Architect building a photo library of the Lagos cityscape is also changing the narrative on how we view African architecture

bird story agency News & Updates February 21, 2024

Tolulope Sanusi carefully surveys the dynamic cityscape below, before launching a drone from the rooftop of a high-rise building in Lagos. Her clients are attracted to her passion for Nigerian design, but her images are also changing the way we see this city – and African architecture.

Zaniel Dada, bird story agency

While commuters are trying to escape the snaking rush hour traffic backed up around the Lagos metropolis, Tolulope Sanusi is calmly setting up for work, 13 floors above the gridlock.

This is Africa’s second-largest city, with an estimated population of more than 20 million people. From up on her rooftop perch, the gridlock resembles serpentine coils, choking the city. Soon, the coils will release their hold and the city will be free – at least for a few hours, before the next rush hour.

Sanusi, an architecture photographer, has been commissioned to capture images of Stanbic Bank’s headquarters on Victoria Island, or VI, as Lagosians call it.

Tolupe Sanusi launching ready for to take some pictures in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Tolupe Sanusi

“The client has requested interior, exterior, and aerial shots that show where the building is placed, and how it stands out in the Victoria Island skyline,” she said while calibrating her drone on the building’s rooftop.

Along with the bank’s headquarters, the Nigerian Stock Exchange and the Eko Atlantic City project are just two of the other landmarks found on the island that is fast becoming to Lagos, what Manhattan is to New York. The upmarket business and residential district have also become a treasure trove of leads for Sanusi. The country’s real estate development sector is on the rise, making up 8.2% of Nigeria’s GDP last year, and her photography is much in demand.

Sanusi made waves after she began visually documenting aspects of Nigeria’s architectural heritage, in 2017. Her favourite project remains the iconic John Randle Centre for Yoruba Culture and History, a building whose rehabilitation she documented and which was completed in 2022.

“The recent rise in cultural architecture, meaning the use of local materials and designs, is something that I am very happy about. We finally have architecture that speaks to us as a people, it’s still at the grassroots, but it is a good development,” she said.

Tolupe Sanusi launching a drone ready to take pictures of Stanbic Bank’s headquarters on Victoria Island, Nigeria. Photo: Tolupe Sanusi

Her next location is the MAD (Make A Difference) House at the University of Lagos. This creative incubator is the brainchild of influential Nigerian photographer Bayo Omoboriowo.

There is no central registry of professional architecture photographers in Nigeria yet, but Sanusi and others say the community is growing. Sanusi’s pictures have been featured in international architectural platforms like Dazeen and others, and her work is starting to change the narrative on African architecture.

International platforms Arch Daily and Architectural Photography Almanac, point to the robust Nigerian market for luxury accommodation and bespoke commercial units. The developers of these new building projects have recognised that design is a key component for high-end lease and sales agreements. That in turn is driving demand for high-end images. The Canon Camera Sales Report for 2023 said demand for high-end cameras and lenses in Nigeria was growing “rapidly”.

The lenses, creative vision and technical skills required of top-notch architectural photographers are just some of the strings on Sanusi’s bow, however. She also holds both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in architecture. She started her career practising architecture at a local firm, but after several years she grew restless.

“I wanted to experience other architectural practices and the spaces they create, rather than just sitting in an office and designing for other people. I wanted to go out into the world and see new trends,” the photographer explained.

Sanusi’s impressive portfolio, curated since leaving her architecture job, has helped her break through the glass ceiling in this subgenre of photography. That was not easy. A search online for “leading Nigerian architecture photographers” will still generate mostly men’s names.

“Being Nigerian, with so many ethnicities, so many backgrounds, you actually have to challenge some beliefs – that there is no need for a woman to be in this space. But you have to stand your ground. It is an ongoing challenge. You never really stop pushing boundaries,” she said.

A picture of Stanbic Bank’s headquarters on Victoria Island taken by Tolupe Sanusi. Photo: Tolupe Sanusi

Adeyemo Shokunbi, an architect who studied and worked in the UK before returning to Lagos and co-founding the Patrickwaheed Design Consultancy, is one of Sanusi’s allies. His firm, known for prioritising culture, sustainability, and innovation, designed the MAD House, now considered one of Lagos’ foremost creative spaces, and Shokunbi is one of Sanusi’s regular clients.

“We live in an age where photography, documentation, and content creation is paramount. Tolu has actually played a very important role in helping our firm at least give the people that are receiving our work a different perspective,” Shokunbi said.

Global data analyst, Statista, reported in January 2023 that Nigeria had over 31.6 million active social media users. Sanusi intends to reach as many of them as possible this year to share her work, promote appreciation for local design, and attract more women to the genre.

“What makes her stand out from the rest is that she is a go-getter, and very passionate about what she does. She tries to post content every week so the world can see what she’s doing”, said Toyin Kayode, who often assists Sanusi on shoots.

Like many entrepreneurs in the country’s “orange” or creative economy, Sanusi prefers not to share her rates, since each commission varies based on location, size, deliverables, time, skill level, and equipment required.

However, she is very clear about the road ahead.

“If I go out every day, meet people, shoot, edit, and at the end of the day, I am happy, the client is happy, and I get well paid for it…that is how I define success,” she explained.

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