Reflections on an Outward Journey (3) – Work

Posted: January 7, 2012 at 5:51 am

Collective Wisdom, Omduruman Market - Khartoum, Sudan. By Kemi Akin-Nibosun. IB 2011

There is a photo by Kemi of three old men that remind me of the Jews of Kerala. The story of Kerala Jews is aptly told by Edna Fernandes. Her story is of a dying community of diasporic Jews and Jewesses, whose decline results from discrimination and discord. The intersection between Kemi’s photograph and Fernandes’ story is the fact of a witness to existence – the photograph and the book bear witness to the life of ordinary people. By necessary logic, the work of artists is always an attempt to bear witness to their time.

Our work could be considered in terms of the making of photos, communicating while at work, and the alliances we made to make our work effective. Older posts on this blog have been dedicated to alliances – we could have achieved nothing if Aida Muluneh’s Modern Art Museum did not provide sufficient assistance in Addis Ababa, for instance. Brief lines will illustrate communication; more space will be used in reflecting on the making of photos.

Communicating while at work: In Tchad, Ray and I asked for serviettes but were handed towels. We had spoken in English, but the attendant at the hotel understood in French. The challenge of communication does not come from the absence of words, it comes from meaning. This is peculiar in our case because we consider it relevant to converse with the subject of our artistic creation. Aside Nigeria, other countries we visited did not speak English as a first language. In Tchad, it was French. In Sudan, Arabic. And in Ethiopia, Amharic.

Our success in communication arose partly from our willingness to engage, and the alliances we formed. In Tchad we had Marine, Hyacinth and Alain as our primary guides. In Sudan, there was Ala, Yassir and Faisal. And in Ethiopia, each of us was attached to a local photographer or writer.

But I daresay that because of the example of Mujahid Muatsim, who drove us for days without speaking any English, communication is a line that can be traversed. To this day there is a sticker of a cartoon character on my phone which was placed there by Mujahid. He was kind and considerate, although there was no way we could communicate.

In a related vein, communicating while at work suggests a sharing process. Khartoum, unlike Tchad and Nigeria, presented us with the necessity to share the photos taken with those whose faces appeared on the photos. Sharing what we had made of Khartoum’s reality with Khartoum’s residents is an important form of communication, and must not be ignored.

Jumoke at Work. N'djamena - Tchad. By Emeka Okereke. IB 2011

The Making of Photos: The lives of ordinary people tell a real difference; this, in sum, is the defining tagline of our work in Abuja, Jos, Gamboru-Ngala, N’djamena, Khartoum, Gondar and Addis Ababa. If I could prove this to be true, then the meaning of ‘ordinary’ should shift to accommodate the extraordinariness of every African person. To ensure that the manner of our work (across four countries) confers prestige on the extraordinariness of ordinariness, I have chosen to reflect country by country.

I: Abuja; Jos, Nigeria

Nigeria, as you know, is a country of assertive people. The question is how we made photos of people who always seemed sure, of themselves, and of their place in the world. The Nigerians whose photos we made were either clearly welcoming or clearly unwelcoming. No grey area existed.

There was the old woman who chased Kemi with a stick although Kemi, standing across the road, was only adjusting her lenses. This woman was sitting amongst a group of beggars, who had gathered opposite the National Mosque. It was Sallah day. Alms flowed on such days, when worshippers remembered with effervescent zeal their religious obligation. Who could say if the woman who chased Kemi with a stick felt demeaned by the probability of a photograph that recorded her beggarliness? Perhaps a photograph would expose her inadequacy? Perhaps it would record a moment in her life that should not be recorded? It could be that she had listened to David Gray, “some things you do you can never repeal.”

Her assertiveness was her attempt at physical violence. Understand that this is a serious form of asseveration. An old woman, who looked unable to walk for too long without support, decided that a sin that required immediate punishment had been committed. She was both judge and executioner.

A five minutes’ walk from the old lady brought us to a group of women and children whose form of assertiveness was a confident welcoming of photography. This group of women were Jumoke’s subjects, their children received toys from Tom, and they told us their names. The contrast with the old lady of five minutes earlier was well too apparent, even amusing. Can we presume that this second group did not feel demeaned as the other group of women beggars? Did they possess some assurance in their status in life that superseded what any camera or photographer could confer, even ensure?

We could not tell, in essence, what would be the reaction of our Nigerian subjects. This was good and not good. Sure, we had the luxury of communication. But being uniformed as we were, and carrying photographic equipment as we did made us curious cases, so that we spent more time responding to questions of objective (why are you taking these photos? Are you working for any organization? Are you from NTA or AIT? etc.) than actually making the photos. We thrived on the balance of uncertainty, not knowing whether we were accepted or not.

