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Stephen Tayo, What If – portraits of Lagos' drag community
‘What If’Photography Stephen Tayo

Stephen Tayo’s stunning photos tell captivating stories of community

From Lagos’ blossoming drag scene to the strong bonds that unite twins, the Nigerian photographer is intent on sparking conversation through his work

Across the African continent, a new generation of young creatives are spearheading a creative boom. With the weight of the world's eyes upon them, these individuals work outside of old fashioned Western dictates, at times rejecting such antiquated systems altogether. One notable, and particularly refreshing, figure among them is Nigerian photographer Stephen Tayo.

Tayo captures the reality of his surroundings, showcasing the beauty of community, always centering his subjects' unique sense of style. Fusing the old and the new, the philosophy major has spent the past few years creating a profound and alluring body of work – layered with symbolism relating to identity, family, and friendship.

As well as Dazed, Tayo’s work has been featured in Vogue, The New York Times, Vice, and Interview Magazine. He’s also worked with artists like Burna Boy, Davido, and Tiwa Savage, bringing his unique style of photography to their image. His subjects are captured intimately in their everyday environments – through his lens, surplus is stripped away, as he focuses on the multilayered dialogues that surround each individual. Fleeting moments of mundanity are regularly elevated to things of beauty. 

Created during an artist residency with the Arthouse Foundation in 2020, Stephen Tayo’s latest project ‘What If?’ is a collaboration with drag artists in Lagos. Captured in an intimate setting free from societal scrutiny and police brutality, the photographer juxtaposes the more fluid gender expression of precolonial Yorubaland to the colonial warping of those ideals.

What If questions reality: What if drag is the way of life? What if we lived in a world free of societal expectations and limitations? A world free from the traditional gaze of both the Nigerian public and government? What if these young people weren't treated like outcasts because they show their unique state of individualism?

I caught up with Stephen Tayo in Ebute Metta – a compound he spent a lot of time in as a child, and still shoots around occasionally – to discuss growing up in Lagos, the Nigerian drag scene, #ENDSARS, and using art as advocacy.

Hey Stephen! So, first question: what was it like growing up in Lagos?

Stephen Tayo: It’s nice you mentioned growing because, for a little while, I was raised in this compound. I’m one of those people that believe that when you want to start something, it’s good to start from your community and you can grow from there. I really like the idea of nurturing what’s around you, communicating that, and finding a balance. I’m still creating work in this environment now because I think every creative should nurture what they see growing up.

My upbringing was basically shuffling between Ebutte Metta, Lagos Island, and Yaba, it’s been mostly around Ebutte Metta. It’s a place known for parties and next level fashion. These people don't have any idea of what the west thinks fashion is, they’re projecting what’s cool to them. I really just grew from that, studying philosophy in school and then assisting so many people in fashion in Lagos. I didn’t study fashion so I needed a way to expand and learn the ropes. The system is tough but it’s important to learn certain things as regards to nourishing what you think is your direction. 

When you think about photography, we have a history of amazing photographers from 30 years ago in Lagos, the likes of Andrew Esiebo, George Osodi, different kinds of photographers who have their own perspectives. I’m heavily inspired by them, creating stories around families, friends, and what you see everyday. We need to understand and learn how to grow what is already close to us. You can always explore a bigger scale when you start small.

How did your upbringing help form your unique approach to photography?

Stephen Tayo: I love the simple things. When I think about the kind of people whose work I find inspiring – like James Bannon, Hassan Hajjaj, and Seydou Keita – these people were very instrumental to my photography career because when I was starting out, people gifted me their books, they’re really iconic. In a way I was creating my own reality, using them as some sort of focal point.

I love to create fashion work that can easily resonate with people, like when you see the image you recognise the street. I really want people to have that communal experience with my work. I want my work to feel as close to real life as possible.

You’re very particular about the projects you work on. What topics pique your interest and what’s your creative process like?

Stephen Tayo: With me I always note down in my journal what I should kind of look into, and mostly it always comes from different conversations with friends. It’s always about what is happening in line with what has happened, and I try to see how I can join these elements together then have some sort of conversation about newness and the past. 

People fail to understand that while our experiences may differ, you can pick things that happened 20 years ago and see that there is some sort of renaissance happening. Think about the Fuji legend Obesere, for example, and how the alt scene has been using him as inspiration. While they might term it as being purely alternative, you can trace their inspiration back to artists like him (Obsere), King Sunny Ade, and Ebenezer Obey. If you look back at their album artworks, you notice how fluid their sense of fashion was. I think one of the things with growing up in the African setting is, the older you get, the more conservative you become.

But I’ll say conversation is the most important part of world building for my projects.

Your work touches on delicate issues that aren’t so commercial in a country like Nigeria. What challenges do you face and how have you been able to navigate the scene and still maintain such a high level of success both locally and internationally?

