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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Photographing the Other and Making the Unknown Familiar

Mukolfu, a young traditional healer, in trance during an all night drumming session ( a vigil to the Matweti spirits)

Two comments by two extremely talented and important American photographers have been influential as well as cautionary to the photographic images that I work to produce. The first is Diane Arbus, best known for her images of society’s outcastes, who wrote that, “Photography was a license to go wherever I wanted and to do what I wanted to”. The other comment was by Edward Weston when he said that, “Only with effort can the camera be forced to lie”.
For the anthropologist the first comment is one which should be taken to heart and questioned. Too easily is the power of the camera and its ability to throw up a glass window through which the photographer anthropologist is enabled to gaze at the exotic other. Too easily can it become an aggressive tool of appropriation that ignorantly strips the dignity from the photographic subject. Arbus’ photographs are a perfect example of this. She photographed the horrifyingly odd and created images that fixated the viewer because of the strangeness of the subject. It is not a far leap from Arbus’ ‘freaks’ to the portraits of indigenous peoples presented in the glossy pages of publications like the National Geographic Magazine. But who has bestowed upon the photographer anthropologist the right to do such a thing?
The second statement is then read in the context of the first, and in this it should be seen as a powerful lie. The camera does lie. It utters a lie the very moment that the shutter release is depressed. The choice of lens, aperture, composition and shutter speed all play artfully together to manipulate a reality of the photographer’s choosing (Kevin Carter’s famous Pulitzer prize winning image of the Sudanese child, crouched with her face to the ground and watched over by a vulture, is a perfect case in point). The photographer, even more so the photographer anthropologist, has an immense amount of power over the portrayal of the other at her or his disposal (in writing, consider Colin Turnbull’s portrait of the Ik people of Uganda in ,'The Mountain People’, and the criticism he has drawn for what is rightly or wrongly a largely negative portrayal).

Local transport bewteen the villages and Katima Mulilo is usually in the form of a 'hike' on the back of a pickup truck.
In the images that I have shot to date I have attempted, sometimes unsuccessfully, to remember the above statements and to give the subject back some of their dignity (the irony of course is this is yet another example of the artful lie that the camera is capable of). Anthropologists often foist themselves on the communities and people that they ‘study’. It is only fair that we do not add insult to the invasion of privacy that is central to the anthropological quest, by presenting those we are privileged enough to live with (and study) as the exotic other that is only worth fixating upon because they are strange. This is not to say that we should only portray that which is dignified, or even beautiful (there is much in this world that is neither dignified nor beautiful and which deserves to be photographed and to be seen, even criticized because it has been seen), but that the reason for photographing and displaying should not necessarily be because it is exotic.
The difficulty with photographing subjects that centre on occult beliefs is that the Western viewer is drawn to the images due to their very exotic nature. How does one photograph the strange without making the subject appear vastly ‘other’ to the viewer? One way that I found was through the very nature of anthropological research. Yes, the anthropologist is the very epitome of the cultural tourist, but rather than simply gaze, they often find themselves involved, or as Kirsten Hastrup points out, ‘becoming’. The way in which the women and men in the photographs respond to the photographer is one of familiarity. The familiarity between the photographer and the person photographed comes through in the images, in my opinion, far more so than an anthropological writer can convey of their own familiarity with the people that they write about. The sense of candour in the eyes of the person photographed is more easily interpreted by the viewer of the image than in writing, where the explanation of the writer is a necessity. The strangeness of the subject is diluted and made more familiar for the viewer as a result. Perhaps more importantly, the candour in the eyes of the photographed creates a relationship with the viewer (this is possibly why Steve McCurry’s images of people around the world have such resonance with viewers – the viewer looks into the eyes of the person photographed and the person in the photograph seems to stare back with the same intensity).

A portrait of Senandwa, one of the old men that I became acquainted with.

I hope that in my images of the Mayeyi, people whom I lived with for a while, viewers are able to look at the stranger images of possession and trance dance, and be able to find some connection to their own world through the dignified portraits of the same individuals who have been quizzically gazed upon. For most viewers there is unfamiliarity of the practices and beliefs of the people photographed. But by also showing that which is familiar, recognizable or even understandable, the person depicted is given back their dignity. Such that the strangeness that causes us to gaze becomes a curious dialogue with those depicted. To me the imagined dialogue between viewer and viewed is far more valuable than the potentially modernized version of the Victorian era ‘side show’, where the exotic other was paraded for all to see, and all to gawp at.

[ I originally wrote this article for the first full edition of Photo Writing. I thought it was finally time to publish the article digitally, although I may update it with some more thoughts at some stage]

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