No, We Don't Throw Spears
There’s immeasurable power in controlling a narrative. Whoever is at the reigns has leverage to dignify, degrade, edify or villainize. Photographer and educator, Temi Coker knows this to be true. Immigrating to the United States at age 11 from Nigeria, has made him painfully aware of widespread misperception of his homeland. Fast forward 12 years, he’s amassed an Instagram following of over 35K followers and shared his recent trip back home with them. On the heels of his first solo exhibition and 23rd birthday, he now has a story to tell with “Temi X Nigeria: A Portrait of Home.”
What is something you wish people really knew about Nigeria? When I first moved to America people asked me if I lived in a hut, took showers, went spear hunting, if I wore clothes etc. I was dumbfounded by the questions because that’s not the Nigeria I saw nor lived in. Nigeria isn’t a place full of huts and people throwing spears. We don’t all speak with our tongues and make weird sounds. Nigeria is a beautiful place inside and out. We have phones, we have movie theaters, we have cars, we have malls, we have everything you have in America. It’s just that the media finds joy in showing the different side of Nigeria. The side everyone loves to make fun of.
Does your African culture affect the way you see and engage with art? My culture is big on storytelling. People have passed down stories and parables from centuries and they are still being told today. I take the storytelling approach when it comes to photography. I want people to be able look at my pictures and feel like they were there. I want them to be able to relate to what they see and feel what I felt when I took that picture. That’s the power of storytelling. If stories are told or captured well, they can make you feel like you were actually there. I remember being young and my parents would tell me stories. These stories were so good that I would close my eyes and listen and imagine what was happening.
You have a huge fan base on IG, does that affect what you share? It used to about 1.5 years ago. I was a slave to my followers and only posted what I felt would get most likes. It wasn’t until I realized that the eyes and talent I have is something I shouldn’t hide. I began capturing things I LOVED and what INSPIRED me. Instagram became my visual diary of how I viewed the world and my environment. I think that’s what people love about my work. It’s through my eyes. I see things differently and feel it’s my beauty to capture the beauty in everyday life and share it with everyone.
What is your favorite memory of that time with your family? My favorite time was dancing with my Grandma and Grandpa and my whole family on the dance floor. I have never seen my Grandma turn up the way she did. She just turned 70 and was getting it on the dance floor. Another favorite memory was when we prayed for my Grandma. I was able to see how much she was loved by the people in the community.
Besides beautiful imagery, what was something you took away from this trip? One thing I took from this trip was that sometimes not having everything you want can be a good thing. I saw people who didn’t have what I had, but they were happy people. In fact, they were happier than I was at that moment. It was quite convicting. They had joy in the midst of their struggle. We complain about gas prices, but back home (in Nigeria) people are walking everywhere with baskets on their head selling items to people on the road hoping they can make enough to survive the day, yet they are still smiling and happy. I realized I took a lot of things for granted and it gave me a new perspective. The most important thing I took from this trip was that photography isn’t about the photographer. It’s about unselfishly displaying and sharing what you see to others.
Why a book? In today’s age, wouldn’t a blog post suffice? I’ve become a big fan of having something tangible that you can feel. Although I did a blog post, I felt like looking at the pictures on a screen wasn’t enough. I wanted people to be able to have history in their hands. I wanted them to be reminded daily of the beauty of Nigeria. You can scroll endlessly through blogs, but with a book like this, you don’t have a choice but to take in each page and feel what I was trying to convey in each photograph. Another reason I did this was because I’ve always had this idea of combining my pictures with poetry from my sister (@anjolacoker) and I believe this made the book so much more powerful. Also, my mentor, Karsten Chearis (@kchearis) added some words to the book as well. I just felt like having these two people collaborate with me on my first book meant the world. So thankful for them.