Thompson is the eye of an emerging culture and his acclaimed portraits tell the story of that creative rebirth.
“It’s not an interview bro, it’s a vibe”, TSE, as he is mostly known, told me as we walked through the gates to the big white building on Stella Ogunleye Street that we call Pulse HQ.
When he’s not having conversations about art and the millennial condition, the 22-year-old photographer is a busy man.
Between covering events like the 90s Baby SoundOff, shooting promotional covers for millennial platforms like Lucid Lemons and making movies with emerging musicians like Santi and Odunsi, he spends most of his time documenting the New Age of Africa, an emerging rebirth of Nigeria's creative scene where artists like Odunsi and Tomi Thomas are changing what Nigerian music sounds like and photographers like himself and Mr. Wentz are putting the spirit of their generation in pixels.
It is a role that has earned him the sobriquet: "Eye of the Culture", one that he accepts with all its responsibilities.
“I can be shooting something and Tomi (Thomas) calls me (to say), "How far Tommy, we gats do this shoot tomorrow." I have to be there and I will be”, he says.
Yet, within all this work, he manages to steer clear of routine and what is expected, as eager to try bright, loud colors as he is to tell me that he hopes I don’t ask him regular questions.
This natural taste for the unexplored, this almost-compulsive need to go further, advance and do extra, to advance is perhaps the most defining aspect of his work.
Born Thompson S. Ekong, TSE spent most of his formative years in Surulere; a popular Lagos suburb that, over the years, has played an integral role in Nigerian pop culture.
It was once the base of Nollywood. Between the late 90s to the early 2000s, almost all auditions were held at the popular Winnis Hotel where most future stars, including Desmond Elliot, were discovered. Surulere’s flats and studios have also produced music icons: Wizkid, OJB, Ruggedman.
Thompson's love affair with images started with fine art in school, a medium where he developed his love for the sublime and unusual, before his hands found a companion in his mother’s Sony Cyber-shot camera.
“I would go for all these parties and take pictures. They would pay me 30k, 50k. That time, it was a lot of money man.", he laughs. "This was like 2009 to 2011. I was taking more of stills, but then, I already knew my grading. Then I started taking portraits, with that same Cybershot.”
TSE is completely self-taught, “trial by error. If I can’t do it, I just move on and come back later” is how he puts it. With time, new challenges demanded more than the Cyber-Shot could handle, so he would borrow Nikon cameras from his friends.
Pictures were taken, uploaded on Tumblr and naturally, heads began to turn his way.
Till this day, Thompson’s main companion is a small Nikon, astounding when you look at the quality of his work.
Minutes into our conversation, I point this out, how he defeats the conventional image of professional photographers and their massive, complex cameras.
“I will tell you a story.", he says. "I was in this photography group called BCP, Beyond Capturing Pictures. They called me for my first paid, proper shoot in NICON Town. Then, I used to post all my pictures on Facebook, people would say ‘Hey, Great stuff’, nobody knew I was using one small camera like this."
"All my guys at the shoot, they had this big camera setup. They had big bags and my own bag was so small so I didn’t bring out my camera”
“They used to call me BCP then.", he continues. "So the guys were like, BCP now, bring out your own. I was like “Fuck It”. I pulled it out and they started laughing. But I already knew what I wanted my pictures to look like so I did my thing and put it through post production and it came out good. They dropped their own before me, but they ended up using my pictures for the magazine”.
This was in 2009. He was barely 15.
Now, at 22, Thompson’s work examines and interrogates the issues that young Nigerian creatives and Millennials encounter on a daily. Themes like identity, depression, time, discovery, race and beauty are a staple.
It is not enough for him that you can see the details of the subject; instead, he asks these questions by using vivid and challenging coloring to infuse emotions into every surface captured by his lens, from a subject’s eyes seen through her hand-held mirror to the melancholic clouds that hang over in a distinctly cheerless picture of Santi.
“I see colors man. I see colours everywhere”, he says.
“I know what I want a picture to look like before I take it. The colors, the feels, so it's easy for me to put it through post-production and make it happen because I already know what I’m looking for”, he tells me while we look at pictures from his most recent collection, “Feel at Home”.
Thompson puts together his collections with the help of Baroque Age, a “new age conglomerate” he co-founded with his friend, Adedayo Laketu.
As their website says, the conglomerate is “built on pushing a new age across different mediums, creativity and innovations from Africa and the Global Frontier of humanity as a whole.”; an objective that fits the ethos of Thompson’s work.
His unique visual approach to defining emotion has also taken Thompson’s art and name beyond the creatively-restrictive borders of Nigeria.
Exhibitions in the United Kingdom have inspired features on various local and international platforms including the UK’s Hunger Magazine.
As connected as any artist may be to his craft, art is largely an emotional enterprise. As such, there is always that overwhelming uncertainty about whether that medium is truly yours, more so for a visual artist who is obsessed with the unusual.
For TSE, that shoot in NICON town made his path clear as day. Since then, from wet nights in Magodo to loud evenings in Muri Okunola Park, he has set on a course of telling a generation’s stories through eyes that see color and emotion as much as anything else.
It is a journey that he insists will never end, not even when he gets that Oscar before he turns 28.
“I will always create.”, he tells me. “I can’t stop. I will keep creating”
Clearly, colors are a big part of your art, but there’s a certain blackness that seems to be a running theme through your work. Why is it so? How did that come to be?
Thompson S. Ekong: Because I’ve done exhibitions in different countries, I know it’s not easy being a black creative. It’s not easy because the first thing they will say is, this one, he’s not doing anything. He’s just taking pictures.
They naturally just feel nothing good will come out of this guy unless you follow what the white guys are doing. Or they will judge you because you’re black. That’s racism but fuck that.
