Is there such a concept as Nigerian identity, photographer Ima Mfon thinks so, he talks to nosmot gbadamosi about his images that explore it. What does it mean to be a Nigerian? To frame the question more decisively – What does it mean to be a Nigerian living in America? These were the two issues photographer Ima Mfon hoped to answer with his black and white series Nigerian Identities. For him, “at least in America where I spent most of my adult life, whether it was in school or in the workplace I found that … it’s usually lumped with either being black or just African as a whole”, says Mfon “when there is so much uniqueness within Nigeria.”
The decision to explore this question through the terrain of black and white lighting was a conscious one. Individuals are photographed on a white background, looking directly at the lens with digitized skin tones so the viewer’s thoughts emerge rather than those of the photographer. “One of my biggest icons or influences is Richard Avedon [American fashion and portrait photographer]. He mostly shot in black and white. He had the ability to convey emotion like no one else, I think that sometimes he can get extreme emotions, if you look at any of his portraits, they are so beautiful and they are so engaging”, he explains.
His images on Lekki market aims to the embody “the chaos” and constant fluidity of Lagos’ markets.
“It wasn’t very flashy and I think that is something I really admire. We are in a generation or an age where it’s all about colour and graphics but I’m very old school because of people like Avedon”, he adds. The project has inevitably attracted controversy on all angles, but for the photographer it’s about unearthing that dialogue.
“It’s a very personal project and I’m not in any means speaking for Nigerians or saying what the Nigerian identity should be – it’s more about me.”
Mfon has a simple answer for those who say his images do not answer the questions it poses. “I do think there is a concept of Nigerian identity and with my project I am not necessarily telling anyone what that concept is I’m more thinking out loud, almost asking questions about it.” Ima Mfon is himself Nigerian-born, graduating with a business degree in the US. Although being interested in photography from an early age, he only recently pursued this – quitting his job in IT consulting to graduate with a Masters in Photography. Past projects include Unmasked – looking at how Africans may have previously found it hard to express themselves overseas, but also how this is changing. “I found myself wearing different masks depending on where I was and it almost became exhausting. After a while you slowly start to unravel and embrace who you are”, he says.
“Right now we are in a generation where it is cool to be African. It wasn’t cool to be African [previously]”.
Mfon has recently shot images for Lagos annual Gaming Expo, which introduces students to online gaming and coding. Having exhibited at the Lagos Photo Festival and Art Basel Miami Beach, he is currently shooting a project on Nigerian youth football players and their relationship with the sport.