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Where We Find Ourself: A Collection by Layeni Kamal

The young photographer captures street-hawkers in a way that portrays their strength of character and a determination to find a way amid lack.

The roads of Lagos can be really brutal and unforgiving. From the sun beating down on the metal of your car in traffic that stretches for what seems like an eternity to LASTMA and VIO officials looking for a scapegoat to make a quick buck, every trip wages war against your body and mind. Amid the dreary process, traffic hawkers make it bearable, chasing cars to provide essentials like food and water without much fuss.

It is a jarring feeling when you realise that hawkers are now part of the landscape: expected to always be there, although this mindset is a bit understandable, after all, it is their job. They are providing a service and do not need extra concern. We are all hot and tired; we are all stressed. But perhaps, this deliberate lack of empathy is a symptom of an ill in human society that should be treated. Our problems are so large that we ignore our environment and the people in it. We do not see them like us; we do not think about them.

Fortunately, these people on the margins are the ones that catch the eye of Lagos-based photographer, Layeni Kamal. In his latest collection, “Where We Find Ourself”, he captures street hawking in Lagos, freezing moments, and emotions of people stuck in something they would rather not do. For him, it was not an “inspired” or novel idea: “I think having inspiration behind something infers that you are trying to create something, which is not exactly the case with this collection. The images that are in this project already exist and will exist whether I capture them or not what I have done is merely just documenting. I was just sitting in traffic one day and saw the images and felt the need to document this.”

The pictures exude a diversity of emotions; the colours and filters draw out varying responses. A tired girl sits on the road divider, a tray of groundnuts in recycled glass bottles beside her. The fatigue and exhaustion are evident in her slouched posture, the contrast to the busy road around her very pronounced in monochrome. A woman stands between two buses, a bowl of soft drinks atop her head while she sorts out change for her customer. The warm tone of the picture feels familiar and you can almost hear the exchange: “Madam bring fast.” “Customer, no vex.” However, the most striking image is another black-and-white shot of a man in a bucket hat selling clocks. How ironic is it that you can literally buy time while wasting hours in traffic?

In our increasingly self-aware and conscious world, photographers documenting the margins of society are wary of showcasing their environments because they could be accused of using the day-to-day struggles of regular people for engagement and attract the “poverty porn” label. This does not seem to bother Layeni Kamal too much.

“I think photographers like me just aim to document our environments and it’s just unfortunate that it’s what people get from our work. But it really shows the difference in our perception of society because why would poverty porn even be a thing? I think people actually rate and enjoy “poverty porn” so that’s why someone out of touch with reality would even consider dedicating their work to it. At the end of the day, the intention of a person’s work really shows in their work. For example, with this collection, except for the people who asked me to photograph them, I tried as much to leave the faces of the people barely visible because that’s honestly not whats it’s about.”

Social conditioning is a strange thing because we celebrate pictures of tech bros in front of giant company logos and doctors in white coats but cringe at pictures of bricklayers at work moulding cement blocks or a dispatch rider on his bike. It’s cool to talk about the “dignity of labour” while our actions show that we consider some types of labour undignified. Yes, these people would not be doing these jobs if they had a choice. At the same time, there is nothing demeaning about people attempting to hack life with the few opportunities presented to them. Two things can be true. When you think about it, these young people have been let down by those supposed to lead and offer guidance. When we see or hear the word “hawker”, what comes to mind is sweat and strife, but there is also a strength of character and a determination to find a way amid lack. Kamal also shares this view, “Honestly, I really don't see hawkers, I just see people that are trying to get by through any means they can. You can find people selling the most random things in traffic like an inflatable bed or a parrot, and it’s just the most interesting thing to me.”

Maybe this is a call for you to take a step back and observe, to find pockets of difference and vibrance in traffic and in life, generally. Maybe it is an opportunity for you to appreciate good photography and appraise the warmth and character radiating from the pictures. Whatever it is, “Where We Find Ourself” is a fantastic work of art and bound to leave a mark.

Check out the full collection here.

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