The editors of a local magazine I do freelance work for approached me about doing a photo essay around the theme of love. There was not much time left, I started thinking about the story immediately. At first, my idea was to find couples in long-term relationships to speak eloquently on their experiences and pose for portraits. But my plan was not as easy as I imagined. I soon found that Nigerian couples were not the type to share their private affairs with the public.
I didn’t personally know anyone who would want to pose for this series, so I went to public spaces, asked shopkeepers if they knew of couples who would invite me into their homes for a photo session. It quickly became a fact that couples in love with a taste for publicity, were a rare breed. Desperately aware of my approaching deadline, I shared my dilemma on stage at an event for aspiring poets. There was no response to my call for lovers. So I decided to open up the parameters a little, I asked if there were any single people who would share their personal stories of love with me. Still no response.
As I was leaving the event, one of the attendees approached me privately. He said he was willing to share his story and be photographed for the essay. Finally success. He introduced me to some of his friends who were also willing to be photographed.
Why was it so hard to find willing subjects? Especially willing female subjects? Was love such a taboo subject? I had expected that women would be the first to approach me with a story they wanted to share. Simply because they were women. I assumed they would be more expressive about this subject. All over the Internet Nigerian women were talking about love, sex and the Valentines day, writing about their private thoughts and feelings, and sharing their deepest relationship secrets. But in the real world, they were tight lipped and unwilling to expose themselves to public judgement. Was it because women were generally more private and shy of the camera, or was something deeper happening? Was my own deeply ingrained gendered notions getting in the way of my assignment?
What was my experience trying to produce this photo essay saying about the truth of Nigerian masculinity and feminity? Was I wrong about women being more open to discuss their feelings? I spoke with my editors about the difficulty of finding couples and how men were more willing to share their stories with me. They found it hard to believe that Nigerian men were talking to me about their emotions, “ I’m surprised an Ibo man would discuss love,” my editor said. So I pitched an alternative story, a more thematic one, about Nigerian men talking on the subject of love. I thought it would be interesting to readers to hear local men talking about their private emotions. It would be interesting to present this in an environment where gender roles were very rigid. In Nigeria, it is widely believed that men should be men, they shouldn’t share their feelings and most of all they shouldn’t cry.
I received a resounding “no” to my pitch. They explained that they were uncomfortable with the idea of so many emotional men on a two-page spread. But really…What was so threatening about seeing a group of men talk about love?
Gender and Culture
Growing up in Nigeria, gender roles were reinforced in subtle and not so subtle ways. Women and girls were expected to act in a very feminine way and Men of course were the opposite of women. It is near impossible to find images or narratives that contradict this social norm. I really believe that the more authors, storytellers and image makers tell stories that show men as more complicatedly human and less mythical, perhaps the more we will expect and possibly see a more emotional and vulnerable side to them.
Uche Chukwu Ezeogu, 35, Accountant:
"The first time I was in love, I was 9 years old. It was with a girl called Juliet in my primary 5 class. I’ve been heartbroken once in my first year of university. I was about 20 years old and had idealistic notions of love. I thought that any serious relationship would lead to marriage. This was my first serious relationship and I told myself that was going to be it. I had been juggling between three girls to pick the right one. I guess I made the wrong choice of the three. The relationship lasted one year. I noticed some changes in the girl in the second semester of school that I was not comfortable with and it led to our breaking up. Maybe it was because I had become busier with school politics that I wasn’t paying attention to my relationship. I found out she had a fling with one of my course mates. I never saw it coming and I was heartbroken. This heartbreak made me become a player. I just went haywire, I was all over the place. Up until that time I was a one woman guy. For six years I was crazy, till I told myself it was time to be a man again. A real man is nt one that has King Solomon’s Harems, a real man is one that is true to himself and one woman. I regained my belief in love by looking at myself. Now I’m not sure any woman will breakup with me."
Okah Ewah Edede, 33, Writer and Artist:
"I just found out this morning that my father passed away. I was always giving him assurance that I will find a wife. I was the only child and he really wanted me to get married. It was as if he knew he was going. My dad was the kind of person that would try to make you see your potential. He was such a good communicator. He always said I could marry anyone. He didn’t care about the person's religion. It would make him very angry that religion was a hindrance to two people being in love. He said we all worship the same God."
Unig, 23, Media Science Student:
"Love is a great feeling for somebody. It’s a particular feeling for a lady. I’ve been in love before and it was awesome. Right now I’m single, but I would like to have that feeling, that real love, again."
Michael, 18, Student of Guidance and Counselling:
"Love is about caring for someone with no condition attached to it. Actually the experience I have of love has just been a casual experience. I believe Love is not just about sex. It’s not about your family but it’s about loving the less privileged in society. The first girl i loved told me that. That love is not just about sex."
Femi, 24, Student of Physics:
"Love is the expression of inner emotion, doing good always to your loved ones, doing everything to take away sorrow, putting a smile on peoples face and giving solutions. It is not necessarily love for one person. It’s when you and the person team up. Love can also make you not to reason normally. You also do your best not to hurt loved ones. Love is also when you wake up in the morning and ask what can I do to bring solutions to people’s problems, to lessen the stress in their lives and bring joy to their lives."
Joseph Hilary, 18, Student of Microbiology:
"Love is a positive emotional desire that you can have for anybody. I’ve never experienced it but I hope to."
Abiola,24, Student of Jurisprudence:
"Love is temporal and is based on your choice. The person you love today can be the person you hate tomorrow. If a girl suddenly cheats on you your love can turn to hate. I have not experienced love in six years. Something happened six years ago that changed my ideas about love. I learned that you can love someone but they don’t have to love you back. You can give love and not receive."
Japeth, 25, Student of Jurisprudence:
"Love is a beautiful thing but can be sad when it sets in. The last time i experienced love was in 2010. From 2013 till last year I was thinking about trying again. I tried to convince the girl in question, but I think my past haunted me. I wasn’t experienced in loving someone so me trying to come back to it was not successful. So now I seriously think before I will try another serious relationship. Because of my experience I am regretting decisions I have made in the past."
Ademola, 23, Student of Jurisprudence:
"Love has so many definitions. it means having someone beside you, or loving your family members. Love is when you have a lover beside you that advises and tells you what to do. I have loved some and I have lost some."