1I consider what he tells me of his parents. Around the time we speak, he has returned to Berlin after spending two weeks with them in Lagos. They are over ninety, and he has just turned seventy. Those weeks felt like going back to the time of his birth in Oxford, in 1946, where, he says, “even though I wasn’t aware of things, we were a close-knit group of three human spirits.” He speaks about them this way—“their long-term memory is very sharp…they can remember things from those days”—to illustrate a point about the futility of presenting a biography in linear fashion, how stories from the past can swing into the present like improvised chord progressions. “I prefer the narrative to be very much like jazz,” he adds.
paraphrase something attributed to John Coltrane, who says to Wayne Shorter, as
they slam out clusters of notes on the piano: “See about starting a sentence in
the middle, and then go to the beginning and the end of it at the same time,
both directions at once.” I want to imagine that in the region where the
photographer’s life and mine intersects, we come from both directions at once;
life lived up until that moment, and life to be lived from then on. “I prefer
starting from the beginning, the end, back to the middle, back to two-thirds,
and so on,” he says to me. His unintentional affirmation of Coltrane’s ideas
makes me giddy.
could be that I am impatient. I ask him a tendentious question that frames his
answer: When we are asked to say who we are or to tell our stories, we often
move in a linear direction from point A to point B. I am interested in the
definitive moments of your life, less linear. How would you sum up your
experiences, your travels, so far?
up.” Could he? Are we our truest selves when considered in light of others? I
am beside him on a street in Bariga; I am with him in Emeka Okereke’s house in
Bariga; I am with him in a car en route to Osogbo; I am speaking with him on
phone for two hours. I don’t know what he thinks of me, but I know what I feel.
Later, I’ll write of how I spoke to him as one would to a grandparent, or a
fortune-teller, hoping that the prescient insights with which he responded
would subsequently inform the trajectory of my life. Those sentiments now
appear to me a little suspect. Is this what I think? Is this what I demand from
him? Is this what I hope for through him?
is a photographer. At the outset he wanted to become a writer.
says, “to look at one image I always say you need about a year.”
see how far wide the margin of meaning gets I choose to reflect on one
photograph in this essay. This might seem counterintuitive to what might be
best for his work—a monographic and retrospective evaluation of the several
hundred photographs he has taken since the 1970s. How to linger on the surface
of one image until it divulges sentiments of epochal proportions, however? It
is not one in place of many, but one as many.
8It’s a photograph from 2008, taken in Victoria Island, Lagos. On the first day I look at it I take note of what it records. A signpost; a car; a man and woman walking; a fence; a high-rise building stretches out of the frame; most shutters of its windows are open.
9To take the photograph he has walked, I sense, for few kilometers. Half the time during his ambulation he is not taking pictures. He is, as he says, taking part in an urban phenomenon. I cannot drive, so I really like to walk, he continues to say. “I find walking the best way of navigating urban spaces. From time to time, I try to make photographs.” Suppose the medium of photography is defined only in terms of a photographer’s roving eye, the frames per second of unrecorded experience. Much has been said about how street photographers are responsive to instinct, mastering premonition like second sight. In his case, in addition, it is important to emphasize a peculiar ethos. That he is a photographer who returns to the megacities his photographs emerge from, as if to rework and update his assumptions about place.
10He has taken several photographs in Johannesburg. The next time he’s there, would he be interested in visiting with one of my favorite writers, Ivan Vladislavić? The two men could take a walk in any overpopulated neighborhood, where people scurry about like ants on a veld. If I were to write an introductory email, I might be required to convince the men of their shared intellectual interests. To Ivan I’ll quote what Akinbode says to me in our conversation: “What I’m doing is observing, taking part in this urban phenomenon and trying to record documents. It is a kind of fine sensibility of understanding the passageways within the city.” To Akinbode I’ll quote a sentence from Ivan’s Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked: “I’m walking around with my eyes open, taking everything in like a vacuum cleaner, coughing bits of it out on paper.” I hope, I’ll write in my email, that you could begin your conversation by considering that the facts unavailable to the writer might be assuaged by the documents recorded by the photographer.
11Recall his interest as a young man in becoming a writer, for which he read as widely as possible. Is this desire carried through in his work as a photographer? (I have once recalled Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished novel while thinking of him. It is said that while writing Bouvard and Pécuchet, the French writer read up to one thousand and five hundred books, so he might get his characters to try—both of them failing—to apply that learning to their lives.)
12The city as an unfinished novel.
13When a photographer has worked with the same medium format camera for several decades, the camera is not so much a device that takes pictures of what is visible, but one through which a photographer learns what is peculiar about a place when he trains his eye on it. I make this proposition in response to his famous use of a Rollei twin reflex camera.
14Or perhaps it is that when a photographer has used a camera for that long he understands his special relationship with the world, as if the rays of light cast on his eye refracts in a unique manner. Think about this. When we look at our surroundings, while walking on a sidewalk for instance, does it occur to us that perhaps we append meaning to things in a way someone else, walking down that same street, wouldn’t? It is like two people reading the same book, imbibing its ideas in the same sequence. Would they raise their head in miscomprehension at the same phrase, or revel in the beauty of a certain sentence? Several decades later, the photographer is able to find a through line, a method to unite eye and heart.
