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Meet Yagazie Emezi, the Photographer Documenting African Culture Through Her Lens

And telling stories about African women, sexuality, health, and beauty

Documentary photographer, Yagazie Emezi talks to ELLE's fashion director, Dimeji Alara, about her journey as a female documentary photographer in Africa, and growing up in the Southeast of Nigeria.

I first met you at Maki Osakwe’s (Creative Director, Maki Oh) apartment back in 2014 when you were still trying to decide exactly what direction to take. What has the journey been like so far?

I was definitely in a space of making some major life decisions during that time! But the journey has been rewarding despite the many challenges. After we parted ways, I fully committed to photography in early 2015, working mainly in Lagos fashion until I made the decision to move to Liberia where I was able to grow and expand on my experience and understanding of visual storytelling. After that, I moved to Ghana and then Indonesia for the rest of 2017. Since 2018, I've been predominately traveling and taking on reportage assignments while working on my own personal projects.

What was it like growing up in Aba? Tell us more about growing up and childhood memories.

I loved it, as most lucky children would if you had a spacious compound to run around in, fruit trees, cats, dogs and goats to play with. Growing up under the military regime of the 90s, my parents kept us pretty sheltered from the occasional violence that took place in town, although we still witnessed a lot. My siblings and I had very active imaginations fueled by the endless books my parents introduced to us and often created a world of play for ourselves. There were nights of playing outside on the streets with the rest of our neighbours during a full moon, roasting yams in a bonfire during Christmas in the village, and we had our good share of chores. I particularly enjoyed raking up leaves and burning them ... then finding more things to burn to keep the flames alive, much to my father's frustration. There were full rainy days of fetching the water that drained from our roof, always getting fully soaked. Aba is not as quiet and nostalgic these days.

You’ve always said that your goal is to preserve African culture through photography. Do you think you’ve been able to achieve that? 

As a visual storyteller now, I focus more on stories around African women - sexuality, health, and beauty. I sincerely believe that the world is yet to see us and our stories fully, and not as an 'other'. 

What would you say has been your biggest achievements since starting out?

I'm quite proud to have gotten this far in about 4 years and for working with clients such as The New York Times, TIME, The Guardian, and Vogue, to name a few. But more than anything, I have this collective pride in the stories I get to share and the people who have entrusted me with them.

What have been some of the challenges you’ve had to face as a female documentary photographer in Nigeria?

Being female is the first, being black is another. I quickly learnt about the access and privilege that predominately white male story-tellers have had historically throughout Africa. And that doesn't come easily to women in general. Although advantages exist, we get challenged in the field and also by our male counterparts. As African photographers, there's a difficult space we find ourselves in - trying to be an authority at home and having to prove our 'capabilities' for international work.

What would you say has been your most memorable shoot?

I recently did some work for Newsweek on cervical cancer research taking place in Abuja, Nigeria. I always get excited to learn about advances in medicine around Africa, but it wasn't an easy story to photograph. It was hard to interact with patients who were still in pain and yet, also relieving to sit and talk with the doctors and scientists and learn about the progress they are making. In a really small, almost insignificant way, feel like I was a part of it by photographing the story. Whenever I get to closely interact with women, there's an extra warmth and a special space it takes in my heart.

Who are some female photographers you look up to?

Ley Uwera, Emily Garthwaite, Rahima Gambo, Alexia Webster, Sara Hylton, Hannah Morales, Diana Alhindawi are just a few of the women photographers from different areas of the world that I keep up with. Their stories vary from covering conflict to gender issues, displaced peoples and underrepresented voices, they are remarkable and inspirational storytellers, some of whom I'm proud to also call friends.

You do quite a lot of travelling. How often would you say you travel in a month?

For the first half of this year, I would travel at least twice a month, but it started to take a toll on my body. Work often involves long hours of standing and bending repetitively and as I get older, so do my knees! And after all that, to spend long hours seated in a plane? I knew that I couldn't keep doing this for long.

What do you pack with you when travelling? 

When traveling, I always carry my laptop and cameras. Then of course passports, toiletries, a sketchbook, some book that I never read, change of clothes and a phone full of Netflix downloads.

Describe your style. 

When working, I wear the same black jeans, hiking boots, a dark, baggy tee and a head-wrap. My off stays are just as causal, but I do enjoy dressing up every now and then, especially in Lagos, with a focus always on comfort.

If you were not a photographer. What would you have been?

Perhaps an illustrator? I still draw my cartoons every now and then as a form of stress relief.

Any exciting new projects lined up?

I'm currently focusing on creating more art pieces through photography. It's a push for myself creatively and also a push to remain in one place for a little bit longer. I'm curious and excited about what will unfold. 

All photographs supplied by Yagazie Emezi

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