Andrew Esiebo: Social Identities and Cultural Imaginaries in West Africa Through the Barbershop Lens

Born in 1978, Andrew Esiebo is an acclaimed Lagos-based photographer whose work has been exhibited and published worldwide. Devoting his photo/multimedia work to urban societal issues, he recently turned his gaze to West African barbershops. Their spaces, styles and practices revealed themselves extremely rich to explore issues such as (male) social identities, collective imaginaries and global cultures’ circulation in contemporary West African societies. His project has taken him on the road from Nigeria up to Mauritania, after crossing Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Senegal and Mali. In the course of this interview, Andrew Esiebo details the approach and method he used to work on “Pride”, as he titled his body of work.

Q: Andrew, can you please introduce yourself?

A: My name is Andrew Esiebo. I’m based in Lagos. I consider myself a visual storyteller; I have been exploring issues such as representation, sexuality, religion, human struggle and sport.

Q: Indeed, since the beginning of your professional career, you have worked on very diverse issues such as football, homosexuality, Pentecostalism in Nigeria and beyond (like in Italy), returnees in Rwanda… What common thread do you see between all these works?

A: Their common factor is contemporary society. These works are a reflection of how I see my world. Daily life phenomenas in societies where I exist.

Q: What’s the origin of “Pride”?

A: Actually, “Pride” started in 2009 when I was busy doing street portraits of people who, in their daily life, do jobs that are not so much socially respected or perceived as relevant for the society but, yet, are important for the functionality of the city of Lagos.

I was interested then in going to barbershops. I was attracted by some of their vernacular art signs in the shops, how people got there, engage in conversations, etc. It was an easy place for me to go and mingle with people. But what made me think about working on this particular project was a conversation I had once in one of those spaces. The barber told me that even though he could be considered as a common barber whose shop was around the corner, he was proud to be the barber of our ex-president. That stuck in my head as, apart from the barber himself, the president’s family and wife, nobody has the power or the authority to touch his hair and head. His job makes even the ex-president surrender his head and his pride to have his beard cut by this barber around the corner.

I became then more and more interested in looking at the importance of barbershops in our society. Also, to explore the relevance of all those vernacular signs and iconographic sides, which barbers use to set up their shops. This is how the project started for me. It brought me then to travel along seven West African cities (Cotonou, Accra, Abidjan, Monrovia, Bamako, Dakar and Nouakchott, plus Lagos).

Q: Why choose to work in many different capitals of West Africa instead of, for instance, concentrating on one singular country?

A: While doing research for the project, I found out that many people who try to go to Europe by road make it country by country. The way they manage to survive is to make some business in between. To become a barber is easy, for instance. Then, when they make enough money, they continue the trip to Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Mauritania until Morocco to sail by boat. “Shouldn’t I follow these same routes?” I asked myself. Not necessarily to photograph mobile barbers with the intention to head to Europe but, instead, to look at how barbers function in these countries in which some people pass through, before trying to get to Europe. So, I left from Lagos and crossed seven countries up to Mauritania.

Q: How did you precisely work on this topic?

A: While working on this project, I realized how a hairstyle could be crucial for social representation and social identity; from the way the barber cuts your hair, people may think you’re a banker, an artist, a football star… I was mostly interested then in looking at how styles give people their social identity. So, I had to photograph people who came to the shops before and after cutting their hair – to show the transformations the barbers created for them in achieving their social identity. Barbers are central to those processes and proud of creating styles, of making people look good. They are proud of making people feel who they are. I remember some people telling me that they wouldn’t feel who they are until they got their hair cut in certain styles, making them feel they belong to certain spheres. Of course, some people just go to the barbershop to have their hair cut properly, but others may take it as a way of making statements out of their style in their own society. I remember once in Senegal, which is a very Islamic and conservative country, meeting a guy with a very eclectic hairstyle. He said to me that this was a way for him to show his freedom.

Q: How did you choose your spots?

A: Mostly it was just by going around the city, entering the shops and explaining my project. Sometimes there were employees there who told me to come back when their boss was in. In other cases some friends, who really helped me a lot, made contacts in advance for me. It really depended. I improvised a lot! I also got support from various art institutions like the Fondation Zinsou in Benin, Institut Français in Ghana, Liberia and Mauritania and Raw Material Company in Senegal.

