A SHIP CALLED DIGNITY
Lagos, Nigeria 2017
Great photographs implicitly should be rare. They tend to be moments in time that can never be repeated. I have said – on record – that an affirming year for me would be three or more cracking images, but I recognise 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. Photographers can be reluctant to acknowledge how boring much of their work can be, but this is an area in which I have learnt.
In my mind, if a contemporary 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 needed to elevate an image to a higher pantheon – the dynamic of relevance. This is the most elusive of the “Holy Trinity” of factors I strive to attain. Wildlife portraits, for instance, no matter how threatened the animal in question might be to extinction, often fall down on this criterion. Such images can be 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 formidable 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 do not seemingly have the answer as to how many people live there – it could be 100,000 but it could be 200,000. It may be 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 my kids’ 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. Last Saturday, I had my audience with Makoko’s Chief Aladaton and my team’s safety was personally guaranteed. It was one of the most surreal and humbling hours of my life.
Later in the week, I think we got what we came for. This image that can be looked at for a long time – like my Mankind shot from 2014, there is a great deal going on. Just with that Dinka community, smoke is integral to the way of life in Makoko, 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 overrun by nationalism and regional elitism, I think this image showcases both the beauty and dignity of black West Africa. I accept that there is an element of reductionism in terms of looking at a very complex place through a portrayal of strong facial aesthetic and personal dignity. But that was the story I wanted to tell. The world does not need another hackneyed “poor Makoko” story – least of all the Chief and his understudies.
I intentionally focused on the two central characters in the lead boat – they may have 30 years between them, but either could walk on to a Hollywood film set tomorrow. It is my creative right to choose the ideal subjects for the narrative, but they were 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 resolve and family values. 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 changeable ideological currents within G7 countries. There is an uncomfortably patronising undertone to much of today’s politics of nationalism and the image is a gentle reminder that human dignity is not exclusive to international communities 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 probably within a radius of five miles of our location (and this is fifth biggest city in the world) it would be excusable to be tense. That never works and throughout the day, we kept our dignity and manners and mostly just smiled. We probably earnt Makoko’s respect and trust – and after that, all was good. Trust is a gel that works both ways – we were even clapped at the end of the day.
I will leave others to decide whether this picture has that “Holy Trinity”. I see beauty in it, rather than a vignette of a dark slum and when I returned to Makoko and showed the picture to the Chief, he warmly embraced me. On this occasion, he was perhaps the critic that mattered.