(The blackness) is all based on the experience of being an African creative; You have your parents putting pressure on you, saying you can’t do this or say, “When I go to the office, you’re going to do this, you’re going to that”.
Why can’t you raise your hands and question things? You know when you were in school, you don’t raise up your hands unless you have something? You can’t say no. You can’t say anything.
Why do western and American kids seem more advanced than us? Its because when they were kids, they were curious, and they let them ask questions. Here, the society limits you and I hate being limited.
I went for an exhibition in Lagos where white women came and my work was BLACK. It was called ECHO. That was one of my first exhibitions in Lagos.
Who inspired that awareness? Your work has not always reflected this darkness or commentary; who inspired that shift?
TSE: Lakin Ogunbanwo. To me, he’s the best photographer in Africa. He just made me feel like you can do a lot by being yourself and just being basic. Because people don’t get it but seeming basic is dope. You know how we Nigerians tend to use words at any opportunity we get.
You can’t use the word provocative anytime because most Nigerians don’t create art that is provocative. Before you find an outstanding artist that‘s very brave, it’s very hard. Lakin’s work is very provocative; it has emotions, everything. That was the guy.
That black thing must be there, I need to represent my people, I’m black bruh. I want to show them that we can do great things by just being black and I will project it in a white man’s land and they‘re still the ones that will buy my shit.
You’ve also cited someone like Kanye West as being an influence.
Thompson: Steve Jobs, Kanye West, Ogunbanwo, and Skepta. Those are my biggest influences.
What do you look for in a picture? What's the most important element for you in an image?
TSE: I need to see the emotions. The image can be very dope but what is important is what it portrays. If the subject is crying, I want to see her tears, I want them to sparkle. You have to see the feeling, rawness of it.
Say I take a picture of you, you may not be smiling like the way you are right now, you will probably have a frown on your face. Its rare before anyone can capture you in that feeling, with that emotion; that's what I want.
There’s a major creative rebirth happening in Nigeria right now across music and other mediums and you’re one of those at the forefront of creating and capturing that scene. What does it mean to be the eye of the culture?
TSE: It means you process anything that happens in the culture; it’s just me doing what I love. I’m going to touch every aspect of what’s going on: videos, shows, ideas, pictures, graphics, anything. Like, if D.O can’t get to Santi, D.O will hit me up to get to Santi. I’m the Wi-Fi.
It means you’re the one who brings everyone together and you’re distributing ideas to everyone at the same time. You’re like the engine. Basically, what I do is to pass through the best experience possible to everyone because we need to advance.
A lot of these guys are your friends, people that you vibe with on a personal and creative level. It's easy to see the creative rebirth as a musical thing but it goes beyond that. It’s a spiritual and cultural thing. It’s basically everything starting afresh. What do you think everything that's going on?
TSE: It’s beautiful man. It’s amazing. I’m happy to be part of this generation. Everyone is coming out and realizing that they can do things. It's a new movement, apart from artists, there are consultants… I mean, everyone is an artist in what they do. That’s the way I see it.
Everyone is doing what they can do to be part of this. The culture is rising and if you see something that’s on your wave and you know you can actually finesse something, you can jump on it.
It’s not even just about the music, it’s about everything; clothing lines, films, everyone is doing what they love and what they can do for the culture.
Like Lemon Curd. It’s not easy to pull something like that off: that’s why I respect Tomisin Akins (founder of Lucid Lemons) a lot. That’s someone that left school for a year to give everyone the best experience possible. Everyone is just out here trying to impact the culture. It’s a culture I can die for.
Everyone is fucking with us man. We just need about five of the main players to make that big step, that’s an open passage. Once they make that step, let’s say two or three, they’ve opened the gate for us.
We’re all superheroes trying to make our towns safe. We’re just trying to do what we believe is right but the people before us didn’t do.
Undoubtedly, there’s a lot going on at the moment but it almost seems like the culture is restricted to Lagos. Go to places like Port Harcourt and they have no idea what’s going on. What do you think the guys have to do to spread the message beyond Lagos?
TSE: We need to get their attention. I think they’re just blinded. Maybe they’ve seen it but they don’t know how to approach what’s happening. In that sense, we need to be out there. We’re just doing the best we can do. The industry doesn’t want to fuck with us but we’re making so much noise.
Have you heard ‘Boredom’ off Tyler the Creator’s new album? Do what you have to do to have fun and make the impact. At the end of everything, they will have to fuck with us because we’ll be making so much noise.
Imagine when you have kids and your kids are gauging what happened in this time and you’re telling them what guys like Wizkid and Santi were doing; it's going to be a mad experience.
The year is yet to come to an end, by the time we begin to drop stuff, people will wake up. The culture is going to move and no-one will be able to stand in its way.
What is the end game for you in all of this? What is the message you want to be remembered for?
TSE: Like I said, I want to put everyone on the best experience possible; the future experience. That’s the next project; NO 1: The Future Experience. I want everyone to know that it's okay to vibe, it’s okay to be yourself. It's okay to just do what you love and still make something off of it. It's okay.
It's just that the mentality that has been placed on us is the opposite, that it’s not okay.
So if I’m going to shoot a project, I want you to feel and see things that make you say: oh wow”. I don’t want you to say “that’s cool”; I want you to know that’s a dope image. An image you know you can spend your money on buying. I like that vibe I get from every feedback.
It’s an experience that you see and you never forget, because if you go to the future and you come back, you can never forget it. It’s bringing the future to the present.
What’s the next step for you?
TSE: I don’t know man. But it's going to come hard. I’m going away for a while. I’m going back to a cave and I will create something great, something wild that you guys will see. I always have a big step, that’s the thing, I never plan it but it just comes and I work towards it. As long as I keep taking water and breathing, I’ll keep creating.