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Photographer Zaynab Odunsi On Deconstructing Stereotypes Of African Masculinity


This year I have partnered with the Invisible Borders TransAfrican project; a travel project that assembles writers and photographers who move across cities questioning boarders and mapping out diversity. This year the project has decided to travel within Nigeria seeking to question the Nigerian identity as well as its artificial boarders. My first of two interviews is with photographer and founding member of the Depth of Field collective (they include TY Bello and Kelechi Amadi-Obi) Zaynab Odunsi. She holds an MA in Photography from the University of the Arts London and has been nominated for a Magnum Emergency Fund. As a part of this group, Zaynab is looking at exploring stereotypes of masculinity in Nigeria. As someone who writes extensively on women’s issues I have often believed that interrogating and addressing the gender narrative on masculinity has been a situation of urgency for sometime. This is perhaps what draws me to Zaynab’s work. We talk about her intentions, why women need to be involved in the conversation around masculinity and whether or not photography is that powerful a medium for change.

I am quite excited about the theme you would be exploring on this trip, which happens to be stereotypes on masculinity. I think I’m excited because it’s a concept that is really pertinent for us right now. Both in terms of sexuality and patriarchal traditions/control. For someone who has been working with women on some of your previous projects why did you particularly choose this now?

I actually started working on the project after the passing of the bill prohibiting same sex relations. I was forced to question this political move that appeared to unify all Nigerians. For the first time in my lifetime there was one topic that the majority of Nigerians irrespective of religion or tribe agreed on. This made me question the reason behind this phenomenon and one prevalent response was that it was simply “Unafrican” – something the oyinbo people brought. Of course my readings around the subject made it quite obvious that this is a ridiculous fallacy; historical records dispute this. In postcolonial Nigeria we are constantly bombarded by images from popular media, advertisements, movies that perpetuate the idea of what it takes to be a man. To be seen as masculine is to be financially stable, the provider for the family – virile and adding to this wealth are his children. It just made me want to ask so many questions about the consequences for society if a man feels he doesn’t somehow live up to these expectations.

I feel like we have spent quite a lot of time working on both empowering and re-writing narratives on womanhood and femininity so there has been some kind of shift where we are starting to understand that there are many ways to be a woman but with masculinity we haven’t really interrogated those spaces. Why do you think masculinity has been left out of the conversation for so long?

I wouldn’t say that this conversation hasn’t happened in the past, but I sense it has only been a conversation driven by men. Sam Fosso, Ike Ude, Rotimi Fani Kayode all explored the idea of masculinity extensively – however I struggle to find case studies of African females partaking in this conversation. The reasons I decided to explore it at this time are twofold. First, simply because well… I think it’s time and secondly my work in the past always focused on women issues and this is an unknown side of a coin I know so well.

In your opinion as an artist, what do you think are and have been the dangers or the consequences of this lack of discourse and interrogation about masculinity but particularly African masculinity?

The consequences of this discourse not taking place is manifest in the society that we live in. A society that is continually patriarchal and the stereotypes of masculinity do more harm than good. Look at our “history books” they tell in majority the stories of great men that built Nigeria – and then you get a token woman here and there. 
Modern Nigerian man is almost this caricature of the “Gulder Man” – popular and respected in the society, attractive to the female sex – basically the ultimate man. The result of these ridiculous stereotypes are unattainable ideals for men that inevitably lead to frustrations which as we have seen recently lead to misogynistic spousal abuses and even murder.

You live in Saudi Arabia and you have been there for a while. How has the spacial and cultural move influenced or altered your work?

Living in KSA has had a huge influence in my practise and how I approach my subjects. As you know the idea of the gaze is very contentious in a society like Saudi that choose very deliberately to keep the outside world out. 
For a start because I teach full time it means that I have less time for my own personal work than I had before I moved there. 
When I do work on my own personal projects I have had to meticulously plan my shoots. I choose my subject, location, set ups and even lighting conditions in advance as I do not have the luxury of shooting on the streets. Please don’t get me wrong it is permissible and some photographers do street work.

