In this showing we glimpse a part, albeit a small part of what it means today to be Nigerian. The showing is visual, is photographic, and has to be really examined. These days photographs are too superficially viewed, competing as they so often do with other visual media. Television especially seduces viewers into superficial viewing, as viewers hardly scan the televised images for the depth of visual content. Photographs are often viewed in a similar manner, with instant visual gratification the uppermost drive.

Amaize Ojeikere’s Clusters series demands careful looking, hours of growing insights into the careful arrangements of market women and men, who daily build up their mini sculptures of proffered wares that hopefully will draw in customers. Amaize asks for permission to photograph the painstakingly arranged wares, drawing attention to this part of the daily negotiation that goes on constantly in big cities. The images read as maps of our urban configurations.

I am deliberately reading into the images. They stare out at us and demand that we read them, try to uncover their hidden prose. Their apparent incoherence, the jumble we look at when we view an image of the cacophony of Yaba bus stop, one of Kelechi Amadi-Obi’s recent panoramic images, is only superficial noise, the screeching and blaring you hear when you actually stand amidst the crush of this bus stop. Listen more intently into the constant rumble and you gradually hear the underlying music.

The camera lens stares outwards, its gaze focused on the subjectivity of its user. In serious, personal work this subjectivity turns in on itself, exposes the personality behind the images. In viewing a body of photographic work we often get to see the mind behind the work, almost as if the work was solely self referential. This too is the case in the collective work of the six DOF photographers. An image comes through of the face of our streets today, at once nebulous and diffuse, as well as concrete and very discernible.

The image is specific. These photographers all live in and work mostly out of Lagos. Lagos is just one of the many large urban conglomerations that make up the entity of what is today Nigeria – each conglomeration has its own particular face. And there are of course the vast tracts of countryside and wetlands, each too with their own particular image. Photographically there is no simple end to the endeavour that today we know as Nigeria. No single image, no vast body of work can capture the ‘ness’ in Nigerianness. Emeka Okereke comes close in an excruciatingly fine-tuned series he called Road to Exile, inside a mortuary in Lagos. He, the youngest member of the group, tackled one of the oldest themes of our very existence, death. Shooting almost off-key and in a very abstract way he attempted to say, show something of the futility of our earthly sojourn.

All six members put great emphasis on their personal work, despite having to manage day-to-day economic survival. All six are also involved in the commercial field of photography. Being still relatively young, they see and are aware of the opportunity to say and image something of today’s Nigeria. Theirs is not a clearly defined program as such, but rather a quest for self-fulfilment and the enhancement of their chosen field of expression. In so doing they give voice, or better said, vision to the constantly ongoing debate of what it means to be ‘us’.


Akinbode Akinbiyi is a photographer. His current work focuses on four major African megalopolises: Cairo, Lagos, Kinshasa, Johannesburg. He has, most recently, curated UrbanreViews – Lagos, a show featuring works by the Depth of Field collective.

This photo essay was first published in Chimurenga Vol. 8: We’re All Nigerian! (December ’05)

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