15Only once have I walked on a street with him, in Lagos. When he took photographs that afternoon it seemed as commonplace and expected as our walking had been. Perhaps this was the guile, the method. Stay long enough in a place until its hesitations fold back in, in the manner of an unsuspecting touch-me-not flower. In April 2013, he says to Miriam Daepp: “I move very slowly and gently, I try not to invade other people’s spaces, while at the same time trying to take images. It is a sort of dance, a negotiation, meandering—a very sensitive way of moving through all kinds of spaces.”
16He titles a recent sequence of photographs like this: Passageways, Involuntary Narratives, and the Sound of Crowded Spaces.
17I look for the second time at his photograph from 2008, taken in Victoria Island: I am without doubt influenced by how it has been formatted in the issue of Chimurenga Chronic where it is published. It is larger than any of the other seven photographs included, covering three-quarters of the A2 newsprint. I try to imagine how he took it. “URGENT PHOTO HERE.” He stands as close to the signpost as possible, realizing that, framed properly, the declarative statement could say more than intended. Now that the signpost commands his attention, he looks up at the fenced building. That, too, with its seeming omnipresence, is necessary for the picture. He waits, hoping for someone with the right order of strides. He finds her. The woman in the photograph is pictured equidistant to the edge of the frame and the oncoming car.
18It is impossible for a touch-me-not flower to hold back from folding when exposed to touch. But it is possible for the flower to stay still when there is a variation in light or temperature. A city is of similar tactility, sensitive to the point of recoil, but could be, on occasion, in repose.
19I write to Anna, my friend in Berlin. Could you tell me, I say, since you know him better than I do, how you esteem him? He is, she writes, a “walking poet with a shutter release. He is a photographer with a kind eye for the seemingly banal, the allegedly ordinary…Avoiding the pitfalls of being didactic, engaging with his ‘Involuntary Narratives’ teaches us, and certainly me, the most valuable lessons about our being together: all knowledge and understanding of theory and critical thought is useless without true compassion and kindness.”
20I nod to Mimi Chereno N’gok, Aida Muluneh, Adeola Olagunju, Rahima Gambo, and every photographer who has attributed something of their maturity as artists to his kind eye. We may now think of him as a photographer’s photographer.
21Keep in mind that if Lagos does become the most populated city in the world, as it appears destined to become, there is no telling how the attempt to come to terms with it—photograph it, write about it, make policies for it—would be inflected on by whim. A small ache on the back; the slight gouge on the table from which an idea was teased out. Imagine, then, an exercise in which we describe Lagos without recourse to metaphor, using literal, concrete words. What would happen, and you can try, is that those descriptions, even if they begin with what is apparent, would slip almost immediately into the less concrete, infused with sentiment and memory. It is so on the third day of looking at his photograph from 2008, taken on a street in Victoria Island. And as it turns out, I have said much of what is possible to be said about the activity in the photograph. (To reiterate: two pedestrians walking on a sidewalk, just as a car approaches, with a fenced, shuttered building opposite them, and a signpost closer to the edge of the frame than either of them.) Does the photograph describe the urgent, speedy unraveling of life in Lagos? Does it depict distinct, individual lives unfolding against the concrete and steel of a city? Does it sublimate the city as poetry?
22The day before I completed a draft of these considerations, writing from New York City, I went to a Japanese café on 29th street to read and take notes. While doing so I kept thinking of my essay-in-progress; not the ideas in them per se, but the fact that I didn’t have my laptop with me, and so could not glance, as often as I wanted, while reading and taking notes, at what was so far written. I had the image of a sprawling piece of text in need of a rampart. But it was, in the most important sense, a thought about proximity, how close we need to be to the subject that occupies our thoughts. At the beginning of our conversation I wanted to know if it was an accurate assessment to consider him a Nigerian photographer, considering that he’s lived outside the country, and indeed the continent, for most of his life. “I see myself very much as a Nigerian photographer,” he begins to say, “a photographer who works within West Africa, but also on the African continent. But I understand, even more as I get older, the European ways of thinking or doing things, specifically because I grew up in Britain…France, Holland, Belgium. After a while it dissolves into one. I more or less know how to move through all these countries.”
23I write to ask for his blessing for this unconventional approach (is it, really?) to his work. He replies: “I cannot as such give you a ‘blessing,’ as this I perceive as a higher form of grace, given by a higher being to one below it in power and radiance. Since we are both human beings, or at least strive to be such, we cannot then give each other our blessing.” Thinking it over, I am convinced that he has taught himself to recoil from any flaunt of ego, any suggestion that he is larger than life. So humbled is he, it appears, by the bustle of life, by the bustling life of others. In most emails he writes to me, he appends a final wish, purposeful as a benediction. “Go very well Emmanuel.”
24The last sentence is yours. Dear reader, go very well.
Between August 2016 and January 2017, I recorded two conversations with Akinbode Akinbiyi, reproduced in an interview published in Chimurenga Chronic. This Encounter revisits those conversations, adjusting the frame.
Photograph courtesy Akinbode Akinbiyi.