Tom Saater has travelled across Nigeria and much of the world photographing a mixture of touristic sites, cultural happenings, wars and crises. His work has been published by major outlets including the New York Times, Time magazine, the Financial Times and the Washington Post. But during a regular week in Lagos, he’s as likely to be working as a driver, ferrying passengers to the airport or bringing them around the city for meetings.
In Lagos, a city of more than 20 million people, commuters spend an average of 30 hours a week sitting in traffic. The roads are badly planned out and regularly congested. A 30km trip can take nearly four hours, and the roads come to a standstill during heavy rain.
Still, “driving is very therapeutic for me”, Saater says. It’s a counter to photojournalism, which can be extreme or overwhelming, and offers a buffer from the stress of being freelance, which means one moment he might have money and the next it’s gone.
The 36-year-old has seen Lagos from many angles: photographing everyone from the CEOs of massive corporations to the so-called Area Boys gang members, producing work somewhat reminiscent of renowned photographer Don McCullin’s 1950s portraits of the gangs of north London.
“You cannot describe Lagos, you can only experience it,” he says, sitting in the apartment he shares with friends in an upscale part of the city. “The city is very fascinating . . . it’s vibrant. There’s so much happening, so many layers. Everything here is extreme. There’s extreme wealth, extreme poverty.”
He called Lagos a “melting pot”, “very overpopulated” with “massive inequality,” but “a lot of opportunities . . . a place where people become millionaires overnight”.
Rags to riches
Saater himself has what he calls a rags to riches story. After being abandoned by his mother, he lived with a grandmother; when she died he spent his teenage years homeless. He says he used to sleep on newspapers and that’s how he became interested in photography.
At the time, he was based in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, and he often encountered tourists or foreign visitors carrying cameras. He started carrying a sketchpad and drawing the cameras from a distance, before approaching the owner proffering his sketch and asking could they teach him to use it.
A front page New York Times story by Nigerian photojournalist Tom Saater.
While the majority refused, some would explain how it worked, even letting him take a photo and sending it to him later through a local post office. As he got older, he found some temporary work in a photo studio, then got a tip-off that Time Out magazine was opening in Nigeria.
After he emailed the editor saying he could show the magazine’s photographers around his city, she asked him to send his own photos and eventually commissioned him herself.
One of the many people Saater met when inquiring about cameras, an American man, offered to buy him one so he could accept the job, Saater says. A Canon 33 arrived in the post. “I couldn’t believe it. I was just crying. When I opened it and I saw it I almost fainted.”
From there, he earned enough money to rent a house in a shanty town. “It was in a slum but for me that was heaven. For me, I had made it in life.”
Saater’s background has made it easier for him to find a rapport and empathise with the people he photographs, he says. He first came across the Area Boys when they tried to steal his equipment. “I’m a very, very curious person and I wanted to understand why they do this thing?”
He found out that the security guard where he was living used to be involved, and managed to get an introduction. “And so I spent some time with them, just hanging out with them, having a drink with them . . . People like to talk. So we hang out talking about football, soccer, politics and music.”
“They come from really poor homes,” he said. “Lagos has a huge unemployment issue . . . If one of their parents was an Area Boy or gang member of course they get influenced by that. This is how they were able to feed the family and survive.”
He said the Area Boys ranged from teenagers to men in their 40s, but the majority were in their 20s. As they get older, they find other ways to survive like working as bus drivers, security guards, ticket inspectors, in construction, or by selling secondhand clothes or street food.
Saater said there is a clear difference between Nigeria and rich countries in the West in that there is no social welfare and no safety net. “For everybody [here] there’s no bailout. And it makes me understand why sometimes people don’t want to help [others]. If something happens to me, nobody’s going to help me.”
He said that chasm became even clearer during the Covid-19 pandemic. “To quarantine is a privilege. It’s a huge privilege to be able to stay in your house and not do anything.”
Nigeria is a beautiful country, he emphasises. “But it’s a very difficult country to live in as well . . . And if you’re someone that has a lot of conscience about other people’s sufferings that can affect you, it can take a toll on you. You’re basically working and living to support [other] people all the time. And you can easily neglect yourself, abandon yourself in service for other people. People are genuinely suffering here.”
Nigeria’s economy went into recession in 2016, and again in 2020 after the Covid-19 pandemic began, when the World Bank warned it was facing the worst decline in four decades. Roughly one-third of Nigerians are officially unemployed. Some 45 per cent of the country’s population are under the age of 15, meaning the numbers of people looking for work can only continue to grow.
Yet “people are entrepreneurs here,” Saater says. “There’s a strong entrepreneurial spirit. These are very hardworking people. They hustle and do whatever it takes to make money.”
In Saater’s home there is a copy of his last New York Times front page story from September 2021. It shows recently surrendered members of the Boko Haram insurgent group sitting with their backs turned, in front of pieces of coloured cloth. Saater started reporting in Nigeria’s war-torn northeast in 2011. In Lagos, roughly 1,500km away, he said, people are aware of what is happening “but they don’t care. It doesn’t affect them . . . It’s almost a different country.”
“There is also a misconception in Lagos that it’s a religious war,” he continued. “I think more Muslims are being killed than Christians. And, yes, Boko Haram are Muslim. Their religion is Islamic, but they also don’t represent what Islam is about.”
‘Full of rage’
Even in that situation, Saater had empathy. He said one 28-year-old defector described how he had been recruited young and effectively been brainwashed. Saater was both “full of rage” for the horrible acts the group has carried out as well as understanding that the man had been misled.
“He talks about how his childhood was taken away from him, his teenage years taken away from him, he will never be able to be himself again. And I feel really bad for him.”
Saater has travelled the world because of his photography, to countries including Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, the UK, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, and across a lot of Africa. He has also been working on a long-term photography series called Finding a Family – a personal project exploring what it feels like to be part of a family in a home.
For it, he photographs himself in other people’s homes – watching TV with children or sitting at a dinner table with two parents. “As time goes on, I realise I will never be like other people. And I can’t talk about my work without talking about my past,” Saater said.
For now, when he’s not abroad, Saater continues to drive around and document the vast city he lives in. “Every day I reflect back from where I’m coming from. I feel like it’s a dream. Sometimes I feel like I’ll just disappear. Like all this will be taken away from me.”