[I should state how uncomfortable I am with that word – ‘subject.’ I am hoping the word, as used by photographers, does not strip the humanity off those whose photos are taken. I am hoping it is a convenient term and not a derogatory one.]

Veiled Stare. Central Market, N'djamena - Tchad. By Emeka Okereke. IB 2011

II: N’djamena, Tchad

The old-lady-with-a-stick syndrome was heightened in N’djamena. This time we were not chased by old ladies, but by a collective apathy to photography. Aside the number of hours spent in the Police Station (Emeka, Ray-Daniels and myself) after Emeka made a photo in the Central Market, ‘don’t film me’ was continually repeated. How is work carried out in a town that openly seeks to alienate and to shun the work being done? How is that border of alienation crossed?

N’djamena is a city that feeds on its self-aggrandizement. It is against this backdrop that I wrote about the ‘institutionalization of paranoia.’ To define this, I argue that when one visits N’djamena, especially with a camera, that person automatically becomes disadvantaged. I am careful to argue about this in a way that does not deride the residents – for what point is to be made from being derisive of a child who tells Nana to delete the image she made of him? That child, I surmise, spoke with a voice larger than him; his voice was only an echo, all he did was repeat the mantra “Do not take my photo.” Given the many times this mantra was repeated, I have begun to think that the collective persona sits on a sort of a political positionality – which is akin to using the word ‘personality.’ In that Tchadian town, with the fear of cameras being the constant feature of residents, I have no reason to doubt that if the town had a different political history, if Mr. Idriss Deby Itno’s tenure had long expired, and if the no-knife/no-guns signage did not appear on several public buildings, it would be permissible to think of an alternative to such political positionality.

This leads to a question of the distinction between what we sought to do and those who formed the basis of our work. Should we have shunned them, as well? Would it have made some sense if we accepted our inability to work without grumbling? Perhaps we should have left after three days, and not after seven. What, then, made us stay?

First, Tchad had become a border, too. This was more than a physical border; more or less a situational border, a circumstantial border. To cross this border meant we had to be in it, to work our way out. In essence, to cross that border we had to keep trying to click, even if all that worked was our attempt to make photos. It was more honourable to be arrested while we tried to click or after we clicked.

Second, it became imperative for us to find a way to negotiate with N’djamena’s reality. As Emeka affirmed, our task was to see ourselves as fiction in their reality. Emeka argued that fictionalizing ourselves while we worked was the means through which we could arrive at some form of reality. This has obvious complications, and I am not willing to debate what fiction is or what reality is, in this context. A different way to consider this is how we had, upon making the long journey to arrive at N’djamena, become human hypotheses, testing how invisible the borders were. The fact, therefore, is not whether or not we were allowed to make photos. The fact is that we were seeking to understand, basically through photography, what was the reality of Tchad and Tchadians.

I propose that it does not matter if one photograph was not taken in Tchad. I propose that it is not necessary to add ‘we conquered’ to ‘we came, we saw.’ The truth about photography is that not all photographs are taken. Some are beyond the reach of the camera. [Do not assume that we did not manage to make photos in Tchad – Emeka says that he will ‘steal’ photos if he has to, as long as his conscience is fine with that.]

I will take the argument further. Having come to the end of this project, the ‘proceeds’ of our work will be taken to other spaces for exhibitions, presentations etc. In fact, this blog is one of such ‘outsides’. I have been preoccupied with thoughts of how the Tchadians, whose country was our working space, will relate with our work – permanently.Which has led me to thinking of an alternative, in the event that such ambition is rudely unattainable. How about the creation of images upon which Tchadians can construct their varied existence? I refer to images that translate to multiple layers of meaning. And this evolves to the notion that we are adherents of a travelling culture, founded on movement, mediation and asymmetry. Because we might never become residents of any of the cities we visited (Abuja, Jos, Kousseri, N’djamena, Khartoum, Addis Ababa), we become trained in the art of spontaneous introspection. Our creed becomes Roberto Sifuente’s words: “The fact of the matter is that we are constantly pushing, struggling, trying to find our niche, in order to make the work happen in the places where it needs to happen.” Once the work happens in the place where it needs to happen, our mission is completed, and we move on.

