Focusing his lens down below onto the streets to document the daily lives of street hawkers in Nigeria, Chukwudi Onwumere’s images explore the intersection between informal trade and public space.
Chukwudi Onwumere’s work peers at the foundations of society, the labor that forms it, and the people behind that labor. It’s not enough to simply look at his pictures; they call us to consider the lives of those he portrays, the social and economic forces that shape their decisions, and the conditions in which they strive to create livelihoods within. Onwumere’s Road Runners observes youthful entrepreneurship in public spaces throughout Nigeria. The people in his pictures sell their wares, hustle for those sales, and build from the ground up as high as they can manage.
From a top-down perspective, Onwumere brings us into the perspective of a sociologist. The photographer seeks to isolate his subjects, represent them in minimal contexts, and allow viewers’ minds to wander beyond the visible. Most photographs hint rather than explain. Their inferrals insist that the narratives within the frame are never complete, but exist as small pieces of much larger ideas that aesthetics alone cannot account for. It’s in this premise that we can use Onwumere’s images as a starting point to begin to understand the more powerful forces of economic and social foundations that underpin the small moments that the photographs describe
In this interview for LensCulture, Gregory Eddi Jones speaks to Onwumere about his interest in anthropo-geography, the draw of public space and the process behind his award-winning project Road Runners.
Gregory Eddi Jones: Chukwudi, I’m really eager to talk about your project, Road Runners. First though, I wonder if you can talk a little about your background as a photographer, and some of the influences that have helped to shape your approach to your work.
Chukwudi Onwumere: At the early stage of my photography career, I was a landscape photographer. I usually saw my city from a wide-angle but later, I became interested in the anthropogeography of people, places and spaces. This made me zoom in closer to people through observation and exploration but my major influence is as a result of a painting course I did while in the university, which resulted in my attraction to colors.
GEJ: I’d love to dig a little deeper to know how you became interested in anthropogeography, which seems like a really fascinating area of study. What is it about the intersection of people, place, and labor that interests you so much?
CO: My interest in the convergence of people, place and labor is in how it portrays culture, social recollection and growth. These issues are reflected in our daily routine and I think it somehow forms the bedrock of how a society is perceived.
GEJ: Road Runners is a project about ‘street hawking,’ a means for youths to make a living by selling items on the street. Can you talk about what made you interested in this subject?
CO: What drew my attention to the subjects in this work is the concept of an informal trade in informal spaces and the appropriation of public space. My attraction for them grew from the tenacity, zeal, strength and agility I have seen them display and the role they play in the society which has made people dependent on them. So, I decided to paint them in a different light showing positivity and hope using colors, perspective and shadows.
GEJ: When you talk about the informality of this kind of market, you get me thinking about larger social structures, how people can be included or excluded, and how the latter find ways to exist more on the margins of proper order. Can you talk about the types of people who pursue this life on the boundary? What are the factors that have driven them there in the first place?
CO: There are different types of people who pursue this life on the margin. Certain brands employ this avenue because it is a cheaper and faster way to penetrate their target audience. The visibility of those goods on the road creates an awareness for the brand. People without formal education, skill and school dropouts are often the ones who engage in hawking. This may be ascribed to lack of funds, loss of parents or benefactors. Children and teenagers who fall on this margin help their parents to sell their wares before and after school. This could be in the class of food or fruit items.The factors that drive them there are lack of strong political, economic and social structures.
GEJ: I really love how synchronized these images are in composition and perspective. There’s a sense of detachment that you place the viewer in in relationship to the subjects. And because of that the pictures almost become more like a sociological study, is that fair to say?
CO: Yes, but it is more of a sociocultural investigation because I was also interested in the way of life of these hawkers at the different locations where I captured the images. This includes their attire and the content of what they are hawking.
GEJ: Are these different locations in a single city, or do they represent a broader geographical scope?
CO: The images were taken in three different states in Nigeria; Ogun state, Abuja (F.C.T) and Lagos state. After doing a recce in some parts of the three states, I chose to shoot from one spot in each of them. Because each of the chosen pedestrian bridges I finally settled to shoot from gave me a good perspective, less distraction and a desired weather condition. Two out of the three locations represent a broader geographical scope.
GEJ: Road Runners seems to have a lot in common with another project of yours, Shades of Hustle, where you also dive into the nature of labor and economics, albeit with a more ‘traditional’ strategy of storytelling. At the root, do you think these projects strive to tell the same kinds of stories?
CO: Not a lot actually. Shades of Hustle is a collection of different images that sheds light on the general scope of work—hustle. Some of them have nothing to do with labor. But Road Runners has a more dedicated and focused idea with different tentacles reflecting culture, economics, spatial interrogation and informality of the trade which borders on social structure.
This work was selected as a winner of LensCulture’s Art Photography Awards 2022. See all of this year’s winners.