THE IMAGES THAT CAPTURED THE BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT

In a year which saw the entire world grind to a halt, and months marred by a variety of losses, forced stillness, a heightened sense of insecurity and uncertainty; a seismic shift occurred.

Early in October, a group of young Nigerians gathered in, initially, small numbers to protest against the long-problematic police unit: Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). What followed were weeks of peaceful protests that stretched across the country, eventually making its way across the pond to major cities like New York, London, Toronto and more. In those three weeks, the numbers grew; the community multiplied but the message remained the same: Nigeria. Stop killing your young. The End SARS protests exposed the many crushing atrocities this police unit has been responsible for, with many sharing personal survival stories and, more heartbreakingly, relaying the traumas of family members and loved ones murdered and disposed of by senior officers of the units across the country. While the community celebrated the incredible humanity and unison that the protests brought, it appeared the government wasn’t so moved or convinced to take useful steps to respond and rectify.

 On the 20th of October, 2020, after a 4pm curfew was announced by the governor of Lagos State around 11am the morning of, protesters at Lekki toll gate in Lagos, Nigeria, remained at their posts, peacefully singing the national anthem. A few hours later, just before that curfew hit, the governor announced an adjusted curfew time, 6pm. As the protesters sat peacefully, waving the Nigerian flag and singing the anthem, a group of men dressed in army gear opened fire on the peaceful and unarmed group. Killing some, injuring more and traumatising many.

 The world watched as chaos unfolded; they saw the government do nothing. The trauma still lingers in the air, minds and hearts of the Nigerian youth and their allies. Now more than ever, in revisiting the physical part of the protests through images and videos, we rely on the works of photographers and smartphone users to remember the truth of what happened during that historic period of time. We spoke to four photographers whose images became amongst the most symbolic documents of the protests. We revisit the images that they took and hear them speak on their experiences being part of this moment in history.

 

-SONIA IRABOR-

NORA AWOLOWO

When you started photographing the protests, were you aware of what a monumental event in history you had become a part of?

I wasn’t.  I am sure many of us never knew it would last that long. I literally just went there on the first day, thinking that would probably be the last day of the protest. But alas, the government didn’t budge, so there was a reason to keep the protest going.

We are embattled in a dance of truth versus falsehood, and these images from each day at the protests, including 20.10 and the days that followed, are some of the strongest lines of defence against the latter. Would you agree with that?

Yes they are. I am glad the protest was well documented via photos and videos, by professionals and even smartphone users. We have seen the government deny a lot of things, but the evidence is clearly in our faces. And guess what? The evidence is in the photos and videos shared with time stamps.

At the peak of the protests, what would you say filled you most with hope, and why?

I kept telling people close to me and even my parents, I was doing my part to document history, and I will tell my kids I used my skills to play a good part in documenting the history in Nigeria.

You captured the essence of the protests through aerial views, showing the impact and the mass. What’s one thing you learnt – about yourself, the community, the country, or your artistry –  during your time documenting the protests.

At some point, I was literally at almost every protest ground in Lagos. From Ikorodu, Airport, Alausa, Lekki, Ajah. Taking pictures from the aerial point of view felt different; sometimes you are scared it doesn’t become violent with the police shooting your drone down.

Also, Nigerians were really helpful, documenting the protest and the different [roles] everyone played. We had people who directed traffic, the medical services, the security services, those in charge of welfare; everyone being united for one cause! There was a glimpse of hope somewhere in me for the country. Now, I doubt there still is with the events that have happened after.

When documenting situations as overwhelming as protests, navigating all the moving parts and attempting to capture as many moments as you can, are you able to experience it in real time, or do you revisit it once you are done?

I was able to experience it in real time. Also, anytime I go through the pictures for selections, I always remember what was actually going on at that moment when I took the pictures.

There was a point “Are we tired?” kept ringing in my ear. This was one of the chants at the protest and people would reply, “No, we are not!”  Anytime it rings, I just remind myself I shouldn’t be tired and that’s all the ginger I needed for the next day.

How did documenting the protests impact your mental health during and especially after the protests?

Documenting the protests had its own impact on my mental health; I couldn’t and wasn’t even granting interviews to talk about it. I was always on my feet, I was tired physically and mentally. I had jobs I had to postpone or some I had to cancel; I was supposed to be in Taraba [during] that period. The sad thing was even the fact [that] we kept going to protest and everything fell on the deaf ears of the government.

At some point, I had no idea when the protests would stop, but these people were not even ready to answer our requests. It was sickening. Now imagine those killed at Lekki toll gate, the events that happened after. The lies, the deliberate efforts to cover up things.

I have actually given up on this country.

THE KASHOPE

When you started photographing the protests, were you aware of what a monumental event in history you had become a part of?

I photographed the protests knowing fully well the power an image holds in its ability to provoke conversation, and tell the stories of events witnessed. These stories will be discussed for years and years and so it was imperative that we told it our way. If you don’t tell your own stories someone else will.

At the peak of protests, what would you say filled you most with hope, and why?

It had to be seeing Nigerians everywhere in the world come together for a good cause. The unity and support we had for each other was amazing.

