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Musings: Glenna Gordon’s Nigeria Ever After

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Bride Temitope Caulker poses with her bridesmaids, who in typical Nigerian fashion, wear outfits that match the decor of the wedding hall.

Glenna Gordon is not a wedding crasher, at least not most of the time. More often than not, she has some connection to the wedding she is photographing for her project Nigeria Ever After. “Every now and then, not that often, I full-on crash weddings,” she says. On a slow weekend, she’ll peruse the streets of Lagos in search of well dressed ladies clearly headed to a nuptial celebration. Frequently, they will enthusiastically invite her to come along. At the wedding, she always introduces herself to the bride and groom and, even more importantly, to their parents. Gordon explains who she is and what she is doing but, more often than not, they are too busy to pay attention to her.

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Groom Shadrach Uchenna, a wedding photographer, and his bride Ekpo Peace Emem sit at the front of a banquet hall during the wedding as guests greet them in Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph by Glenna Gordon
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An opulent wedding for nearly a thousand guests was held at the banquet hall of a private housing estate in Lagos, Nigeria. Guests wear matching outfits and hats chosen by the bride’s family.

With every intention of pursuing a writing career after journalism school, Gordon never planned on being a photographer. After graduation from Columbia University, she visited her brother who was living in Rwanda. This lead to her decision to move to Kampala, Uganda.

“When I was first living in Africa and working as a journalist, I would write a story and take my own pictures and people would be like ‘Oh great story…loved that picture!’ It was sort of a surreal process for me to decide to focus on photography completely. I was really torn for a long time and I didn’t want to lose the part of myself that was a writer, but I also figured out eventually that my first instinct in any situation was to take a picture, not to write something down.”

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A male guest dances at the women’s celebration during a Muslim wedding in Jos, central Nigeria. Muslim weddings have separate celebrations for women and for men though there is some mixing.
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A bridesmaid collects “spray”—Naira notes (and sometimes dollars too) thrown at the couple as they dance. While spraying is technically illegal and considered an abuse of currency by the Nigerian government, the practice is common and shows the importance of displaying wealth and excess during celebrations.

In 2012, Gordon was invited to Nigeria to do a residency at the African Artists Foundation in Lagos. She was searching for a project when she saw an article on CNN about Nigeria’s wedding business. “I was like bam, that’s it.” Originally thinking she would do this as a side project and focus her attention on a bigger story on the country’s economic infrastructure, she has since decided to devote her time solely to documentary wedding photography.

One of the ways she first gained access was through Nigerian wedding photographers. “I emailed a million of them and then a few let me tag along to weddings they were shooting or told me about weddings they knew about from their photographer friends.” This is an approach she still uses.

On her last visit to Jos, a city in the Middle Belt of Nigeria, she visited a photo studio to inquire if they knew of any upcoming weddings. As it turned out, one of the guys who worked there was getting married that weekend. “It was great because his wife was really comfortable being photographed. She is the one in the wedding dress walking through her neighborhood on the way to church.”

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Christiana Etim walks through her neighborhood in Jos on her way to the church to get married.
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A young girl, who says she’s 18, prepares to be the second wife of a civil servant during the women’s part of her wedding ceremony in conservative Muslim northern Nigeria.

Gordon is often mistaken for one of the “wait-and-get” photographers who show up to take pictures, then rush out to get them printed and return to sell the prints back to the guests. She will get asked by guests if she is “washing”—a term that refers to darkroom developing in the days of film. Most “wait-and-get” photographers now use digital. Some even carry little portable printers around with them.

If anything, this makes Gordon’s presence more welcomed: random photographers showing up is just a part of the Nigerian wedding experience. “For the most part, at the really big weddings, no one pays attention to me because there are so many different things going on at any given moment that I’m just one of 20 crazy things happening.” She describes the chaos: caterers passing out hors d’oeuvres, a battalion of other photographers, women arguing over giveaway gifts such as toilet brush cleaners and dish soap detergent.

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The mother of the bride always chooses “Mommy Lace” — a fabric that all of her friends will purchase and have tailored into dresses they wear to the wedding. At the wedding, guests will often collect bags with the couple’s name on them like this one for Biola and Bade, and then fill them with other gifts that are passed around the wedding, such as household goods, notebooks, or other small items also marked with the couple’s names.

“There is a real culture of reciprocity; you give gifts and you get gifts,” Gordon explains. This exchange is an important custom at Nigerian weddings. Gordon herself has several of these gifts from the weddings she has photographed, one in particular is a cheese grater with the bride and groom’s name stamped on it.

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A chicken runs through the bridal tent in Yaba, a working class neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria.

I asked what she hopes viewers take away from Nigeria Ever After and the slice of African life it portrays. Along with a sense of celebration of these extraordinary weddings Nigerians throw, Gordon hopes to tell a very specific story about Africa. She wants viewers to see the variety and differences in cultures and economic classes in Nigeria. But she also wants people to see Nigerians just having a good time. Using the young man dancing in one of her photos as an example, she remarks that he “looks like he could be a Brooklyn hipster.” She thinks people can connect with that: “they’re going to be like, ‘that looks like my cousin dancing at my wedding!’”

Follow Glenna Gordon on her website.

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