In his brilliant book of essays on Africa the writer and reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski describes a stay in the former Nigerian capital Lagos in the late 1960s. Outside of the enclaves of the rich, the powerful and the European, he writes, it was a city composed of provisional, almost notional neighbourhoods. The island at its centre, once a staging post for slave traders, seemed haunted by violence and exile. In terms of its layout and architecture, it was an archipelago of ‘elemental happenings’, of improvised and doomed dwellings. Kapuscinski conjectures: ‘it is they, and not Manhattan and the Parisian La Défense, that represent the highest achievement of human imagination, ingenuity and fantasy. An entire city erected without a single brick, metal rod, or square metre of glass!’ If Lagos – a city of 13 million people, projected to be the third largest in the world by 2025 – has since acquired many more permanent structures, the photographs in ‘Depth of Field’ suggest that mutability is still its defining visual characteristic.
The show’s title is taken from the name of the photographic collective to which all six exhibiting artists belong. Depth of Field, founded at the fourth Rencontre de la Photographie Africaine (Meeting of African Photography) in Mali in 2001, provides a weekly forum for photographers, whose medium has yet to be recognized by Nigerian art schools and whose work is daily hampered by suspicion. (It is not uncommon for photographers to have their equipment confiscated by the police or to be themselves mistaken for the police.) In Uchechukwa James-Iroha’s images of the city’s night markets, the inherent danger of photographing this place becomes an opportunity to see its nocturnal frenzy corralled into discrete strata. The photographer is safer in the dark, even in the most disreputable districts. Here the city divides into pure darkness, blazing traffic and a flickering constellation of kerosene lamps.
This sense that, visually as well as logistically, Lagos oscillates between apparent chaos and actual order, is present too in Kelechi Amadi-Obi’s panoramic views of one of the city’s pivotal intersections: Yaba bus stop. There are no areas designated for markets, and so trade takes place at crossroads and bus depots or along the railway lines, from which whole neighbourhoods calmly retreat at the approach of a train. The result, in Amadi-Obi’s work, with its long exposures and abundant detail, is an image of the city as obscurely regimented: organized according to the blurred yellow trails of buses and the insistence of habits long embedded in communities that might nonetheless vanish at the whim of a government official. The chaos is ruled by a visual logic quite at odds with the billboard at the centre of the bus depot: ‘Network Your Way to Wealth’.
Elsewhere the signage itself suggests the way in which photography, the object of understandable distrust on the part of many of the photographers’ subjects, is bound up with economics and aspiration. A hoarding declares: ‘Digital Advancement Photo: 2 minutes digital passport photograph’. Perhaps the photographer, Emeka Okereke (whose photographs of the city’s markets capture on a more intimate scale their regulated agitation), has spotted a promise as potent as those adorning the city’s flyovers: ‘Famous Blood Tonic ... Painkil: the great pain reliever’. Okereke shares with Amaize Ojeikere a commitment to a rather classical black and white typology of urban detail. But the latter has more of an eye for oddity, framing massed objects (mobile phone covers, plastic water containers, market-stall wristwatches) as counterpoints to the streets’ dialectic of difference and repetition.
Toyosi Odunsi and Toyin Sokefun tell more personal stories about Lagos. Both engage with their subjects over long periods of time, gaining their trust for a medium that here, as in the more distanced images of their colleagues, captures communities that might at any moment have to be not just reimagined but entirely rebuilt. Odunsi photographs Kuramo beach, where the ramshackle bars, run mostly by under-18s, are periodically bulldozed by the police (who, it is said, habitually rape the prostitutes who work there). Sokefun works in similarly intimate colour with a very different milieu, that of worshippers at the London offshoots of Nigeria’s Celestial Church of Christ: images that recapture a Lagos now lost both to the emigrant and the city itself.