Image courtesy of Stephen Tayo.

Stephen Tayo Is the Fashion Photographer Capturing the Effortless Style of Everyday Nigerians

We speak with the rising photographer about his growing portfolio, advocating for fellow Nigerian creatives and his vision for capturing fashion on the continent.

Stephen Tayo thinks Nigerians are naturally fashionable people, and we don't disagree.

After all, the 24-year-old fashion photographer would know—he's travelled throughout the country, capturing what to some, including his very subjects, might appear as unassuming everyday looks. To him, however, they're markers of ingrained taste.

To the young photographer, who got his start in fashion after earning a degree in philosophy from the University of Lagos, that's exactly what being "fashionable" is all about: genuine effortlessness. Though he didn't pursue a career in the field, he seeks to bring philosophy into his work, figuring out why exactly people dress the way that they do. We get a glimpse of that vision through his many photo series which explore high fashion with a broadening lens. With Tayo behind the camera, we get to see that places like Lagos and Accra are every bit the "fashion capitals" as Milan or Paris.

With his latest series on the eighth annual Chale Wote Street Art festival, published in Vogue earlier this month, the "it" photographer helped introduced a new audience to the sartorial prowess of the festival's young Ghanaian attendees. For Tayo, it's less about just showcasing the impeccable style that he has always known to exist on the continent to an international audience and more about giving his subjects an opportunity to relish in their style by seeing themselves represented on globally recognized platforms like Vogue.

We caught up with the photographer following the success of his recent feature in the publication and his work on Skepta and Wizkid's music video 'Energy' to discuss some of the highlights of his growing portfolio, advocating for fellow Nigerian creatives and his vision for capturing fashion on the continent.

Check out more Nigerian street style photos at Lagos Fashion Week 2019 here.

Read on for our conversation.

Photo by Stephen Tayo.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What drew you to pursue fashion photography?

I'm trying to understand how people can look effortlessly beautiful. Because some people can just wake up and look fashionable. It's a Nigerian thing, especially in Lagos, where people actually do dress up. People know how to dress. It's not something they learn—it's not like they have a mood board that they study. It's just their style, and I figured why not document that lifestyle?

So it's all about capturing people's natural fashion sense?

Yes. Yes.

When you were starting out, who were you looking to for inspiration?

I was actually so obsessed with Hassan Hajjaj and Seydou Keita because when they were photographing, they were not under pressure. They captured what they could capture so easily and I'm taking a queue from them. Hassan is still functional and is really amazing. He's one of those people that I would really love to meet when I go to London. Those guys are really iconic and Samuel Fosso as well.

Photo by Stephen Tayo

What's your experience building a creative career in a place like Lagos? Not everyone can do that.

For me, because I'm not from a rich background, it's really hard navigating in a classist society, but I've always tried to channel and pursue good energy toward believing that I'll always survive in doing what I believe in. Sometimes as a young creative, you see all of your mates doing amazing things and you kind of want to compare yourself. As for me, I've kind of let it go and have just decided to live my life—to each his own. Lagos is really interesting. I feel so blessed to be working from Lagos. I feel like a champion, with all the leaps I've made and the opportunities that have come my way.

Recently, I read an article in GQ and that said that Dakar in Senegal was the most fashionable city in the world. They were really amazing photos, but some believe they didn't capture the true style in Dakar because it featured all Western designers. Of all the places you've shot, where would you consider to be the most stylish?

I would say that Kano was a dream for me. There are a lot of similarities with Kano and Dakar because it's very traditional. I've never been to Dakar, but there is a strong traditional element and a lot of family representation in the way people dress in Kano as well. It's the most fashionable place I've ever been to.

Photo by Stephen Tayo

Your Chale Wote pictures really took off with the feature in Vogue. In a way, you sort of introduced a new audience to that festival because I don't think all of Vogue's readers knew about it and how fashionable it was before seeing those images.

When I got the assignment to go to Ghana, I was like "oh yes, definitely." Ghana is close to Nigeria and the fact that I was able to capture people the way I captured them was amazing. It was really stressful for me though, trying not to get in between the crowd.

I was glad that Vogue recognized that there is so much happening in West Africa that needs to be spotlighted. But, the happiness comes from the fact that Ghanaians were happy, which is the most important thing. I'm always thinking about how I represent people's country especially if I'm not from there. It seems that so many appreciated my effort, and that means so much to me.

Photo by Stephen Tayo

I also saw on your Instagram that you did some work for Skepta and Wizkid's "Energy" music video, which was beautiful. How was it working on that?

That was brought about by Grace Ladoja and Meji Alabi who was the main director, and the idea of the video was to capture youth culture. I was part of the young creatives that co-directed and co-created the video. It was a fun, feel-good time working with Skepta and Wizkid. It was quite a tasking time as well and a very experimental project, which I am very grateful to have been a part of. All of us on the team had one thing in common: we just want to make sure we advocate for love and unity. Together we push. Together we're in this hustle, and we'll figure out how to get to the next stage together.

That's cool and is it different working on set versus like being on the street capturing style?

For me it was the same feel, because it was the same type of energy I incorporate in my photography.

Photo by Stephen Tayo.

Who would be your dream collaborator. Is there a dream project you would want to work on?

I love and cherish what Virgil Abloh is doing, it'll definitely be a dream to work with him. At the moment I'm working with Patta—an Amsterdam based street wear brand—and that's definitely a dream for me. I believe that if I can work with Patta, sooner or later, I should be able to create beautiful work with Virgil Abloh.

Is there a photo series of yours that you had an exceptionally interesting time working on? What's been your best experience shooting so far?

The one that's really close to my heart was my first Vogue feature about "New Year, New Me?" focused on the kids in Lagos. It's really close to my heart because the kids might not know how relevant it it is to be in Vogue and I think in the next few years, they'll understand that they were in Vogue just being childishly effortless and that might be a motivation for them that they can be as stylish and as fabulous as they want to be in the future. That's really close to my heart. That was shot where my parents live. That's where I actually grew up.

Photo by Stephen Tayo.

What's next for you? Is there any other creative pursuit you would like to take on?

I'm looking forward to publishing a photobook soon. I'm taking my time to decide and to read and understand the best way to get it out. Also, I'm collaborating with some streetwear designers at the moment including Motherland, SevereNature, Shekudo, Orange Culture and Vivendi. Also, during fashion week in Lagos, I'll be working with a few designers as well. So, I mean, there's work, work, work, for a freelance artist like me. There's so much to do.

Photo by Stephen Tayo.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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