Mobile identities: photography, smartphones and aspirations in urban Nigeria

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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 believing 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 center 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)246
Number of pages265
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 14 May 2019


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