In the recent abundance of social media pages and campaigns that focus on portraying a more extensive image of Africa, Lagos is one of the many cities that have been photographed and put on display. Not only because of its towering architecture and vast expanse of water, but also because of how well this resilient, rousing and restorative city capture the essence of Nigeria. Like New York, Lagos is viewed as less of a place and more of a feeling; the rambunctiousness of the yellow Danfo buses or the leafy trees that shade the milk colored house in Ikoyi evoke as much emotion as the people do.
Home to 17 million people and counting, the people of Lagos, or Lagosians as they have been dubbed, are some of the most captivating people in the world and there’s a man whose mission it is to make sure everyone knows this, one picture at a time. Tochi Ani, the photographer and curator behind the immensely successful Instagram page, Humans of Lagos isn’t very open to revealing information about himself or the page that has over 10,000 people talking.
“It [Humans of Lagos] was inspired by Humans Of New York, I’ve always had it in mind to start the Lagos version of HONY but I kept postponing. I eventually started in January of 2015 after a series of events that occurred in my life. I’ll leave out the details out for now, but then, I needed a distraction.” Ani says over online chat.
Like its New York counterpart, the page is a colorful look at the lives of everyday Lagosians, it features an image of a different Lagos city resident accompanied by a short anecdote about the subjects life. Ani tends to aim his lens at the middle class or sometimes, lower middle class citizens from industrial neighborhoods like Surulere and Yaba, a choice he claims is not intentional but rather a result of who responds to his advances. The subjects reveal to him their hopes, dreams and even disappointments in the matter-of-fact way that Lagosians are known to approach everything. According to Ani, whose subjects range from schoolteachers to bus drivers and even little children, the people he approaches aren’t prompted to reveal a particularly interesting tidbit about their lives, that is something they offer up on their own. “People are always willing to share but no one cares enough to ask or listen.”
Like the work of photographer, Roy DeCarava, Humans of Lagos is not a sociological experiment, but more so a look at the ordinary lives of a group of people. Therefore, no matter how many people Ani covers, he rejects the claim that the page is a complete representation of Lagos and all of its inhabitants. “I think it will be hard to get a definitive view of Lagos from the page. Lagos is large and so are its inhabitants. There is only so much the story of maybe 10,000 people can tell about a city and I’m nowhere near that number yet.” Says Ani.
Other than the obvious fact that Ani’s subjects are humans themselves, it is the way that their stories tug at our different emotions that humanize this social media movement. Some make us laugh, some even make us cry, but most importantly they allow us the feeling of empathy. As Ani positions his lens on the lives of people who are either as different as can be or more similar than we expected, something happens to us as we look at them and listen to them. They become visible and the more clearly we see and hear them, the clearer we see and hear ourselves.
When asked how he would describe Lagosians as a whole, Ani chooses one word in particular, optimistic. “Lagosians are very optimistic people. No matter what they are going through, they believe things will eventually get better for them.” When looking through the page, it’s not hard to see what Ani is talking about. Even as some subjects recount tales of family members that were victims of the recent barrage of Boko Haram kidnappings, or lament the demise of their businesses or personal lives, there is always a resounding affirmation of hope, a belief that things will get better.
The page has gone on to raise funds for two people that were featured on it, both in financially unstable situations, and although Ani stresses that fundraising is not the page’s main focus, it does make him happy to see how quickly people come together to help others. In the case of Vivian, a young girl with an acyanotic congenital heart defect, the page’s followers rallied together to raise money for her surgery in India.
Ani says, “I was so surprised when we got over $3000 in less than 24 hours. When I posted about Vivian, I didn’t initially talk about raising funds because I wasn’t sure we would be able to do that and I didn’t want to raise the families hope and dash it because they had been disappointed by so many people in the past.”
The page raised over $12,000, but unfortunately, Vivian did not survive and the money ended up being split between her family and some of the ailing children Vivian befriended while she was hospitalized.
In another case, Ani recently photographed an ongoing demolition along the Lagos-Badagry Expressway that affected multiple homes and left residents homeless. As subjects recounted how homes that spanned generations were demolished in one day, the comment section of the page buzzed, some quick to ask “What can we do about this?” others foregoing monetary assistance and tagging Lagos state governor, Akinwunmi Ambode simply saying “Do something.”
Amongst everyone the page has touched, it’s clear that the man behind the lens has been impacted the most. Although he cryptically sidesteps all attempts at discussing his personal life, Ani does admit that the page is more than a part time gig.
“It has impacted me in so many ways, when I started I didn’t have any expectations, I just wanted to go out there and just do something that would make me look forward to tomorrow.”
As the page continues to grow, Ani remains cautiously hopeful about his expectations, “The page has the potential to do so many amazing things but I don’t want to get too excited over the prospects of that. I just want to take it one step at a time. It’s still evolving and now I want to focus on the work and see how it goes.”
But it is clear that amongst the literal noise of Lagos and the figurative clutter of social media, Humans of Lagos has found a way to bridge both communities while continuing to prove that storytelling is an actionable tool, especially when the people being portrayed are given a chance to speak for themselves, literally.
“Good photography always tells a story and good photographers always want their work to mean something. The page does that to an extent, Africans are tired of the images the West have given us and this page evens things out a bit.” Says Nigerian born photographer, Ima Mfon.
Therefore, Ani’s decision to keep the entire page in English is an intentional one to show that his audience is not limited to Lagos and definitely not just Nigeria. In a country with 250 ethnic groups and a variety of hybrid languages that merge English and other native tongues, it’s safe to say that Ani’s responses are not always uniform in language.
“I keep everything in English to make it easier for non-Nigerians on the page to understand.” Says Ani.
The feedback from the page’s community is obvious – They appreciate the work Ani and the page are doing. Other than the following from everyday people near and far, the page has attracted a number of celebrity fans. In one instance, Nigerian singer, Banky W spotted a painting of himself done by one of Ani’s subjects, a street artist, and after the page brought the image to his attention, W eventually patronized the artists and bought the painting.
While celebrity notoriety and international interest is always welcome, Ani reinforces that the community that he is building and the gap he is bridging between Lagos and the rest of the world is what makes the project worthwhile.
“Reading people’s comments and getting messages about how the page has impacted people’s lives mean everything to me and that is what has really kept me going.”