The scars we wear

Canon Ambassador Yagazie Emezi sees stories in scars and treats them with gentle dignity, exploring how we view our bodies and their healed wounds.
A close-up of a thick scar on black skin, showing the detail of the skin’s tension lines and scar tissue.
Yagazie Emezi and Cecilie Harris

Written by Yagazie Emezi and Cecilie Harris

A childhood car accident left Canon Ambassador Yagazie Emezi with a visible scar and, though she is a celebrated photojournalist whose work opens up the world, she returns to this permanent mark on her body and uses the camera as questioner. The result of this is a very personal project that explores scars and scarring. It asks, ‘how does our community affect the way we see our bodies and our scars?’ and ‘how does this impact how we see ourselves?’ These questions are universal, and the answers look different throughout Africa. The result is a unique perspective that tells the stories of African women with utter realness, whilst Emezi simultaneously turns the lens on herself.

“As a child, I was fascinated by history. My father had all these encyclopaedias, and through them I was introduced to Greek mythology, fascinated by all the gods and goddesses. This led to Egyptian mythology and overnight I was dead set on becoming an Egyptologist. I even set my major to archaeology, but when I took my first class, I realised that it was actually a science. So, I moved to cultural anthropology and ethnology. was introduced to a wider range of topics and spent years collecting and archiving images taken on the African continent. At the time, I was coming at it more from an anthropological point of view, rather than a photography perspective and was really interested in the preservation of African cultures, past and present.

Growing up in Nigeria, I didn't have regular access to the internet and would pay ₦100 an hour to use the internet cafe once a week. By the time I came to the States to study I had regular access to the internet and my curiosity about other African cultures grew. Bear in mind that this was before Instagram and while today we see many images coming out of Africa, at that time it was far less common. I noticed that a lot of the images I was finding were not taken by African photographers, so I created a website featuring the work of African photographers and it started to grow. Doing this made me realise that I too wanted to be a photographer and I started to build my career. My first jobs were photographing backstage at Lagos Fashion Week and capturing product placements for luxury fashion stores. I very quickly realised that I was more curious about people's lifestyles and preferred taking walks around Lagos, doing street photography.

Left: a quote that reads: “Patterns in nature and patterns in scars often have similarities, and I like the idea of presenting scars as something familiar.” On the right, a portrait of Yagazie Emezi, wearing a red dress and sitting sideways on a chair with her hands resting on the back of the chair and her chin resting on her hands. In the background are curtains decorated with doughnut-shaped patterns.

My visual storytelling has a strong focus on women. Before I was into photography, I had a YouTube channel where I talked openly about my own standards for being a Nigerian woman. I received strong negative responses from the Nigerian community. One video was about why 'I won't cook for you', and I was curious as to why people were so insulted by this statement and my viewpoint. I started exploring this and talking openly about my experience as a Nigerian woman, and it led me to try to produce a show where African women could speak more openly and honestly about their sexual experiences and sexual health, which is what a lot of my photography is focused on now. There simply isn't enough representation of African women, of our daily lives, good and bad. So, in my photography, I often focus on African women, our health and our well-being, as I think these stories should be shared.

This particular image is from a series I started in 2016. I joined an organisation for young photographers, writers and filmmakers on a road trip around Nigeria, and we were encouraged to pick a personal project to focus on throughout. I have a scar and I wanted to focus on the process of relearning bodies. I remember how my scar was treated growing up in Nigeria, which was very matter of fact and open. Complete strangers would ask, 'Oh, my God, what happened?’ But when I moved to the States, people stared, said nothing and looked away. For the first time in my life, I was self-conscious. This personal project is about how people deal with their scars, and it is driven by what I had seen around the continent. The majority of images of scars had been photographed by white people, and there was often a grotesque approach, focusing on people who had been victims of abuse or burned by acid through some form of terrorism. I remember seeing an image of an African woman with a harsh scar, pictured shirtless and sitting on the floor. Why the floor? Why wasn't she on a chair? Scars, injuries and past traumas are real, but you can still represent someone in a dignified manner.

I realised that a lot of people were looking at it with a fascination for the grotesque and I wanted to focus on a different reality, people who had gained their scars from everyday events. My scar is from a car accident, and others might have scars from hot water accidents or been caught in a fire by accident. I wanted to push a gentler point of view. I also wanted to look at how our community affects the way we see our bodies. I grew up not being affected by my scar, because of my community, but once I changed communities, it was a different story. I began to close in on scars as they became indistinguishable and compare the way our body heals to patterns in nature. Patterns in nature and patterns in scars often have similarities, and I like the idea of presenting scars as something familiar, rather than seeing something that would be gawked at. I love how this plays with people's minds, when they try to work out what it is. It changes the perspective and focus on how we look at scars. It creates curiosity. Close-ups of scars also represent change and evolution.

A close-up of a thick scar on black skin, showing the detail of the skin’s tension lines and scar tissue.

© Yagazie Emezi

Photography has changed me in good and bad ways. It has made me more empathetic, more open and understanding and patient – because you have to be when going into different communities and seeing different lives. When people are sharing their stories with you, you can't remain fixed. However, it has also made me more cynical. You want to believe in change, but you see harsh realities that people have been living in for decades. It's hard to remain optimistic sometimes, but I do have a lot of hope. When we talk about systemic change happening everywhere for everybody, this might not be fixed in my lifetime. But at the same time, you see the resilience of people, and this is inspiring. So, photojournalism and photography have changed me in a very bittersweet way. Beyond that, I continue to explore my personal beliefs and find a better understanding of who I am through my self-portraits.

I'm working towards a solo show next year in New York with my gallery. Who am I beyond what people see? I've always paid attention to being a woman, sexuality and self-expression. My images reflect what is expected of me versus who I actually am. Sometimes it's very uncomfortable, but I do believe that when it comes to exploring the self, we shouldn't just stay in our comfort zones, we should dive a little bit deeper. Topics of sexuality and identity are very uncomfortable. How do I photograph myself to address that? It's a very uneasy process. This work is ultimately for me and if other good things come out of it, so be it. And I still have photojournalism. I would like to work more on longer-term stories and be in a position to work more in-depth with communities and people. That connection becomes very meaningful. My photojournalism feeds my mind, but my personal work is for my soul – it's important to do both.”

Find out more about Canon Ambassador Yagazie Emezi and her work.

Yagazie Emezi and Cecilie Harris

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