• PROOF:
  • February 28, 2014

Musings: Glenna Gordon’s Nigeria Ever After

Glenna Gordon is not a wedding crasher, at least not most of the time. More often than not, she has some connection to the wedding she is photographing for her project Nigeria Ever After. “Every now and then, not that often, I full-on crash weddings,” she says. On a slow weekend, she’ll peruse the streets of Lagos in search of well dressed ladies clearly headed to a nuptial celebration. Frequently, they will enthusiastically invite her to come along. At the wedding, she always introduces herself to the bride and groom and, even more importantly, to their parents. Gordon explains who she is and what she is doing but, more often than not, they are too busy to pay attention to her.

Groom Shadrach Uchenna, a wedding photographer, and his bride Ekpo Peace Emem sit at the front of a banquet hall during the wedding as guests greet them in Lagos, Nigeria.
Groom Shadrach Uchenna, a wedding photographer, and his bride Ekpo Peace Emem sit at the front of a banquet hall during the wedding as guests greet them in Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph by Glenna Gordon
An opulent wedding for nearly a thousand guests was held at the banquet hall of a private housing estate in Lagos, Nigeria. Guests wear matching outfits and hats chosen by the bride's family.
An opulent wedding for nearly a thousand guests was held at the banquet hall of a private housing estate in Lagos, Nigeria. Guests wear matching outfits and hats chosen by the bride’s family.

With every intention of pursuing a writing career after journalism school, Gordon never planned on being a photographer. After graduation from Columbia University, she visited her brother who was living in Rwanda. This lead to her decision to move to Kampala, Uganda.

“When I was first living in Africa and working as a journalist, I would write a story and take my own pictures and people would be like ‘Oh great story…loved that picture!’ It was sort of a surreal process for me to decide to focus on photography completely. I was really torn for a long time and I didn’t want to lose the part of myself that was a writer, but I also figured out eventually that my first instinct in any situation was to take a picture, not to write something down.”

A male guest dances at the women's celebration during a Muslim wedding in Jos, central Nigeria. Muslim weddings have separate celebrations for women and for men though there is some mixing.
A male guest dances at the women’s celebration during a Muslim wedding in Jos, central Nigeria. Muslim weddings have separate celebrations for women and for men though there is some mixing.
A bridesmaid collects "spray"—Naira notes (and sometimes dollars too) thrown at the couple as they dance. While spraying is technically illegal and considered an abuse of currency by the Nigerian government, the practice is common and shows the importance of displaying wealth and excess during celebrations.
A bridesmaid collects “spray”—Naira notes (and sometimes dollars too) thrown at the couple as they dance. While spraying is technically illegal and considered an abuse of currency by the Nigerian government, the practice is common and shows the importance of displaying wealth and excess during celebrations.

In 2012, Gordon was invited to Nigeria to do a residency at the African Artists Foundation in Lagos. She was searching for a project when she saw an article on CNN about Nigeria’s wedding business. “I was like bam, that’s it.” Originally thinking she would do this as a side project and focus her attention on a bigger story on the country’s economic infrastructure, she has since decided to devote her time solely to documentary wedding photography.

One of the ways she first gained access was through Nigerian wedding photographers. “I emailed a million of them and then a few let me tag along to weddings they were shooting or told me about weddings they knew about from their photographer friends.” This is an approach she still uses.

On her last visit to Jos, a city in the Middle Belt of Nigeria, she visited a photo studio to inquire if they knew of any upcoming weddings. As it turned out, one of the guys who worked there was getting married that weekend. “It was great because his wife was really comfortable being photographed. She is the one in the wedding dress walking through her neighborhood on the way to church.”

Christiana Etim walks through her neighborhood in Jos on her way to the church to get married.
Christiana Etim walks through her neighborhood in Jos on her way to the church to get married.
A young girl, who says she's 18, prepares to be the second wife of a civil servant during the women's part of her wedding ceremony in conservative Muslim northern Nigeria.
A young girl, who says she’s 18, prepares to be the second wife of a civil servant during the women’s part of her wedding ceremony in conservative Muslim northern Nigeria.

Gordon is often mistaken for one of the “wait-and-get” photographers who show up to take pictures, then rush out to get them printed and return to sell the prints back to the guests. She will get asked by guests if she is “washing”—a term that refers to darkroom developing in the days of film. Most “wait-and-get” photographers now use digital. Some even carry little portable printers around with them.

