Art is a depiction of the consciousness of a particular time and contemporarily evolves through the beautiful minds of that period. A plethora of beautiful minds exist right now in Africa and it’s an auspicious time and place to look, as the world is perpetually trying to discover unexplored forms. Young Africans’ approach to life and art have been uniquely shaped by a confluence of global influences in European curriculum, western media, and the internet. One young African creating at a high level is Thompson Ekong, a Nigerian photographer with many opinions in his depictions that vary from self-empowerment to love and mental health, He has exhibited work in Nigeria, England, and Ukraine, and featured on Nigerian and British publications.
I caught up with Thompson Ekong at his home to have a chat surrounding his documentation of a growing Nigerian millennial subculture, the experience of being a photographer in Nigeria, creating multidimensionally, and some venting.
Last year ushered the growth of a fresh breed of Nigerian millennials vying for a place in the local and international music industries. I observed you are credited for much of their visuals and promotional content, was there a specific direction you applied to your images of Lady Donli, Odunsitheengine, Tay Iwar, Santi, etc?
It was a different process for each of them because they have different vibes and energies through their music, Donli’s music doesn’t sound like Santi’s music, Odunsi, Zamir, Tay, GMK, all have distinct sounds and for me to shoot them I needed to understand them first as people behind their art.
I spent close to two weeks each time, immersing myself in their spaces and understanding how best they could be projected, and that was basically the whole process.
One could say you played the role of a documentary photographer?
You could put it like that… but also you can’t put it like that cause in and out, I wasn’t there as a documentary photographer or anything like that, it was just me loving the music and being like ‘Yo let’s shoot this, this is how this could be like and how we can do it’. The vibes of the music was the main energy not necessarily anyone, so it’s just like if I liked your music and vibed with your energy, I’d want to document that, not really me being a documentary photographer, it was more like moving around with my friends just trying to create something out of nothing.
I use the word ‘Like’ a lot.
You dabble in Portraiture for artistes, Fashion, and Conceptual Photography, how have you managed to excel in all?
I create multidimensionally, it’s just me visualizing some stuff that I want to see in the world. Like if I want to see Fanta green, something that has never been made, I’ll make the Fanta green man cause that’s what I want to see, in terms of the conceptual aspect, it’s me bringing all my ideas to life and all my dreams to reality, or me saying ‘This is what I want to do and I have to do this thing cause I’ve said I have to do this thing’.
For the music, the multidimension is wanting to create based on stuff that I’ve seen now but I want to make ten years ahead. If the music is very futuristic, I can have a lot of fun creating multidimensionally, at the end of the day it all boils down to the music and the artiste.
The fashion thing in Lagos is just a meow p… It’s only if you know what you want, or you know the kind of vibe you want to give everyone through the clothing and you do it. I distanced myself from the fashion scene here because I couldn’t find solace there. It felt like people trying to be on the same cruise, sometimes the same designs, other times it’s not, although all ideas are free. If I really want to have a fashion shoot I’ll have it because I know I’m good at it, it’s angles and what you wanna portray through the fabrics or the color, or the skin tone, or whatever you choose to focus on. It’s basically how you choose to finesse it. It also depends on the fashion house itself, whether it’s clear about its direction and if they want your distinct input, they’ll reach out to you.
Of all those forms, which is your favorite?
Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will. We take photos of people we want the world to learn from. Do not just create things out of routine. Study the world around you, then build the plugins that make your world more lively.
Your notoriety amongst Nigerian Millennials is a whisker short of folklore, what is it like holding this superstar status amongst creatives, the chosen one, in a manner of speaking?
I don’t like to look at it as a status thing, It’s just me creating what I see cause most people don’t gauge and I just want to be more advanced than everyday people, to be far ahead of the curve, me being the chosen one, is just… it is what it is, I’ve put in the work, I’ve done everything I have so far. I still have to finesse it, and I haven’t done enough, I’ve barely even started really, but to people, it’s like ‘oh, you’ve done a lot’ but I haven’t done what I want to do. So I don’t think about the whole status thing so much, and I don’t gauge it that way, I just gauge it as the chosen one to help people get their dreams to come true, visually or anyway else and just trying to connect everyone and be like the head servant.
How has self-promotion helped push your brand and better your craft in the age of social media?
