The follow-up to his runaway success Dalston's Anatomy sees the photographer taking to the streets of Lagos
In Money Must Be Made, Lorenzo Vitturi’s latest photobook, the photographs address the question of how, not merely where. It is not exceptional to visit a market in Lagos with a camera, especially if, as white, you are working within a tradition of photography that depicts Africans in despair and as NGO-needy. What distinguishes this work is the complexity suggested, an indication that the market – one of the largest in west Africa – is connected to its people and products in many, many ways.
Here are utterly beautiful pictures, elements in each carefully chosen, bordering on the sculptural. They are not mere representations, intended to serve a classic journalistic portrayal of a Lagos crowd. Vitturi has undertaken, it seems, to study the market, to speculate on how it constitutes itself. He was there to discover, just as a mathematician might do with letters and symbols, whether he could attempt a pass at the market’s algebra. To do this he chose to work with collage, to recompose “a chaotic composition”, in his words.
“I wanted to recreate the anatomies made by the crowd,” he says. I had asked him about the connections between his earlier book Dalston Anatomy – shot close to where he was living, at east London’s Ridley Road market with its lively mix of African, Caribbean and Asian meat and vegetable stalls – and his latest work, both published by SPBH Editions. “For Lagos, the main problem was trying to recreate visually the shapes and movements I found on the street. I think one of the main subjects of the book is actually how to observe an agent evolving continuously.”
A market, as seen in the photographs, is a place of overwhelming sensation. The movements of people are unending and circuitous. The displays of wares are riotous, yet are also calculated to attract the absent-minded buyer. Those whose daily lives unfold in Balogun Market, as buyers or sellers, rarely have the opportunity to reflect on the composition of objects in their surroundings. They are concerned with more immediate goals, such as getting the most out of a transaction, whether in terms of profit or quality of product.
In Money Must Be Made, we do see those riotous displays and circuitous movements in the photographs but what seems evident above all is the photographer’s careful consideration, as a sculptor handles a chisel or a surgeon a scalpel. It is nearly impossible to see anyone in the photographs looking back at the viewer. Faces are pictured from the side and, on the occasions when they turn frontwards, the eyes glance away.
I am curious about this. What does it mean to picture a crowd without singling out an individual’s glance? Public spaces are usually occupied as far as the eye can see and Lagosians are, in that sense, innumerable. How might a photographer address the megacity’s size and span?
Vitturi, whether he makes the photograph from the top of an otherwise-empty building (the 18 storey Financial Trust House, abandoned by tenants and shunned by estate agents in what the photographer describes as a case of “reverse gentrification”), or juxtaposes laser-cut images, seduces me to imagine the innumerable – those that, in a market, or a megacity, do not fit the frame.
And yet the picture of a crowd isn’t enough. The character of a market is to a large extent determined by the products offered for sale. Sellers are ingenuous; they sense that buyers are impulsive, most of their wants unknown to them until the moment of purchase. Products in a market, therefore, are offered to entice the eye. They are always looked at, and when looked at, meant to attract.
What I found most promising in Vitturi’s work, as is the case in Dalston Anatomy, is a deliberate presentation of the products as though they have lives of their own. Not like those seen in a luxury magazine; they are not glamorised for purchase, but for peculiarity. If it is a prayer mat, what I now see is an object intricately woven into a beauty I’d never seen in a mosque. If it is a gourd, I suddenly realise gourds have legs.
In some photographs, the items for sale most prominently display their peculiarities when held by hand, or resting on a head. Are the bodies of hawkers so fused with the products they peddle that they become objects? I doubt this. Humans never become objects, no matter how many inanimate things they use up, or tether to their bodies. On the contrary, it seems to me that the photographs in Money Must Be Made indicate the extent to which people determine which objects matter to them.
When I lived in Lagos, first as a teenager with my family, and then as an adult making a life on my own terms, the size of the city made it seem cheerless. My anxiety had something to do with the scale of desperation unfolding in front of me and my hunch that not all, including my friends and family, would realise their dreams of a better life. I am still disconsolate, all these years later, but occasionally I am reminded that if many Lagosians pray for a miracle or breakthrough in their businesses, it is because they rely on something other than the supernatural: streetwise opportunism.
The image that returns to me is one of a boy wearing a tattered shirt bearing the legend, “My money grows on trees like grass.”