Documenting The Raw And Untold with Yagazie Emezi

An intimate close-up of a scar with all its intricate details, a single moment of a bustling street in Lagos frozen in time, a heart-warming selfie with her grandmother; these are the images that fill documentary photographer Yagazie Emezi’s Instagram on any given day. Emezi’s feed is, at its heart, her story, her own visual diary. But it is also a collection of the stories of all those she encounters in her daily life in Nigeria. When taken as a whole, her feed becomes a visual synopsis of her entire body of work and greater intention; to create space for African stories.

Recently named with her sister Akwaeke Emezi by Vogue as one of the “5 Families Who Are Changing The World as We Know It”, Yagazie Emezi did not always plan to change the world with her photography. Born in Aba, Nigeria, she studied cultural anthropology and African studies in the United States before returning to her home country in 2014. A year later she would begin teaching herself photography. Since then she has been commissioned by major publications such as the New York Times, Vogue, and Al-Jazeera, and has had her work exhibited around the world, most recently at the highly-acclaimed Photoville festival in Brooklyn, New York. With a following of over 130K, it is clear that her photographs and the stories behind them are resonating.

Emezi’s photography ranges from fashion editorial to classic documentary, but consistent throughout is an analysis of the human relationship to the body. While working with girls and women in Liberia, she noticed that their outfit choices were motivated by what they liked to wear, rather than what made them feel attractive. Realizing that their self-perceptions of appearance differed from her own, she created Beauties of West Point to challenge conventional global beauty standards by expanding on cultural definitions of what being “beautiful” looks like. Similarly, in Liberian Body Image Emezi created a portrait series of women on the beaches of Liberia, each accompanied with a quote from the subject. By reading the diverse compilation of thoughts on body image, so intimately shared by her subjects, we realize that an individual’s relationship to their body will differ based on their cultural upbringing and the environment in which they live.

Emezi continues to deepen her understanding of body image with Re-learning Bodies; a continuously-growing project based in West Africa that explores how trauma survivors adapt to their new bodies through visual portrayals of their scars. When not working on a personal project or on commission, she is documenting her travels around the world or the daily lives of Nigerians back home. Regardless of where she is or what she is working on, it seems Emezi is consistently shedding light on African stories that are forgotten or misunderstood. We caught up with this trailblazer to learn more about her relationship to photography, what inspires her subject matter and her favorite African artists and cultural hotspots in Nigeria.

Why photography? What led you to this particular creative medium?

I fell into photography, really. At first, it was just about sharing images of my experiences on social media, but after some time, a lot more thought went into it. I’m incredibly curious about people, but at the same time, have dealt with social anxiety since childhood that used to result in days of not being able to step outside of my house and when I did, unable to maintain eye contact and conversation with people. All that went away with a camera in my hand. In a way, it serves as a buffer between my fears and desires.


Which African artists have been your greatest inspirations and why?

I would have to give names such as Tom Saater, OluTimehin Adegbeye, Leke Alabi-Isama, Folasade Adeoso, Ley Uwera and Joana Choumali, I really could go on but these are African artists that I have watched grow over the years and their persistence and dedication to their craft continuously leave me motivated.


What drew you to focus your content on Africa? Why is this genre so important to you?

I was born and raised in Nigeria. It’s home and although I have interests and work in several parts of the world, I am more at home in a lot of African countries. Photography in Africa is not a genre. We are partially shaped by our environments, and the lack of diversity and common misrepresentations here keep me grounded to do more in storytelling.


Your past projects have explored the way we talk about our bodies. What have your subjects taught you about beauty standards and female body image?

They have predominantly taught me that we should be free to set our own definitions of beauty. There is still an ‘othering’ that takes place when the rest of the world looks at black bodies and until we can fully see beauty standards to be as fluid as they really are, little change sets in.


Run us through your typical day.

It varies. A lot of days are spent replying to emails and editing. Seems easy enough, but by the time I looked up from my laptop, the majority of the day is already gone! Work assignments and personal projects come and go. Whenever I am in a new city, I always try to do some personal photography by meeting up with local photographers and taking a walk. Assignments and commissions vary as well. Some can be over in just a couple of hours in one location and others could have me stranded on a boat for some hours off the coast of Freetown!


How has growing an influential social media following impacted you? Have there been any challenges you’ve had to overcome by having your life in the spotlight?

My social media and its numbers were there before I got into photography so the main challenge is people equating the followings to ‘doing well’. I’m just entering my third year of photography and still have a long way to go. The numbers don’t mean I’m getting a lot of work or that I’m accomplished. Perhaps it just means that folks are curious. I have always shared my life online and for a strong reason – growing up in Nigeria, a clear and firm path is set out for kids, especially women. To break the mold and live a life unconventional to Nigerian/African standards is no easy task. Sharing the ups and downs of my journey is important to other young women who feel cornered by societal demands.


What has been your most memorable travel experience?

I took my first holiday to Zanzibar, Tanzania in July of 2017. I had never traveled for leisure out of my own pocket before, let alone, allowed myself to experience certain luxuries such as hotel meals and stay. I swam with turtles, went octopus hunting, and saw some yes, very touristic sights. I had been invited by Lee Litumbe of Spirited Pursuit and it simply felt amazing to have such a great companion to share everything with.


What are your must-see recommendations for visitors to Nigeria?

Definitely go see what play is up at Terra Kulture, visit the Lekki Arts & Crafts Market, Nike Art Gallery, New Afrika Shrine, get some suya and just always be open to the recommendations of other people you meet!


Where to next? What upcoming project or trip are you most excited about?

At the moment, I’m in limbo. I’m not based anywhere, just going place to place where the work comes and takes me. Was in Nigeria for a bit, now New York, then London and hopefully will be making my way back to some West African country. While there, I hope to continue expanding my ‘Re-learning Bodies’ project.


Photography by: Yagazie Emezi