If you don’t hype yourself no one will hype for you and you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re one of the greatest, stand by it no matter what anyone tells you and I just like putting my work out there because I don’t know what someone may be going through and what my work can do for somebody, they might be about to commit suicide and just see one image they connect to and they’re just like ‘Damn there’s more to life, there’s still hope’. It’s also me putting work out there cause you shouldn’t pile work up for yourself, you won’t be able to create more because you haven’t let those ones go. It’s needed for a clear head so you approach new stuff from ground zero again.
What does it take for a young photographer in Nigeria to not be broke?
As a young photographer in this country, you’ll still be broke every now and again, unless everyone’s mentality can change, and it’s only a few that value photography and have the capacity to pay you (when it’s not about free work or portfolio building). In terms of financing your photography, it’s difficult because they’re a lot of photographers… a lot of guys with cameras, so if you say 150k (Naira), and the next person they call say 60k, they’ll go for that 60k, unless they know that your work is worth 150k, which may still be a devaluation of your work. So If you’re a young photographer you just have to keep creating because your work keeps evolving and keeps going and people keep seeing it and it’s not meow work, it’s not the same thing, you can just keep finessing it, but in terms of people paying certain amounts of money, it’s really hard.
How do you feel about the evolution of photography among millennials in recent years?
Yeah, it’s definitely evolved from the norms to like the new stuff everyone is doing now and yeah it has evolved cause, once you inspire people and people see dope shit, and believe that this can be created and definitely they know that there’s hope and we don’t have to shoot the same way the older generation of photographers did and there’s a chance to break the simulation.
Can you recount a tale of your struggles encountered growing as a young photographer in Nigeria?
Don’t wanna go too deep. I would say, trying to get your balance from a client.
What are your long-term goals? And how do you envision the bigger picture of photography in coming generations in Nigeria, Africa at large
Long term goals… I’m not going to be a photographer for a very long time but it’ll be in my name, so I will stop at some point. But before that, I want to create a lifetime of photography that’ll keep inspiring people no matter what year you’re in, no matter what zone you’re in, if my work keeps inspiring people that’s all that matters. And it helps the country too because the pictures are products.
Photography will evolve because as artists you have to keep evolving and now everyone is being woke, and I don’t think anyone wants to stay in the same place anymore.
The future is important, the future isn’t something we just enter, we make it, from now.
Who are your greatest influences?
(Kanye) West, (Steve) Jobs, Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli). The three of them created products that helped the world, Jobs made Apple, Ye made Yeezy’s, through his music through his clothes, through his art, through his ranting. Miyazaki made a whole wonderland for me with Studio Ghibli, and he was a type of person that reasoned like me because he wanted to see the stuff he saw in his head in reality and the only way for him to bring it out was by sketching them into animations. Most of the stuff in his animations are the things he saw when he took walks in Japan, and that’s exactly how I try to approach my photography. Yes! and Adenuga (Skepta) can’t believe I forgot that. So those are the four guys Jobs, West, Miyazaki, and Adenuga.
Skepta influenced me in so many ways, going through his life from him being a roadman, him being himself, him carrying his family and his guys as a unit, as one, him taking a stand for the things he believes in, he’s always plotting and keeps believing, and even when he’s still being a roadman he’s clean and knows what to do at every turn, it’s very inspiring.
Still, on Skepta, you’ve worked closely with him on the last two occasions he was in Nigeria, you’ve had very candid photos of him, how was that, having Skepta as a subject?
Most of the key photos I took of him, he wasn’t aware at the moment I took them, and even though he’s my idol, I never behave like a fan around him, I’m just calm, I’m just the guy he sees every time with a camera, and he’s just like “yo, wagwan” he might even pass me the zoot (laughs) and he just tells me stuff like ‘bro, you need to do more stuff, you’re the great one” galvanizing words. Most of the Images are candids, he’s always moving so when I’m moving with him he’s hardly aware. I think candids are the best.
You reference ‘the kids’ often in your work, how integral do you think these kids will be to a new Nigeria?
