For Nigerian-American photographer Chi Modu, imagery goes beyond showing a lifestyle; it is about telling a unique story that brings the viewer closer to his subject’s truth. From photographing legendary artist like Tupac, Biggie and Nas to traveling the world and documenting the daily life of people in Yemen and India, Chi has created a unique lane for himself with a body of work that puts him in legendary status with no questions asked.
His journey to maneuvering the hip-hop scene came after working at The Source as the photo director during the 90’s. Chi explained “I started with Source in 1990 when it was really starting to bubble up and get bigger. I went to the office on a tip that they were looking for people to work for them. When I got to the office, it was a really nice energy and buzz. For me, they were really doing something important for that time and I wanted in.”
Despite being a first generation American growing up in a Nigerian household, which is usually traditional in career choices, Chi took risks and created a path that was not common for people of his background. “I had a very American experience, but I was still raised in a Nigerian house. When I was younger, the pressure for first generation American kids with Nigerian parents was even more. There was no artist to look up to and show your parents as an example because these guys did not exist yet. It was really on us to break what our parents know.“
Between the early 90’s and late 80’s, hip-hop was still a very new genre to mainstream media. MTV was still heavily Rock based and it was very difficult for rappers to get play on primetime networks. This marked an era of DIY style that relied on passion and hard work. “People ask me all the time what is the difference between then and now. For me, things were a little more fun then because we were groundbreaking. Now the ground has been broken and you’re not really going to impress me with a fancy car or a private jet, because I have already seen it. Back then; even getting a Mercedes was a big deal. We appreciated it more because it was harder on the come up. The music is reflective of that too.”
This is also why Chi feels the landscape surrounding hip-hop affects how photographers capture artist. While Chi is known for shooting artist like Nas in his bedroom at the age of 17 in Queens bridge and Method Man getting his hair braided at his girlfriend’s house in Staten Island, not many photographers today are seen capturing artist in intimate settings. Chi explained “People are best in photographs when they are really true to who they are. These days, some artists are more about their brand than who they are. But, brands don’t live. People live. Even within your brand you have to let some of who you are out. Look at Tupac, he is vulnerability and strength. That’s why he stays. It can’t just be every picture at the after party tossing money and opening a bottle. That’s actually boring. You have to give more to keep your audience’s attention.”
Chi recognized the value of authenticity and visual collateral early in the game and saw a gap that needed to be filled. While he knew the importance of documenting the history of hip-hop, he didn’t realize just how impactful his images would be on the world stage. “It’s crazy because at the time we were perceived as the bad kids, so it is amazing to see hip-hop be able to impact the world and be apart of pop culture. And I travel and see it first hand, so that is definitely one of the more shocking things. Because when you work, you work in a bubble so you don’t really know how it’s affecting the world until you move.”
After decades of using his craft as a way to keep moments alive, Chi has traveled the world and reminds people of the importance of visual documentation. While we all recognize the people in front of the camera, it is important to understand that the people behind also play a key role in shaping the history that is remembered. “I knew that 20 years later, that is when my work would really matter to people. I knew that I could shoot it for a magazine but it would eventually become old and after old comes iconic.”
For more on Chi and his book Tupac Shakur Uncategorized make sure you visit his website.
- Photography: Chi Modu