Q: This body of work is constructed on four different sections: barbers, hairstyles, urban aesthetics and nuances. We talked about the first two, what about the others?

A: Pictures related to Africa are often about rural communities, villages, not to mention poverty, slums, etc. I decided on the contrary to focus on cities, to use barbershops to reflect their souls and rhythms. In many West African cities there are barbershops all around the corners. It’s interesting to see how they blend within the city. I decided then to take shots of the barbershops’ exteriors to show their environments and to give the context of the city.

As I said at the beginning of our conversation, I became really fascinated by the barbers’ uses of vernacular iconography to engage and attract the customers, but also to reflect their own voices. I was really interested in seeing how in the barbershops’ icons reflect not only religion, faith, and politics, but also sexy symbolism and popular culture blended, as posters of pop stars like Jay Z, 50 Cent, Tupac, etc. may be found on their walls. I think this complicates the way we see their world and how they use their spaces to reflect personal beliefs and collective imaginaries through the installations they create in their shops. They are very much aware of black culture, tunes and music coming from America. People want to be like these pop stars, and these spaces also bring those imaginaries to them. The same process seems to work for sexy pictures of women, even in conservative societies; they create attractiveness and fantasies for the people.

Q: Earlier you said the barber shop is also a kind of social space where people come to gather and discuss.

A: Absolutely! Some barbers may use their spaces to reflect their own political views. I remember, for instance, one guy having a poster of Gaddafi pasted on the wall and, at the same time, one of Obama. When I asked why, he said that Gaddafi was very generous to Mali; he was then very much upset that he had been killed. This poster was a way of showing his position against his elimination. I saw that in many Islamic countries, which I found interesting.

But, more generally, the barber shop is a meeting point for people to chat and discuss. I remember, for instance, a very big argument: a guy defending free sex for everybody, the necessity of not being stuck to one single boyfriend or girlfriend. The barbershop is a masculine space. I became particularly conscious of that when a woman came up to a shop, she was shy to cut her hair. I became aware then of how such spaces can be intimidating for some women.

Q: Did you visit any hairdressers for women?

A: Yes, I tried but I felt so shy too! It made me understand the women I saw previously at the barbershop. These experiences made me aware of how spaces can be affected by gender or by what surrounds their environments.

Q: Is this project on barbershops definitely closed for you?

A: My project’s hardly closed! I’m still shooting barbershops. I was recently in Ghana and I stopped by to photograph a shop. But, at the moment, I’m working on a new project which I call “High Life Lagos”. I’m looking now at deejays, the places they perform and what happens around those spaces. In a way, it’s similar to the barbershops project. They are highly crucial for the functioning of entertainment places in Nigeria, be it private parties or clubs. I’ve been using this as a way of navigating into those worlds. The project is now structured around four categories: the DJs themselves; the consumption of the Nigerian society in these places, as champagne flows; styles, as people dress specially to participate in parties; and finally, what I call “ecstatic moments”, where you see particular tensions emerging from those spaces.

Q: I have the impression that deconstructing your subject into different facets is the way you usually work.

A: Yes, but when I start a project it’s never by planning. I just stumble upon it and then decide to go deeper inside. Research comes later. I want first to find my own voice. So, I do a couple of shoots and then look precisely at what I saw and the way I perceived it. For instance, for this new project I see style, tension, relief, joy, happiness, movement. I see also how people spend so much money! I structure the project then to follow these intuitions.

Q: You work on such extended projects. It must be tiring!

A: You need to put effort into what you’re doing. Nothing comes easy, but I love my work. To me, it’s the best job. It’s food for thought, it’s fun and it’s passion. I really feel blessed.

Thank you for your time, Andrew!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of Andrew’s work, visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

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2 comments

  • wow!i strongly agree that the space called barbershop is larger than what it’s meant for. as an African, one can’t cut off the social effect of a space like that from life as i visit that space at least once a week. and that your hair do as a lot to do with your confidence is as true as ever.

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