If anything, this makes Gordon’s presence more welcomed: random photographers showing up is just a part of the Nigerian wedding experience. “For the most part, at the really big weddings, no one pays attention to me because there are so many different things going on at any given moment that I’m just one of 20 crazy things happening.” She describes the chaos: caterers passing out hors d’oeuvres, a battalion of other photographers, women arguing over giveaway gifts such as toilet brush cleaners and dish soap detergent.

The mother of the bride always chooses
The mother of the bride always chooses “Mommy Lace” — a fabric that all of her friends will purchase and have tailored into dresses they wear to the wedding. At the wedding, guests will often collect bags with the couple’s name on them like this one for Biola and Bade, and then fill them with other gifts that are passed around the wedding, such as household goods, notebooks, or other small items also marked with the couple’s names.

“There is a real culture of reciprocity; you give gifts and you get gifts,” Gordon explains. This exchange is an important custom at Nigerian weddings. Gordon herself has several of these gifts from the weddings she has photographed, one in particular is a cheese grater with the bride and groom’s name stamped on it.

A chicken runs through the bridal tent in Yaba, a working class neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria.
A chicken runs through the bridal tent in Yaba, a working class neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria.

I asked what she hopes viewers take away from Nigeria Ever After and the slice of African life it portrays. Along with a sense of celebration of these extraordinary weddings Nigerians throw, Gordon hopes to tell a very specific story about Africa. She wants viewers to see the variety and differences in cultures and economic classes in Nigeria. But she also wants people to see Nigerians just having a good time. Using the young man dancing in one of her photos as an example, she remarks that he “looks like he could be a Brooklyn hipster.” She thinks people can connect with that: “they’re going to be like, ‘that looks like my cousin dancing at my wedding!’”

Follow Glenna Gordon on her website.

There are 10 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Titilayo
    March 7, 2014

    I’m Nigerian and I’d like to note that every tribe has their own traditional wedding dress and ceremonies. These are a mix of Yoruba and Igbo weddings. Also a few notes the brides family does not choose matching outfits and hats for guests… they just choose fabric. You then take the fabric to the tailor and make a dress of your choosing. Furthermore, what the women wear on their heads are not hats; they are “gele” a stiff piece of fabric tied about the head also known as a head dress. My family is Muslim and I’ve been to countless Muslim Nigerian weddings and I’ve never been to a Muslim wedding or known of having separate celebrations for men and women so I’m not sure if that is something new or specific to that family or town.

  2. Emmanuel Bright-Davies
    March 3, 2014

    Awesome collection and write up.

  3. Susan Welchman
    March 2, 2014

    The interview style with photographer, unique phrasing, the extended captions, Gordon’s viewpoint all add up to a great post. The volume on PROOF just got turned up. Thank you to Jenna Turner.

  4. Susan welchman
    March 2, 2014

    PS: I forgot to mention the images which are active, have bright clear light, varying view points, and caught moments . Well edited selection. All together fine job.

  5. littledarling
    March 2, 2014

    All the women in the banquet hall dons the same color hat. It’s funny!

  6. WILLIAM WALLACE
    March 1, 2014

    I find it appalling, spending such extravagant monies on a wedding, why don’t they have a modest wedding, and spend the rest of the monies clearing the debris outside.

  7. Lydia
    March 1, 2014

    Dear Kerry Pooler-Payton please notice that this article is not about “African” Weddings in general but solely about Nigerian Weddings. In other African countries Weddings might be very different. (I’m sorry but I always get a stomachache when such an enormous continent is being generalized to one place) But I agree, it’s a very interesting article.

  8. Tari Ogounga
    March 1, 2014

    I’m Nigerian and I find this interesting.(even though I didn’t bother to read the whole thing)

  9. Kerry Pooler-Payton
    February 28, 2014

    What an interesting insight to the traditions of African Weddings. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about different wedding traditions. Thanks for sharing it.

  10. JULIE
    February 28, 2014

    especially love to chicken photograph… for the seemingly random and silly cameo, how it places the bridal tent into the context of the community where the festivities are happening, and the beautiful colors and textures. So many levels of meaning here. thanks!

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