“I learned to rely and trust in the people around me”: Isabel Okoro on her photographic process that revolves around her friends
Inspired by the sun, the Nigerian photographer aims to depict the relationships that exist within the Black community.
- Ayla Angelos
- 30 June 2020
Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Isabel Okoro traversed across seas and moved to Toronto, Canada for school and work. With an exceptionally accomplished portfolio, you’d be surprised to hear that she’s currently in her final year at the University of Toronto, double majoring in Neuroscience and Psychology. Or that she’s yet to turn 19 (her birthday is next month).
Evidently so, photography is something that Isabel excels at. Depicting softly composed portraits of her family and friends – and sometimes strangers – her entire portfolio is illuminated by daylight and the dewy twilight hours of the day. Of the moment when she’d first ventured into the medium, it was at the age of 12, while attending secondary school in Lagos, that Isabel first began to experiment. “One of my friends had a camera that she let me use as well, so we started taking photos of all our friends and people around school,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Eventually, she left the school before we graduated and I didn’t have my own camera until I moved to Canada.” Upon arrival, her passion was reignited and soon enough she began the process of documenting her friends once more.
This collaborative nature of working alongside her friends is an element that Isabel strives for throughout her entire photographic process. “I enjoy working with my friends,” she continues, telling us how about 98% of the work that she’s put out so far has been entirely created with those that she’s close to. “I’m perfectly comfortable working with new people and I love collaborating with new people,” she adds, but while starting out in the industry she’d come to realise how, with not being able to afford professional models and stylists, she had to turn to those nearby. “I learned to rely and trust in the people around me.”
This is by no means a flaw in her process, because it’s these exact connections that allow her work to reverberate with intimacy and warmth – there’s an ease that’s been formed between herself and her subjects. As such, she refers to her visual language as one that’s “visualising a Black utopia”. She adds: “I’ve created my own world, Eternity – named aptly because it exists as a space to immortalise friends, family and those I meet along the way.” Alongside this, the sun is a key pillar throughout her work and is something that she incorporates religiously in some form or another. Overt or more subtle, she is inherently inspired by its glow and she incorporates it widely within her personal work.
An example of which can be seen in Waiting for Forever, a photo story that Isabel worked in on Lagos in collaboration with a Toronto-based brand called 4ye. “The story is based in Eternity,” she says, “and it follows three kids at the beach on a search for something more.” In terms of the conceptual decisions made, the photographer was thinking heavily about a specific scenario that she thought up in her head: “I’m at the beach with my friends in Lagos. The sun calls, and we answer. Somewhere along the lines, we relies that we’ve been set free; the sun has set us free. Then we call [the sun] because we want to know more, but we’re left with no answer. So we keep waiting forever.” This notion of infinity is paramount throughout the work of Eternity, which is a concept built around herself and her friends “waiting to exist” within this world – “which is my world, a personal take on Black Utopia.”
Elsewhere, generation XXX is a story that was also crafted in Lagos, as part of her spotlight feature for a Toronto-based jewellery brand called Vitaly. Focusing on the topic of “Legacy”, Isabel was conjuring up what this concept means in terms of being a young person and having other young people idolising and looking up to you. “For that reason, a lot of the photos of Maison2500 [an NYC-based Nigerian musician that she loves] and the other models are synonymous with depicting the ‘follow your leader’ dynamic that we often see,” she says, “but in a beautiful way, because I think it’s a good thing to allow the artists you like to inspire you.”
With each and every project, Isabel aims to depict the relationships that exist within the Black community – as seen in a further series titled Necessary Interactions, in collaboration with stylist Daniel Obaweya. It’s clear that her dexterous eye for light and human interaction has enabled her to achieve such visually opulent imagery. And, after venturing home over the last Christmas break, she’s most recently produced a video project called Friends in Eternity (Sanity Sanctuary), that launched alongside a print sale collaboration with PALM* Studios – all profits of which are going directly to charities in Nigeria to help combat sexual violence and an ongoing massacre in the Northern states. Ending this week, we can’t wait to see what’s next for this artful photographer: “Whatever is meant to be, something good I hope.”
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.