Stephen Tayo: I really love the idea of doing work that could be termed ‘provocative’ and also marrying it with commercial work. That way I’m kinda advocating for both worlds. In hindsight, you need funding and resources to make your personal projects and we don’t have a lot of grant opportunities here. The idea is to create work that brings money to my pocket and use some of that to fund personal projects.

I think it’s important for growing artists to think about an avenue for themselves to make money, then use the money to go fund their interests. That way you don’t have people telling you what to do. I think having an important body of work keeps you relevant, and it keeps you going. Every young person should play around with the idea of having a good body of work and having a commercial element to it. Being in Lagos, the eco-system might be difficult on us but it’s possible to do both.

I’ve also been able to have collaborators who love my work and want some sort of element of my art in the commercial world. It’s sometimes tough but I’m learning. 

“(My upbringing) has been mostly around Ebutte Metta. It’s a place known for parties and next level fashion. These people don't have any idea of what the west thinks fashion is, they’re projecting what’s cool to them” – Stephen Tayo

Tell us about your recent series What If? and what it means to you?

Stephen Tayo: It started off as a conversation around drag culture. There've been a lot of comedians on Instagram and TikTok who will be playful with just dressing up and they’ll get numbers, comments, or followers, it’s fun for them. Then you have people who, that’s literally what they are, they derive joy from it but they're getting terrible press and comments.  

When I got the opportunity to do a residency, I thought it would be really nice to create this work now. I met with a couple of people who identify as cross dressers and drag queens. We had amazing conversations about the challenges of being a drag artist – I love that term, ‘drag artist’ because I believe their work is art – in Lagos, Nigeria. I did that for about four months at Art House Foundation and the outcome had a lot of activism in it because it was at the same time we were fighting the injustice with the police and government, so I thought it would nice to bring the nowness into what I had been creating for months – I didn't know we were going to end up protesting (as part of the End SARS movement). The conversation was very important, using quotes like ‘Na dress I dress I no kill person,’ using what people say on the street.

The conversation also extended to young people who aren't necessarily drag queens but also dress up in a unique way. Society bashes drag queens but the police are doing the same to the people. So society should understand if you can’t take this from the police you also shouldn’t do the same to the drag community.

Why is the series called What If?

Stephen Tayo: The name What If? came up because I was thinking of a society that doesn’t have toughness on drag queens: ‘What if drag is a way of life?’ and ‘What if we don’t have police checking us?’ Asking what if, to create a better society. In a way that kind of helped me to open up the conversation to more minds. We need to understand that people need to be themselves, it’s not a criminal act. It’s more of how people have been taught to live life. My work teaches me to be open to more conversations and dialogue. 

How important is it for art to be used as a conversational tool, like many young people did last year during the #ENDSARS protests?

Stephen Tayo: I think it’s been inspiring to see many young female artists use their painting to actively nurture what we experience and archive that moment in people’s headspace. I think now a lot of people have developed different bodies of work.

I think it’s very key – it helps us to remember what happened. It’s very important to keep advocating and speaking on what will lead to a better government. We need to just actively keep talking about it and not wait for the older generation because we are the ones experiencing it. If you’re in your 20s, it’s really tough to be young in Nigeria right now. Young people need to put themselves in that space to talk about what’s going on in society.

“The name What If? came up because I was thinking of a society that doesn’t have toughness on drag queens: ‘What if drag is a way of life?’ and ‘What if we don’t have police checking us?’ Asking ‘what if’, to create a better society” – Stephen Tayo

You’ve been hired to shoot in Lagos and across the world – what would you say separates everywhere else from Lagos?

Stephen Tayo: To be honest, I don’t overthink where I’m shooting. I understand that places differ but it's always the same approach and experience. I always just think about how to create with what is available. If I'm in Ghana I’m thinking about how I can infuse Ghana in my work.

What are your tips for young photographers out there born in the social media age?

Stephen Tayo: I think people need to think about what works for them and their approach. It’s always about asking how we can use these tools to enrich ourselves. I think about social media like, I’m spending so much money on data, what am I getting back? How do I generate knowledge, increase my network or help with the inflow of cash?

I think people need to be very strategic and intentional, they need to project what they're about, this is their journey and it’s also a long process. You won’t get there in two/three years and everyone’s journey is different. People need to understand that they should own their journey, be in their journey, and also remain focused.

Who would you like to shoot?

Stephen Tayo: Ideally, I'd love to take photographs of (author) Wole Soyinka. I’ve been reading a lot of his books lately. I’ve also been thinking about it. He’s one person I’ll really love to point my camera at now.

What next for you?

Stephen Tayo: I’ve been taking it slow recently because I've been working on a lot of projects and commercial jobs but before the year runs out something fresh is coming out.