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Mobile identities: photography, smartphones and aspirations in urban Nigeria

  • Juliet Gilbert

Since 2012, the influx of affordable smartphones to urban Nigeria has revolutionized how young people take, store and circulate photographs. Crucially, this ever-expanding digital archive provides urban youth with a means to communicate new ideas of self, allowing a marginalized group to display fortunes that often belie their difficult realities. Through gestures and poses, fashion and style, the companionship of others, or the use of particular backdrops and locations, these photographs contain certain semiotics that allude to the subject owning the means for success in urban Nigeria. Similarly, as youth constantly store photographs of themselves on their handsets alongside those of celebrities, patrons and friends, coveted commodities and aspirational memes, they construct personal narratives that place them at the centre of global flows and networks. With the ability to constantly retake, update and propagate photographs, the discrepancies between in- and off-frame identities become ambiguous. This article explores how young people in Calabar, south-eastern Nigeria, use digital photographs on their mobile phones to cultivate new visions of themselves. Arguing that these photographs not only represent superlative aspirations but are also integral to social becoming, the discussion examines how digital images allow youth to reposition themselves within (and beyond) Nigerian society. Ephemerality is central: digital photographs can be easily circulated and retain some permanence on social media, yet these immaterial objects can easily be lost from handsets. In thinking about the futures of African youth and African photography, this article therefore interrogates the tensions of private and public archives.

Depuis 2012, l'afflux de smartphones abordables dans le Nigéria urbain a révolutionné la manière dont les jeunes prennent des photos, les enregistrent et les font circuler. Mais surtout, ces archives numériques croissantes donnent aux jeunes urbains un moyen de communiquer de nouvelles idées du soi, en permettant à un groupe marginalisé de s'afficher positivement malgré les difficultés du réel. À travers leurs gestes et leurs poses, leurs tenues mode et leur style, la compagnie d'autres personnes, ou l'utilisation d'arrière-plans et de lieux spécifiques, ces photos contiennent certaines sémiotiques évoquant un sujet doté des moyens de réussir dans le Nigéria urbain. De même, en enregistrant constamment des photos d'eux-mêmes sur leurs portables aux côtés de celles de personnes célèbres, de patrons et d'amis, d'articles convoités et de mèmes représentant un idéal, ils construisent des récits individuels qui les placent au centre de flux et de réseaux mondiaux. Avec la possibilité de reprendre des photos, de les mettre à jour et de les diffuser constamment, les différences entre identités dans le cadre et hors champ deviennent ambiguës. Cet article explore comment des jeunes de Calabar, dans le Sud-Est du Nigéria, se servent de photos numériques sur leurs téléphones portables pour cultiver de nouvelles visions d'eux-mêmes. Soutenant que ces photos non seulement représentent des aspirations superlatives mais aussi font partie intégrale du devenir social, la discussion examine comment l'image numérique permet aux jeunes de se repositionner au sein de la société nigériane et au-delà. L’éphémérité est un élément central : il est facile de diffuser des photos numériques et de conserver une certaine permanence sur les réseaux sociaux, et pourtant il est facile de perdre ces objets immatériels sur les portables. S'agissant du futur de la jeunesse africaine et de celui de la photographie africaine, l'article interroge par conséquent les tensions des archives privées et publiques.

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