I know that most artists keep an open mind and try never to pre-empt results but what are some of the things you are hoping to discover on this journey?

You’re absolutely right, it’s difficult (dangerous even) to predict the type of work I will produce on the road trip. I am keeping a very open mind and just looking to see how the narrative unfolds as we make our way around the country. I do need to have some kind of loose plan which I do. As I write this we are heading to Warri after 3 nights in Benin and the work I have produced so far could have never been predicted 4 days ago. I have been lucky that the people we have met so far have been willing to have the conversation with me (us). Although I am looking at masculinity but just by that reality, I was inclined to photograph one girl. A heavily made up teenager we met in a village who was so beguiled by the attention she was receiving from our male crew.

As a result of nurture and normative cultural practices, gender constructions also form an invisible border onto how it is we interact with other human beings. By using photography to deconstruct these stereotypes and myths, do you think it erases any kind of boarders and if you do think so, how does it do that?

No I don’t think photography erases the gender divide. I don’t know if I misunderstood your question I probably have lol. But I believe your gender should not affect the work that you produce or the topics or ideas you want to tackle. 
I actually believe that as we go into more rural areas of the country I predict the reaction of men towards me as a female photographer will be more a mixture of bemusement and aggression. The idea of a female making an image of a man is to many people very emasculating. Looking back at the history of photography in West Africa – the medium was more formal. You got dressed in your best and made a conscious effort to control the image of yourself (or your family) that you want the world to see. Now for many people today especially in the smaller towns and villages photography is still regarded as thus – I have already experienced on this trip – 4 out of my 5 subjects ask me if they can change into something more presentable before they can be photographed. I always oblige and now it forms a large part of my narrative.

During this road trip, you only get to spend a few days in each state. Do you worry if there will be enough time to establish any level of intimacy with your subjects?

Not really worried. I accept that is the nature of the road trip. I am not looking to form long lasting relationships with the people I meet. Just honest encounters. And good work can be produced that way too. I am not the type of photographer that takes pictures of everything photogenic. I wasn’t always like that when I was a less experienced photographer but now I know when to “let an image go”! I am just looking for those connections and they can be fleeting but very powerful.

Photography as a medium is getting quite popular and some have argued that the entry barriers are getting lower and lower. Essentially anyone that can get their hands on a camera is now a ‘Photographer’. What is your response to that critique? Do you think this infiltration makes it more difficult to find good work and good photo stories? Does it affect people like you in any way?

As I am genuinely interested in the conversations that we can have about how photography forms an integral part of the history of a people, to me the more people with cameras the better. Even if it’s for recording private personal moments like weddings, parties, milestones etc.. – these all form a part of our collective history.
Then saying that, I think in order to make a genuine impact with image making and earn a living from it, it’s not enough to just have a camera. I think there should be a concerted effort to master the craft and all its nuances. Get formally trained, where possible do a degree, get a Masters degree whatever it takes to differentiate yourself from all the photographers ready with their cameras to take your next gig.

You are a part of the Depth Of Field collective, from your observation how do you feel the art of photography has changed and advanced in Nigeria since then. What are your thoughts on the new young crop of emerging photographers?

Yes, things have definitely changed from the DOF days. And I think definitely for the better – For one we don’t have to develop our own films anymore.  It’s amazing what people have been doing I mean I feel really left out sometimes being out of the country but I love to see all the younger photographers getting recognition for doing good work – Lagos had become a real hotbed for young hip photographers – I love it. And best of all – my old DOF crew are all doing amazing things and all still earning a living as photographers. It’s so good to see. I feel really optimistic about photography and the arts in general but always know things could be so much better if our government would get on the matter.

Any other projects in the works you would like to share with us?

Well just my ongoing project on masculinity.  I teach photography full time at a university, and have a newborn photography studio @babyzoostudio which keeps me plenty busy.

You can find out more about the Invisible Boarders project and the current road trip on



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