Speaking With Documentary Photographer And Photojournalist Glenna Gordon—Part 2

Aisha Lawan, the little girl in the red dress, takes the train from Lagos to Ibadan with her family. Photo by Glenna Gordon.

In August 2015, photojournalist Glenna Gordon was commissioned by The New York Times Magazine to photograph her 720-mile train journey across Nigeria, from Lagos to Kano, for its first-ever Voyages issue. (You can read part one of this series here.)

Gordon talks more about this dream assignment—rife with obstacles and challenges—in this second of three interviews with Gordon:

AMY TOUCHETTE: How soon after the inspiration to photograph did you set off for Nigeria? 

GLENNA GORDON: The first time I went to Africa was in 2006 to visit my brother who was working there at the Ministry of Health in Rwanda. I had no plans to work there, but instantly, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I planned to move to Uganda for six months and stayed for nearly a decade.

Then I moved to Liberia, where I lived for even longer. The first time I went to Nigeria was in 2011 for Lagos Photo Festival, but it was during the Liberian elections, so I had to quickly get back to Monrovia.

I loved it though; the energy reminded me of the way I felt swept up when I first came to NYC when I was 20. It felt like I’d been building up to such a high stakes place and I was ready for it. Nigeria is one of the most difficult countries to photograph in: A massive country with a huge economy, everyone is hustling all the time. The infrastructure isn’t there, so people get creative.

A man stretches out his legs by laying on top of a seat in the second class compartment, holding onto the luggage rack as the train sways back and forth. In the morning, most of the passengers were weary and groggy. Photo by Glenna Gordon.

AT: What equipment did you bring with you?

GG: Canon EOS 5D, and 24-70mm zoom, and 24mm and 35mm prime lenses. Prime fixed lenses do pretty well in low light, so I didn’t bring a flash. I am not a gear person and the less I have to carry the better! I also brought enough memory cards so I could keep shooting throughout the ride.

AT: What other items did you take with you?

GG: An inflatable pillow, hand sanitizer, snacks (bread, peanut butter, protein bars, etc),  Emergen-C, Via (Starbucks instant coffee), a handkerchief, sunglasses, a kindle, a headlamp, sunscreen, battery packs for my iphone, etc. To travel lighter, I left my laptop with someone in the city and came back for it.

AT: Were there any other preparations you made for the train journey in Nigeria?

GG: I didn’t travel alone. In Kano, the big city in the north, I’d been working with a guy in his mid-20s named Faisel. He wasn’t a journalist; just a smart, young person fluent in English and Hausa, the main language in the north. He had been an assistant for a friend of mine, and I had really struggled to find people to work with in Kano, and he was a nice kid who’d helped me out with a lot of things already, so I asked if he wanted to take the train with me and he said yes.

He was with me all the time, helping me communicate with people and watching my back. In retrospect, I wish I had brought two people on this trip so we could sleep in shifts and someone would always be awake and watching us and our stuff. The long hours are really tough and by the end we were both shredded.

Gordon and her assistant, Faisel.

AT: Who do you keep in contact with while you’re traveling?

GG: My brother is always my contact, and generally one person from the publication: either the editor or a security team if needed. For the train ride, I texted my brother and my editor every couple of hours to just check in and update them on my location. For other work, they will also have a contact list of everyone I’m meeting and everywhere I plan to go on any given day so that there’s a clear trail of my movement. We knew there would be sections without cell service, so I’d warn them that I’d be out of service for a bit, but there was actually more coverage than I expected on the route.

AT: Did you get any sleep the night before you departed for this assignment?

GG: Very little!! The night before is always the worst. Everything before you begin is so nerve wracking, especially as I’d been trying to do this for so long. And then you start and there’s sheer exhilaration, and then you finish and you’re exhausted and depleted. Even after 13 years, this pattern almost never changes for new or big things.

Read part one of the interview here.

Read part three of the interview here.

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