In some way, we were viewed as ‘subjects’ by the Tchadians in whose territory we camped. The roles easily became reversed, the photographer became the ‘photographed’; which is why when we took a long walk around downtown N’djamena, we became ready sightseeing subjects. How then, I ask, do we strip ourselves of every form of strangeness and alienhood? Is this even possible? We wear identity tags and T-shirts that make us uniformed. But I doubt that if we took away all of that we would cease being spectacles. Herein lies the challenge: to produce works that do not tell of how we became subjects in the spaces in which the works were produced.

A relevant example is an occurrence while we walked around downtown N’djamena. In a small room that faced the street, few people were gathered drinking some drink and listening to the music of a local musician. The music sounded good, and the room was photogenic, so we stopped. A man on a motorcycle told us we could go take photographs. We heeded. While the photos were made, a crowd gathered – some men in the crowd opposed our actions, gesticulating that our cameras should go down. Majority disagreed, urging us on. This occurrence, more than any other, stamped our differentness. We gave the local musician some money, an amount I believe he scarcely makes on each outing. Of course, this confirms our outsideness, even more.

I ask, given how important it could be to negate this outsideness – is there some possibility that the Tchadian people can see themselves through the eyes of outsiders? Or is this too much to ask, and to speculate? Even cogently, I question why it is necessary for people to see themselves through the eyes of others – how true will this be? If I say to you, “I can, with photos, narrate your life?” How believable will those words sound? To consider these words absolutely, there is the possibility that our work will be considered below the mark. Yet we cannot dare to consider the words absolutely; our goal is not to narrate in complete detail the lives of others; but to show how, when our lives intersect with the lives of others, we are positioned to show the friction that happens.

Ray-Daniels at Work. Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. By Emeka Okereke. IB 2011

III: Khartoum, Sudan

In Khartoum, there seemed to be a passionate attempt to accommodate our foreignness. So extensive was this accommodation that the welcoming seemed pleasantly forced. On trips to the market, we were told severally “Nigeria and Sudan are one.” One trader enthused about the oneness of Africa, another told us not to pay attention to the conflict in other parts of Sudan, that the conflict was not a Sudanese trait, and Nana got several gifts from the traders.

We should have understood that too much welcoming happens when there are few visitors. Sudan’s face in the media has scared visitors; there are those who would never know that Khartoum International Airport has free wifi, and that an MTN advert-board welcomes travellers with “hope you brought your camera.”

Well, we brought loads of cameras, and when we were accosted by policemen it was to confirm that we had the required authorization. We clicked and clicked, feeling free and endlessly creative. It was as though a tiny bit of heaven had descended upon us for those few days.

Khartoum, as a city that accommodated our visit, provided a second dimension to our work. As a result of the openness that greeted us, and the fact that we had crossed the border of kinship, our oneness with the residents of Khartoum gave us the impetus to share our work with them. Simply, an exchange had occurred. We were welcome to work, and by extension, welcome to share. Almost every person whose photo we made wanted to see the photo, and Canon’s gift of digital cameras could not have been more useful.

The advantage of digital cameras became apparent, and no darkroom was needed. All it took was the press of a button, and the previously-made photos came to life. I consider this an important element of our work; Khartoum’s reality, from our eyes, was shared with the characters whose story told that reality. This sharing process is as big as an exhibition in any museum. We owe a responsibility to our subjects, first, before any curator.

Ala and Jumoke at Work. Piassa, Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. By Emeka Okereke. IB 2011

IV: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Working in Addis was eventless in comparison with Nigeria and Tchad. There was no need to question acceptance, as subjects stayed mostly aloof to our activities. It did not matter if photographs were or were not taken. This stems from the fact of Ethiopia’s touristical appeal, and how Nikon-handling tourists have taken over cafes, hotels, bars, markets.

Let me speculate, instead, on how Ethiopia became the melting pot for my claims of the extraordinariness of ordinariness. Nana’s work lends credence to this – in her interaction with local artists, she ensured the unavoidability of their stories, which is the crux of arguing about the importance of the stories of ‘ordinary’ people. Everyone deserves to be heard; writers and photographers should be preoccupied, like Nana, to randomly tell the stories they hear. ‘Random’ is used because no one story is more idyllic than the other, or more epic, poetic, etc.

David Horn says “you are not a photographer because you are interested in photography.” I agree because Bill Jay emphasizes, “it seems to me self-evident that in order to photograph with any degree of continuous passion, you must have a fascination for the subject, otherwise you cannot sustain an interest in the art of creation for a long enough period of time in which to make any insightful or original statement about it.”

Perhaps we have made insightful and original statements through our work.

– Emmanuel Iduma

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