“Photographs are receipts, a form of accountability”- an interview with Nnebuifé Kwubéï

Nnebuifé Kwubéï is a photographer based in Lagos, Nigeria, whose lush image Dogoyaro was shortlisted and exhibited as part of This is Gender 2020

As part of our Representation Matters series, This is Gender curator Imogen Bakelmun connected with Nnebuifé to hear more about his evocative work, restrictive gender norms, and the role photography can play in documenting history and providing testament.

A woman smokes a cigarette and sips on dogoyaro, a popular drink made of mixed liquors. Sensuously posed, she wears the agbaba and cap, a traditionally ‘masculine’ garment in Yoruba culture that signifies affluence and power. Visually stunning, compositionally balanced and lavishly textured, Nnebuifé’s image explores the arbitrary ways gender norms shape and inform identity and limit possibilities. 

“I am particularly interested in the hypocrisy of Nigerian superstitious beliefs and what men can do and what women can not do, particularly in the community in which I grew up. In Nigeria, there are two sets of rules; one for women and one for men. Women should not drink in bars – unless accompanied by a male chaperone, should not smoke, should wear appropriately ‘feminine clothes’. There are even superstitious beliefs that when a woman has an affair an evil will fall upon the family, but no such curse is feared when a man has an affair. Generally, in my society women shoulder a responsibility to abide by social rules, where men do not,” Nnebuifé explains. 

“This photograph is of a friend who I study with. She defies many of society’s expectations and lives and acts the way she wants to. This image is a celebration of her defiance and a mockery of those norms. Wearing the agbada and engaging in ‘masculine’ habits of smoking and drinking, I wanted to dismantle and destroy the notion of what is fit for a man and what is fit for a woman.” 

Indeed, in Nigeria as globally, men have long held greater ‘social freedom’ to smoke and drink alcohol. But it is precisely these risk behaviours that contribute to gendered health outcomes and shorter life-spans of men. As Nnebuifé explains; 

“Although women certainly do bear the burden of gender norms, men are also victims of their enforcement. When a boy is growing up, no one pays attention to him, no one corrects him, there are no rules. While young girls are continuously monitored and shaped, no one pays attention to how a male child is forming. As a boy or a man, you are allowed to be a blunt knife that is constantly struck on a rock. How you take care of yourself or how you become responsible, is totally up to you. I’m not saying that women have it better, but I do think there are serious implications for the ruleless childhood boy’s experiences.”

“Men are less well equipped for the world. We are not taught to understand our emotions or those of others, we are not allowed to be frightened or vulnerable or to recognise the feelings or concerns of others. At the age of 14 or 15, boy’s start to take on familial responsibilities but no one pays attention to the finer edges of the boy’s development.”  

“The result is that you get terrible men, men that are emotionless in society. I mean, if you’ve never learnt to process your own emotions or to even recognise what those emotions are- how do you navigate the world responsibly? And if you never learnt to be empathetic, how can you build respectful relationships with those of other genders who have not had the same experiences as you? I think that no one benefits from restrictive and limiting gender norms” 

Photography as perspective 

Nnebuifé first started to take photographs in the second year of university, when he realised that he had a lot of stories to tell that couldn’t be told in words. For Nnebuifé, the lens of the camera offered a new way to share stories and incite conversations. As he explains “the eye can see certain things that words cannot describe, and through the eye, there can be a transmission of perspective.” 

“But that’s an important thing to understand about photographs, what you see is what the photographer wants you to see. Take this image Dogoyaro, if I had taken it in colour, you would have read the image differently, it wouldn’t have told the story I wanted to tell. So I crafted the image, I positioned my lens, the shadow, the light, the angle so that you could see what I wanted you to see. I believe every photograph is a self-portrait in a way, it is a lens through which to re-see the world,” he continues.  

Indeed, Dogoyaro and his broader body of work are all connected stylistically. In Nnebuifé’s work, there is a lushness and decadence exemplified in the dramatic use of chiaroscuro that contours the rich depth and tone. This play between light and shadow gives the photographs an air of nostalgia. Indeed, if we look past the modern pack of cigarettes, this image could easily be mistaken as one produced in the previous century. As Nnebuifé explains, “As much of my work explores outdated social norms, it feels fitting to present contemporary figures in this kind of historical style.”

Photography as time-stamp  

For Nnebuifé, working in this style echoes his notion of memory-making, where photography functions as both a form of documentation and evidence, and collective remembrance. He explains, “Nostalgia for my community, its language and history drives my photography, I feel an imperative to document and preserve. There is a certain level of complexity attached to the history and languages of my community and I want to bring it out for the whole world to see.” 

“We are in the minority here in Edo state. I speak a language that originated from the Eastern part of Nigeria. Six or seven generations ago, my people internally migrated to this area. We are somehow still strangers in a land that has become home. We speak a variation of the Igbo language, as we travelled the language took on different inflexions from different areas.” 

“But now I fear that my culture and the unique histories of my community will be lost in the debris of Benin. There is so little documentation of our community, and what there is is not substantial enough to preserve it. The older generations, the true repository of this knowledge are dying out and as they leave they will take with them all that they know. In the next 20, 30 years we could see the complete erasure of this community in Edo state. But photography is both a creative expression that can capture a feeling and also a document that provides evidence of the past. Photographs are like time stamps- they show you ‘this is where you are from, this is what happened at that time’. It is a way to document, to remember, and a place to start from.” 

“In Edo state, the main language is Bini, it is the language of politics and society. If you belong, like me, to a minority community that speaks a different language, it is incredibly difficult to actively participate in the politics or the leadership of the state. We have very little political visibility’ political visibility in the sense of political will and agency, but also visibility as a people who have different customs that deserve to be recognised and represented. So my photography is not just about nostalgia for what once was, but also a means of preservation, of making visible our community and ensuring that we are not forgotten.”

Photography as an accountability mechanism 

Nnebuifé’s work highlights the fact that while photographs may not be objectively factual, they are also not fiction. They emphasise the importance of perspective, and who the photographer is, what their experiences and motivations are, and how much we should rely on their representation of events. As Nnebuifé describes, we need to learn to understand the power and potential of photography. 

“Photography can be such a powerful tool for advocacy. Through photographs, we can hold something up to the world and say this is what you’re not seeing or this is what you’re choosing not to see, and now you have to look at it. The photographs are receipts, a form of accountability.” 

“But that is why it is insulting when foreign photographers are preferred over credible local photojournalists. When someone comes from the outside into another’s culture, they do not know their way around. In Nigeria, for example, with the EndSars movement- how can someone on the outside who hasn’t lived through the brutal regime, hasn’t fallen victim to corruption, hasn’t experienced the violence, how can they possibly produce an image that says more than someone who has. Not to mention, that considering a photographer is present in the image, if an outsider misunderstands a situation because they lack context they run the risk of misrepresentation. Choosing a local photographer is not just about empowering the talent of that place, but also about ensuring reflective and meaningful representation. I think it’s really important that someone from this place tells the story of this place.” 

You can discover more of Nnebuifé’s work here and browse the full collection from This is Gender 2021 here

For any queries regarding This is Gender or Representation Matters please contact Imogen Bakelmun at i.bakelmun@ucl.ac.uk