‘Tokunbo’ is a project by Nigerian Photographer Simi Vijay, who uses photography as a tool to observe how Nigerians in New York City preserve pieces of their culture in the diaspora. Tokunbo is a Yoruba word meaning, “from across the sea”. In the last two decades, the number of Nigerians immigrating to New York has accelerated, with many choosing Brooklyn as their new home. Simi seeks to capture from imagery of fashion, music, food and rituals, the various ways that communities from the diaspora seek to maintain a sense of home and try to keep up with American culture at the same time.
“I was shooting a traditional wedding and I was amazed at what I saw! I was seeing Alagas (Nigerian MC’s), I was seeing talking drums, in fact, with the whole atmosphere of that place I could have thought that I was in Lagos or Abuja! Nothing about that place was American.” Shared Simi whilst explaining what made him come up with the project. Many traditional Nigerians still hold on strong to their roots regardless of what country they move to and settle in. Whether it be through various Nigerian dishes, or well known Nigerian musicians that they listen to, a community will always be formed and can always be found, which is something that Simi discovered and explored with his camera.
“The difficulties I faced were to do with Nigerians! They are very cautious about what goes on out there about them, so allowing me into their homes would lead to questions such as, ‘what are you shooting this for? And Who will see it?’ Getting people to really allow me into their lives was a bit tricky” Explained Simi. The intimacy that some of his images display, alongside with his use of colour and composition draws the viewer in allowing them to experience certain fun and lively aspects of the Nigerian culture.
“I was introduced to a lady by a friend, and she opened up her home to me. I was waiting for her in the sitting room and noticed she was taking some time, after wondering ‘whats taking so long?’ I walked into her room and saw her on the floor with her daughter doing this! I took the picture, it was a complete spur of the moment thing. I took other pictures of them after they were done but the problem was that they were performing for me when they came out, they were performative because they just knew that the camera was in their face, so I felt like this was the most real picture I could get of them” expressed Simi. This is a situation that many photographers find themselves in, which is when their subjects consciously or subconsciously perform for them. It can be tricky and even frustrating when this takes place but one of the ways to combat this is to give enough time for your subjects to forget that you're around and return to their normal selves.
“In my opinion, many Documentary Photographers are not necessarily inspired to make a project, but have noticed something and have a desire to observe what they have noticed and highlight it. Photography at times may not make a specific change to a situation but can bring that situation to light.”
Simi Vijay is an Editorial, Portrait and Documentary Photographer based in New York and Lagos, Nigeria. His work is centred around culture, social issues, and identity and has worked on several photo-documentary projects for different International Organisations. Visit his website to view more of his work.