That depends on us, literally, because our parents were brought into a world that was like paper mâché, or a cracked Pokemon ball, the world for them was just not together, but then they had to have kids and be the superheroes or the cleaners that would sweep away a lot of the corruption and the negativity, they tried their best but those things are still here, and we have to finish off from where they left off and be the superheroes of now so we need to finesse this generation so the kids that are coming in next won’t have the same issues that we suffer in this generation. The previous generation it was mostly money and the the likes, but now we suffer from mental health anxiety, drug use, and abuse, so we need to understand the kids, everyone needs to know that if we’re coming no one is playing, let’s get get everything together, let’s create the future, let’s do a lot of dope things, they need to know that because it’s for the kids man, it’s for the next generation, and after the next generation it’s the next generation, if you’re doing something for the world, and if you’re doing it with your heart, you want to drop a product that has so much meaning that even when you die, from generation to generation it keeps going. So basically that’s why I keep saying for the kids, the kids with the ideas never die, and even when they do, their ideas never die, that’s what it means.
There’s an ongoing conversation amongst Nigerian millennials predominantly on social media, it’s about the new age, or the new generation, or the new school as many have different ways of interpreting it. To some, it’s likened to what you said about creating for this next generation. How relevant do you think this new age is to African millennials building a self-sufficient Africa?
It’s possible, but it needs to be created, it needs to be there because without what we’re doing now, kids won’t have anything to say about what came before, what we’re doing now. People don’t understand that we’re the same human race but we keep trying to pull each other down, and at the end of the day we all have the same blood, and we’re meant to help each other cause we’re all going for that same goal which is ultimately bigger than us. So no matter what anybody is saying, Alte, New Age, New School, whatever, the fact that you’re in this generation is what you’ll be remembered for. The internet is one of the biggest keys right now, but people take social media too deep, everyone will be fine, but we, the key holders or gatekeepers, the ones that know what they want and what they want to do for the culture, or for Nigeria or Africa as a whole, they’re the ones that you know they’ll spaz, so no matter what, it’s just how it is, we have to, cause if we don’t do it no-one will, it’s definitely not our parents that work nine to five’s, and amongst many of my peers no-one really wants to work a nine to five, so we have to build, it’s just how it is.
In April, J. Cole came to Nigeria for a concert and the crowd sang along to practically the whole set, I was in that crowd and it was a mad energy. Then the videos from the concert come out and there was this reaction like ‘Africans have iPhones?’, the perceptions are still very skewed.
They’ll be fine. It’s what people see they take. but if you know you know, like I said, the internet is the most powerful thing It’s what someone sees online that they’ll take, unless you really know how it is in reality with those people, if they see on the internet that Lagos, Nigeria doesn’t have anything modern it really shouldn’t bother us, everyone will be fine. It just had to happen and it’s happened and it’s there. Let’s move forward, positively.
A word for younger creatives?
Now is important, now we’re together as a unit, as one, now is important to create what we believe in, to take that step towards what we believe in. The future is important, the future isn’t something we just enter, we make it, from now. Art, now. future, now. Office, products, now. Everything is now, every decision you make now is what is going to move you to the next phase. I’ve learned how to take life more lightly and understand the spectrum of human emotions through Anime. So to creatives, now is important, the future is not something we enter it’s something we make. Far too many people are focused on acting out a role rather than getting their hands dirty. Less Instagram theatrics, more actual work.
There’s an advent of awareness amongst of Nigerian creatives that have made them more embracing of their identity, and expressive enough to have their presence profoundly felt through hashtags like #WeareNigerianCreatives which provides an index which quantifies their existence to citizens of the world looking to see what Africa is up to and a light to look out for young Africans aspiring to make a living through more unconventional means. Although one hashtag does not encompass all, it does at least highlight a presence, to find more flowers in the cracks one must dig deeper.
I haven’t really involved with the hashtag but I think it’s a good initiative to spotlight the different things young Nigerians can do and already doing,” said Daniel Obasi, Another Millennial Nigerian Photographer making great strides with his work.
“I could be a 17-year-old student studying something in business or law and may not necessarily be my dream but because there are no proper institutions here in Nigeria for certain art-related career it’s obviously gonna be difficult to say that’s the field you want to go into…. but when you come across works by self taught Nigerian artists through social media or through that hashtag…. I feel such a person could actually be inspired.”
There’s a lot of creative activity transpiring in Africa under the world’s radar, and as the world’s attention span inevitably pans, there is a lot to be excited about from the motherland in the near future.
Thompson Ekong on Instagram; @___tse & Twitter; @TSE___