Sumawya Ibrahim, in the blue hijab, travels with her two sisters by train from Lagos to Zaria. They prepared for the journey for two days, making rice and beans to bring with them. Only one of the three girls is married and the other two hope to marry soon. 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.
Gordon writes, “The colonial rail line reopened in 2012 when it was rehabilitated by the Chinese after years of disrepair. It’s an epic journey from Lagos, the hub of growth and change and the center of New Africa, to Kano, an ancient but impoverished trading city at the foot of the Sahara desert struggling against Boko Haram. . . . The north and south are essentially two different entities, and this epic journey is a chance to see all that’s pushing forward towards progress and all the complicated reasons things are held back.”
A dream assignment—but rife with obstacles and challenges—I interviewed Gordon about the behind-the-scenes details that enabled her to travel and photograph in one of the most difficult (if not the most difficult) countries in the world. The following interview is my first of three interviews with Gordon:
AMY TOUCHETTE: How did the assignment to photograph “Train Voyage Across Nigeria” for The New York Times Magazine come about?
GLENNA GORDON: I had always wanted to take the train across Nigeria. I tried in 2012. I even went to the station with my bags packed and was ready to go, but the French intervened in Mali and I got an assignment, so I turned around and headed to the airport and flew there instead. Then, I tried once to take it without papers.
But third time was the charm! An editor at The New York Times Magazine invited me to pitch for their first ever Voyages [issue] and I immediately knew what I wanted to do. They accepted the pitch quickly and a week or so later I was on the train.
AT: What papers and clearance, etc. did you need in order to travel to Nigeria?
GG: Visas to Nigeria aren’t easy to get, but I’ve been going there regularly since 2011 [and now have] a bunch of them. Every time you go to the consulate, there’s a new rule. They want you to jump through a lot of hoops, and you have to do it with a smile. This is just the first challenge. When colleagues tell me they need advice on how to do this, or that they are struggling, I can help a bit, but ultimately you have to roll with it, and if you can’t manage the consulate, which is like a mini-Nigeria, you won’t manage anything once you get there.
AT: In what way is the consulate like a mini-Nigeria?
GG: Consulates for many countries operate on the same ideas of rule and order and economy that work in the country they represent, even though they are in America. So, personal relationships and striking the right kind of friendly tone can mean everything. And whatever the website says you need, the guy at the desk will—guaranteed—ask you for one piece of paper you don’t have, so you have to come back again and again to get it.
AT: What steps did you take to bolster your safety in advance of your trip to Nigeria?
GG: For this trip, the most important thing I did was play by the rules and get permission from the head of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, addressed to the attention of HEAD RAIDING SQUAD/CHIEF HEAD GUARD.
I first tried to take the train by just buying a ticket and boarding, but there was no way the train guards and conductors were going to allow a foreign photojournalist to take pictures. They informed me I could take pictures from my seat and nowhere else.
I didn’t get on the train. Instead, I flew to Lagos, where the train headquarters was, and waited a few days to meet with the head of the trains. He wrote me a letter granting me permission and requesting all train officials help me out.
This was the magic key because at first, the conductors and guards were adversarial. But once I had this letter, everyone there wanted to make sure I was safe and comfortable and able to get my job done. They watched my back and helped me in several tricky situations. I absolutely couldn’t have done it without this letter. It added on a week of time, and [there were] huge costs, but it literally would have been impossible otherwise.
I showed it to officials dozens and dozens of times. I still have it, framed in my house.
AT: How did you persuade the head of the Nigerian Railway Corporation to allow you to take photographs?
GG: I had been in the north and planned to take the train south, but instead, I flew to Lagos and went to the railroad office. I hung out there for a few days before I finally got a meeting with the head of the railways, and then he was super nice and helpful.
AT: Can you give an example of a situation that you got into that they helped you with once you had this letter?
GG: At one point, early in the ride, only an hour or so outside of Lagos, I was hanging off the train at a stop that was very crowded, lots of people [getting] on and off. A plainclothes officer on the ground tried to grab [my assistant] Faisel first, and then me, for taking pictures. A crowd formed around us and everyone was yelling. [But] I held up my letter.
Also, a guard from the train, who I’d already met, came and intervened, diffusing the chaos.