Lagos, Nigeria, is Africa’s most populous metropolitan area—with an estimated 21 million inhabitants. It also boasts the biggest economy of any city in Africa, housing some of the richest people on the continent, as well as huge numbers of poor.
Robin Hammond photographed life in Lagos for the story “Africa’s First City,” which appears in the January 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. In a series of five posts on Proof, he chronicles this city of contrasts that is fast becoming Africa’s hub of creativity, fashion, and business.
When a six-foot tall Nigerian model puts on six-inch heels then adorns herself with a head piece, she gets really tall.
I’d come to Eko Hotel in Lagos that morning to photograph Nigeria’s Fashion Week. The models were only just arriving in their jeans and t-shirts, looking surprisingly ordinary. The catwalk was being built. There was no way they’d be ready for that night, I thought.
Lagosians have a way of pulling these things together though. By evening, the models had become extraordinary and from the audience’s point of view, bar a few minor glitches, this was a great event of fashion and theatrics.
Backstage was a different matter altogether.
Out front, dozens of photographers and camera crews shot the procession of models strutting the catwalk. But I try to use my camera to capture a version of reality. Backstage seemed more real, and was where the action was—full-on frenetic energy, color, and chaos—a metaphor for Lagos as a whole.
On the catwalk, the models made it look effortless. The audience, made of Lagos’ great and good, was oblivious to the panic and mayhem going on behind the scenes. Too many designs, not enough models. Too many bodies, not enough space. The man in charge spent the whole night screaming at make-up artists and models and designers. Another photographer dared to be standing in the wrong place. He got an earful too.
Halfway through the show there was a fireworks display. I thought it novel, considering we were inside, until, along with everyone else, I realized one of the stage lights had caught fire sending flames towards the ceiling. Some of the audience panicked and made a mad dash for the door. Some rolled their eyes, as if to say they’d seen it all before. Most though just filed out in an orderly way to get a drink at the bar while the mess was cleared up. Within ten minutes they were back and in the mist of the fire extinguisher, the show went on. And it was a good show.
The title was a little misleading. It was in fact an evening of fashion, not a fashion week as advertised. But Lagos likes to place itself amongst the world’s international cities, so it was natural for Lagos’ premier fashion event to be named after the fashion weeks of Milan, Paris, and New York.
While Lagos is very much an international city, it is still on the rise—in transition. That makes it an amazing place to visit right now. Some say as many as 21 million people reside here, and the economy of the city alone, if it were a country, would make it the fifth largest in Africa. The city’s infrastructure struggles to keep up with rapid population growth. There is enormous wealth, but grinding poverty too. And many still complain that corruption holds it back from meeting its true potential. But the thriving art scene is fast making Lagos the place to be for creative Africans. Its musicians, painters, fashion designers, and architects are creating works that are catching the eyes of observers around the world.
Infrastructure lets down the artists; there is no equivalent of MOMA or Tate Modern. But there are some small but energetic organizations and galleries showcasing amazing work—founded in a beautiful chaos, bursting with creativity.
Robin Hammond has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Born in New Zealand, Hammond has lived in Japan, the U.K., South Africa, and France. View more of his work at www.robinhammond.co.uk.