How did documenting the protests, and being part of the movement impact your mental health; during the protests – and especially after the events and aftermath of 20.10.20?

I’ve often said that when I look at a picture I’m able to instantly remember the events surrounding that image and this has made looking at the End SARS images I took very emotional for me.

What’s one thing you learned – about yourself, the community, the country, or your artistry –  during your time documenting the protests?

During the protests I learned that I wasn’t the only Nigerian who was tired of police brutality and the numerous other failures in the country.

UnEarthical:

When did you begin to feel that the protests, and that moment in time, were different, if at all, from past events?

I haven’t witnessed a time like this in Nigeria, since I was born. But based on stories I was told about past wars, protests and campaigns, I was expecting more violence amongst ourselves; even judging from our day to day lives – how difficult it is sometimes for one to coexist in the [same] space with another. I wasn’t really expecting the unity and peace I saw. It was at the point I felt peace and saw the love shown to one another, I saw a different Nigeria.

Why was it important for you to document what was happening?

I felt obligated to do it. I saw Nigeria in a vulnerable state and for the first time in my life I badly yearned for a change more than I ever had; I knew there couldn’t be a change if I didn’t make a positive impact. I felt guilty each time I ignored the protest, or allowed fear to swallow me up. So I picked up my camera to document as much as I could. If I had to support the movement, I had to lend my skill as well, knowing the importance of documentation and serving as a witness at a crucial time like that.

At the peak of protests, what would you say filled you most with hope, and why?

Honestly the unison. Seeing people from different walks of life come together peacefully to educate, sensitise, and protest for the same cause. Even though Nigeria in general didn’t feel like a safe space for its citizens, the protest grounds seemed safe for everyone. There was no stigma whatsoever between classes of people. We all protected, cared and looked out for one another, there was equality. There was no violence of any sort except for the interference of the hoodlums sent in by the government and the police. People were getting more enlightened; the old, the young… There was that togetherness, orderliness and resilience I had never seen in Nigeria, irrespective of all the obstacles that came our way. At that point, I felt a bit of hope for a better Nigeria.

How did documenting the protests and being part of the movement impact your mental health; during the protests – and particularly after the events of 20.10.20 and its aftermath?

Documenting during the protest seemed like my new job. I was curious everyday to go out and do the needful. I felt it’d help proffer a solution. Taking photos and putting them out for the world to see what was going on, maybe it’d reach the right places and grant us the audience and positive feedback. So mentally it was just mixed feelings for me; happy-sad. But mostly happy based on the hope I had.

Post-protest has been a really horrible and traumatic [time]. I’m scared, confused, and devastated. I don’t feel safe in this country anymore; it’s not like I ever was but a lot has been exposed about my government that I never knew and being a witness to a time like this and seeing their reaction really just gets to me. I’m not safe as a citizen nor a photographer. The killings, the lies and how they’ve tried to shun us just really hurts. Earlier I had been in and out of horrible nightmares, I’m just glad it’s better now. I still hope for a change, I’m not just sure when. We all have a lot of fixing to do.

 

Did you have a specific idea of what you wanted to capture during the protests? Or was it important for you to showcase the spectrum of emotions and energy on the streets?

At first I was about the signs and inscriptions, especially those on the floor and walls but I got driven by the emotions and the energy of the people as well until it turned out to be something like a war.

 

What’s one thing you learnt – about yourself, the community, the country, or your artistry –  during your time documenting the protests.

There’s power in unison. There’s power in documentation. The Government doesn’t care for its people. We are the change that we seek to see in the world, it all starts from us.

ETINOSA YVONNE

 

When you first started photographing the protests, did you envision how big and impactful the movement would be?

Quite frankly, I did not know what to expect. Days before the protest, there had been agitations online, I wasn’t sure if people would come out to protest.

 

Why was it important for you to document this moment in history?

As a concerned Nigerian who is constantly seeking ways to contribute my quota to fixing my society, it was necessary that I document such a historic and necessary movement. In a society where injustice reigns, I saw the #EndSARS protest as an avenue to bring to the fore one of several human rights challenges that Nigerians are confronted with.

 

At the peak of protests, what would you say filled you most with hope, and why?

I was born and brought up in Nigeria and while we have made some little progress in different aspects of our society, it appears that we are regressing. While documenting  the #EndSARS protests, I realised that there is indeed a new generation of fearless Nigerians; the youth. It dawned on me that quite a number of Nigerian youths have been able to see past fear, sentiments and  bigotry that our rulers and the older generation had used to keep us divided. The atmosphere during the protests was highly liberating and gave me hope. I had never imagined that Nigerians would be able to see past religion, ethnicity and social class and come together to march for a common cause. It was heartwarming to see women organise and coordinate activities centered around the protest. It was inspiring to see men publicly protect women during the protest.

 

How did documenting the protests and being part of the movement, impact your mental health during – and especially after – the protests?

Days after the protest, I travelled for an assignment, it took awhile for me to process all that happened. One minute, we were marching peacefully, the next minute, unarmed protesters were killed by people that are supposed to protect them. It hurt me. I got so angry and all I wanted to do was vent. I began pouring my frustration on my family. It took a month for me to realise I was hurting those I love.

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