Lagos-based 28-year-old photographer Stephen Tayo has made a name for himself as a vivid documentor of Nigerians’ unique fashion sense for the New York Times, VICE, and Vogue, as well as a portraitist of major African cultural figures like Burna Boy and Davido.
This fall, however, Tayo was featured in Human Stories: The Satirists, a group exhibition at London’s NOW Gallery. The show, which also featured Thandiwe Muriu, Bubi Canal, Leonard Suryajaya, Nyugen Smith, and Thy Tran, explored satire in photography and how it can be used to develop and nurture interconnected identities of gender, race, and class.
In recent years, Tayo has become increasingly recognized by the art world for his portraits. Renowned art critic, curator and Gagosian director Antwuan Sargent featured Tayo’s work in his 2019 book The New Black Vanguard, and the accompanying exhibition at Aperture Gallery in New York in 2020.
At NOW, Tayo showed “Which Lagos You Dey?” a photo series that, as part of his Na Lagos We Dey anthology, employs depersonalization. In these new works, Tayo removes the human subjects central to his earlier work and replaces them with anonymous figures draped in objects that represent certain Lagos-specific rituals.
“I wanted to create a relationship between the city and people in a dynamic way,” Tayo told ARTnews. “The idea really is to look at how I can build around the elements of Lagos using the street sound, fashion, signs, and the things we find about Lagos that are so common that sometimes we don’t think it needs exploring.”
Tayo added that he wanted the new series to reflect the specificity of his identity as a Lagos-based Nigerian artist, not just as an African creative.
Tayo learned how to be a photographer primarily from watching YouTube tutorials while he was a philosophy student at the University of Lagos. However, he doesn’t consider himself an autodidact.
“I didn’t have to go through training in the physical sense. Many of the things I learned in photography have come from mostly digital space, he said. “If you learn online, I don’t think it is self-taught anymore.”
Tayo’s passion for photography, he said, came from his realization that he did not have enough photos of himself as he was growing up. As a child, he and his family moved around often and whatever photos had been taken were often lost during the moves.
“I started documenting in the sense of archiving,” he said. As he moved through university, he began documenting the people in his life — cousins, nephews, siblings, and friends — with his iPhone. The response from his loved ones was encouraging and he began expanding to document his classmates and the architecture on campus.
“Many of these things change. From wanting to document kids to [my] friends to now making stories about the times that we live in, the conversations that are going on,” Tayo said.
Tayo’s education in philosophy has informed his approach to photography, he said, as he uses the camera to question diverse experiences and encourage dialogue.
“Philosophy is very much keyed into human practice, and [my work] as a photographer [includes] engaging with people and places,” he said.
His work is influenced by those of the likes of Malian portrait photographer Seydou Keita, Malian pop culture photographer Malick Sidibe, and Nigerian photographer Samuel Fosso, who was known for his self-portraits that used different personas to comment on the history of Africa.
In 2018, Tayo was commissioned by Dutch streetwear brand Patta and Nike to shoot a campaign for the launch of their collaboration which was exhibited in London. Tayo was then hired to shoot a Havana Club campaign for the U.K. with Nigerian-British rapper Skepta in Cuba. Around the same time, the Times first hired the photographer to document Lagos fashion.
He also developed a project with Apple on stories of the COVID pandemic. In 2020, he scored a nomination at the British Fashion Council Awards in the ‘New Wave’ category.
In July this year, his photo series “What If?” was exhibited at the V&A as part of the Africa Fashion Exhibition, which was recently extended to April 2023.
Tayo’s rise and rise comes from his trademark style of fusing documentary and fashion to elevate everyday moments and highlight the beauty of his community.
Tayo is unabashedly committed to showcasing his community. “I think every [African] creative should just focus on the peculiarity of their space. Be proud of it and show it to the world.”