The Lagos Photo Festival: A deeper exploration of African truths

In a striking departure from the gloomy photojournalism often associated with Africa, the Lagos Photo Festival that opened in Lagos on October 24th looks to challenge these exhausted narratives.

Now in its sixth year, the festival hosts a collection of work from various photographers who have challenged past representations of Africa with conceptual images that provide new ideas in the quest for a more experimental way of depicting the continent’s culture.

The theme this year is “Designing Futures”, with work that makes use of large-scale cinematic production elaborate props and futuristic sets.

A striking example of the conceptual work on display at the festival is “Trashmen” by South African artists Francoise Knoetze and Anton Scholtz. In this project, mythical creatures sculpted out of garbage have been created to highlight concerns about consumer culture.

French photographer Patrick Willocq collaborated with a community of pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo for his featured works “I Am Walé Respect Me”and “The Superwalés.” Fantastical scenarios, including the rituals surrounding first-time mothers, are depicted. They look more as if they were inspired by a graphic novel with their vibrant mis-en-scène, and Willocq hopes that they represent how the community might exist in 2050 after the country has developed in a “peaceful and sustainable way”.

The festival started in 2010 by Azu Nwagbogu aims to challenge Africa’s misrepresentation in mainstream Western media, using conceptual ideas in place of photojournalism to create engaging images instead of the images we usually associate with Africa – predictably displaying war, poverty and disease.

Cristina de Middel, the festival’s curator said, “There is hardly any photojournalism work this year,” stating that “the classical documentary approach to storytelling on the continent is exhausted”.

“Photojournalism stories about the environment try to find someone to blame, but the work we are showing doesn’t point to anyone,” she said. “I prefer that, because it just opens our eyes to a subject and we are more likely to look for a solution ourselves and to create change.”

There is still some quality documentary work on show however. “Looking Forward: The New York Times Lens Exhibit” showcases some of the work from Africa that has been featured on Lens, in keeping with the festival’s desire to depart from worn out subject matter.

Nwagbogu describes the festival as a “coming of age,” referring to how it has moved on from its nascent stance on exhibiting work from African photographers only. Now, the festival has inspired a boom in African photography and the concept is being driven forward into a more inclusive future.

Nwagbogu believes that art plays a significant role in shifting people’s comprehension of what is possible. Beyond the festival, he has created a year-round programme of workshops that bring African creatives together to create an epicentre of contemporary visual culture in one of Africa’s most populated countries.

It seems that this exhibition is only a small part of a much larger movement. In the words of Nwagbogu, the Lagos Photo Festival is “building a growing community in this super-energetic and frenetic city. That’s how to create alchemy so that magic can happen.”

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