Photo: TSE

Interview: TSE Is the Photographer Capturing Lagos' New Aesthetic

We talk to Lagos-based photographer & visual artist Thompson Ekong about his eye-catching work and collaborations with Nike, Davido, Rema, Santi, Teni and 6LACK.

The creative scene in Lagos is a culture run and protected by Nigerian youth and is responsible for producing talent ranging from musicians like Santi, Lady Donli and Tems to brands like wafflesncream, and a huge number of photographers, filmmakers and everything in between.

The fast paced city literally brands itself as one that is keen on survival and passion, it thrives on entertainment and consistently provides 'something new' for the consuming society. You may get overwhelmed in Lagos, but never bored. Over the past few years, there has been an emergence in the market for the creative scene in Lagos. Photography has significantly shown its value as a true form of communicating the general ideas of this young world.

Thompson Ekong aka TSE.Photo: TSE

We decided to catch up with Thompson Ekong, well known as TSE, a Lagos-based photographer and visual artist who has been increasingly breaking boundaries by working with buzzing musicians and brands. TSE's impressive portfolio includes a number of collaborations with the likes of Santi, Teni, Davido, Rema and recently even American musician, 6LACK. He has also worked with brands like Nike.

The young creative is considered as an OG in the photography industry in Lagos and has a solid support system that is partly responsible for his current success rate. Our insightful conversation, conducted on WhatsApp, ranges from TSE's career as a photographer to his hot takes on the industry in general and further his advice to young and coming creatives.

From the series Feel at Home.Photo: TSE

How and when did you start photography?

I've always been an artsy guy, I would draw and sketch and all that. I've always wanted to do something around art, so I chose photography as a medium to use to express what I imagined in my head. I started photography in ISS2 or ISS3, [back] then I was taking pictures for different parties and doing a lot of flash photography. My first camera was a very old Sony camera—a Sony Cyber Shot.

Every new project you work has a completely different vibe from the previous one. What's your creative process like and where do you draw your influences from?

I've always wanted to create something exciting, unique and completely fresh from what I created previously. I'm always refining. My process depends on the project or concept I'm focused on. It's all about where my mind's at currently and what I'm feeling or feeding off, it could be the music, film or anime or just existing, but I'm inspired by these things and they've fueled my creativity and ideas. I'm also influenced by people I can creatively connect to, Kanye West, Travis Scott, The Weeknd, Santi, Daniel Arsham, UAX, Appare-Ranman!, Studio Ghibli, Steve Jobs, Niyi Okeowo and my friends.

49-99 Tiwa Savage.Photo: TSE

Do you ever face any troubles or complications interpreting your ideas and bringing them to life?

Most times, it's hard to communicate the idea to people because they think I'm losing my shit and the idea is too outrageous. I always have hacks anyway, I draw parallels between my ideas and what's achievable given the limited resources or other constraints that might exist. I have a team that has the superpowers, I need to bring my ideas to life so we always find a way regardless.

How is it that people know a TSE image when they see it? Is this something that's intentional? How would you explain it?

One thing I capture with my photographs are the experiences and emotions behind them, this is intentional. For me, I believe art is an experience, I believe in creating things that are beyond what you'll typically see in an image. It could be the lights, camera angles/frames, set design or the special thing I add while I'm ending. I'm trying to capture unthought-of perspectives every time I'm behind the camera. It's the TSE magic.

Tal pai tal filhoPhoto: TSE

You've worked with a lot of artists and brands over the past few years. What does it feel like to be the creative brain behind a great number of album covers and promo shoots?

It feels really great. I'm really blessed to have these opportunities. Being given the stage to bring my ideas and their ideas to life for their incredible sonic projects is an amazing superpower and, like the popular saying goes, "with great power comes great responsibility." I don't plan on taking it for granted.

You're considered a good representation for the creative scene in Nigeria. What has been the biggest lesson for you and what advice do you have for other creatives?

I would say the biggest lesson would be to have great faith in whatever you're chasing, take time to really appreciate your growth and the people around you also doing amazing things. Believing in the purpose is far more than any dollar amount. My advice is to take care of your creative health. A lot of other creatives always seek my advice, I'll tell you all the same thing I told them. Take time to refine [your] skills every single day, take on the challenges, and the camera isn't the key, the vision is. Most learning occurs when mistakes are made. Learn to let your thoughts exist on their own without getting too involved with them.

Photo: TSE

Do you have a favorite project? And why?

My best project is still in the labs being refined currently. It's themed after a feeling I had after experiencing Kanye West's 808's & Heartbreak. It reminds me of when I was a kid, the project is my child, there's a childlike wonder to it that's pure.

Working with Rema, your supporters showed up for you on Twitter, is that how you actually got the gig? What was it like working on set?

No, that was actually just social buzz. It was fun to know the people that fuck with my work could ride for me that hard but I actually got an email from Rema's management saying they wanted me to work with him. It's always a lovely experience working with Rema, we both synced the first time we met and our energies are quite similar. He knows what he wants and exactly how he wants it to be projected which makes my work way easier and with minimal effort we can create so much. Everything we've done so far has been fire.

As a young photographer living in Nigeria, what would you say has been your biggest setback?

Nigeria is not developed completely yet so it's hard to bring some of my grand big ideas to life because society might not know how to perceive it and funds are still limited for creatives here. We're getting there slowly and pushing the bracket of what's accepted. Meow.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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