“Photographers are the tortoise against the hare. Eventually, we catch fame, but that’s long after. Our job is to make other people that are famous look famous; our job is to make other people look good that are famous, and if they’re not quite famous yet, help them to become famous with our images.” -Chi Modu
When hip-hop was new near the beginning of the 1990s a single photographer created the visual look for that genre his name was Chi Modu. His subjects included Notorious B.I.G., Mobb Deep, Tupac Shakur and Eazy E (opening photo, top row L-R.) His work appeared mainly in The Source magazine. It was the defining chronicle of the rise of hip-hop as it grew creatively and carved its very large niche in the music industry. Chi Modu was the photographer of choice covering these impressive and innovative artists.
Jon Caramanica, writing in The New York Times on May 29, 2021, described Chi Modu:
“An empathetic documentarian with a talent for capturing easeful moments in often extraordinary circumstances, he helped set the visual template for dozens of hip-hop stars. The Source was minting a new generation of superheroes, and Mr. Modu was capturing them as they took flight.
“When hip-hop was still gaining its footing in pop culture and the mainstream media hadn’t caught up, The Source stepped into that void. So did Mr. Modu, who was frequently the first professional photojournalist his subjects encountered.”
Modu photographed more than 30 covers for The Source. “We were pretty primitive in our look at that time, and we needed someone like him,” Jonathan Shecter, the first editor-in-chief of The Source, said. “Mr. Modu’s personality was super cool, no stress, no pressure. He’d just be a cool dude hanging out with the crew. A lot of rappers felt he was someone they could hang around with.”
Born in Nigeria and raised in New Jersey, Modu graduated from Rutgers University in 1989 with a degree in agribusiness. He started taking pictures in college in 1986 with a camera gifted to him by Sophia Smith. They had begun dating in 1986, and married in 2008.
He went on to earn a photojournalism and documentary certificate from the International Center for Photography in 1992. During this time he made photos for The Amsterdam News in Harlem. He became a staff photographer for The Source in 1992. Ultimately, he became their director of photography.
More than hip-hop
Chi Modu has documented many places and people not relating to hip-hop. While that work is what he’s best known for, his work includes Sri Lanka, Yemen, Myanmar, school children in his birth country Nigeria, a solitary canoe in New Jersey and a lake in Morocco (opening photo, bottom row, clockwise from left). The list goes on. In an interview from the April 13, 2016 issue of Some/Things magazine, Modu talks about his work in other countries:
“Well, it’s actually not new work. I’ve always been a photojournalist/documentarian. I’ve always photographed people from all over the world. When I was photographing hip-hop I was documenting a movement which is what attracted me to it. The work that you see @mrleicam are just the things that I see as I wander the world that don’t really fit into my @chimodu stream. It’s important to have a visual strategy. The @chimodu Instagram has become pretty much a place for the hip-hop fans to go to look at my photographs from the ’90s. The stuff that I do around the world, be it in Yemen, Syria, Bangladesh, or in Borneo doesn’t quite fit my @chimodu stream but it’s very much who I am with a camera. It’s nice to have another place that’s a little lower profile than my main page, where I get to share photography with people that appreciate a global perspective. I think the world is a beautiful place and we all have to travel to be reminded of that fact.”
Take a closer look at Chi Modu and his work in this 5-minute video.
Chi Modu died of cancer on May 19th. He was 54.