Sitting this morning in Lahore I am dreaming of Africa, of borders, and of other things that distract.
Ben Rawlence’s book Radio Congo: Signals of Hope From Africa’s Deadliest War arrived in the mail today. I had met Ben in New York some weeks ago at a dinner sponsored by the Open Society Institute. Ben is an Open Society Fellow this year and working on a new book about life in the Dadaab refugee camp in Somali. While speaking to him I mentioned that I was now living in Kigali, Rwanda, and was soon on my way to shoot a short assignment in Eastern Congo. Ben graciously offered to send me a copy of this work – a personal journey to the fabled city of Manono in Eastern Congo. The journey by foot, bike, and boat becomes a meditation on the history of the region, colonialism, the post-colonial dreams and the nightmares that replaced them, and about a new world emerging from a history that looks chaotic, but has its own trajectory and logic.
I have begun reading it, even though I am thousands of miles away, and thousands of minds away working in the remote regions of Pakistan tracking down families of the 33 Pakistani men still being held without charge by the American in the Bagram / Parawan Detention Center in Parawan Province / Bagram, Afghanistan. As always I find that my mind is moving between worlds, thinking up new ideas, and exploring new projects.
But of course, as I work on one project, I think of ten others. My father always mocked my inability to concentrate on any one thing, and focus on doing it well. I have, despite the many years he tried to convince me, never been convinced of this need for specialization and focus. I have always been, and today excitedly remain, a dilettante and a random thinker, moving from subject to subject, and exploring it simply on the basis of joy and excitement. Boredom defines the limit of my creative, intellectual and professional horizons, and up until the moment it kicks in, I am simply immersed on the basis of curiosity, pleasure, excitement and discovery. All else is nonsense at best, vanity at worst.
My conversations with Ben about the Congo took place around the same time that I was re-visiting Carl De Keyzer’s book Congo (Belge). In an email I wrote to a friend some weeks earlier, I had expressed my frustration with this book, stating that:
…each individual image has serious structural problems, to the degree that i would have rejected many of them if i had shot them. and yet i can’t stop looking at the work. i have his book open here – Congo (Belge), and there is just something complex, something mesmerizing about the work….an Africa the likes of which i have not seen shot before, a calm eye, a penetrating eye that seems to objectify the Congolese, and yet, reveals something that i have not seen – there is something cold, something that feels like an entrapment of his subjects and that mirrors the entrapment of the nation in time, in politics, in history….and yet it is not a cliched entrapment – sentiments of colonialism and all that, it is a cruel entrapment, something that stops Congo in its pathological moments of modernity…..it’s a Congo that is living, breathing, and yet decaying, near death, a body kept alive by….i don’t know…this work is complicated, i hate so many of the pictures, though some he has printed small are actually very good, and many printed large are poor, and yet i keep looking at each image. it is confusing me to no end, but i can sort of sense the intelligence, the cleverness, the honesty of the work…its [eye] is one you want to be a part of!!
This confusion has had me going through the work carefully, studying each image for its structure, positioning, quality of light, time of day, angle of sight, its gestures and movements, its geometry, its historical and political relevance and meaning, and just sitting down and making notes. The last time I did an exercise like this was about five years ago when I went through nearly 300 of Alex Webb’s photographs and carefully made notes to understand their structure and the rather inexplicable visual hold they seemed to have had on me.
But looking at De Keyzer’s work closely, and trying to understand my own contradictory reactions to it, is also as much about trying to understand my own place as a photographer and an individual. Perhaps some ten years ago I would not even have bothered to look and be concerned about a work such as this. Perhaps then I would have been too quick to dismiss it. But there is an intelligence at work here, in the book, in the structure of the book, that I am desperately trying to pierce and understand. It is quite an exciting immersion into a new world – the DRC and seeing it from the eyes and mind of an European photographer who is clearly trying to come to terms with his nation’s brutal and terrible relationship to the African continent, and its continued legacies and influences for the lives and future of the people of the DRC. Its a very intelligent work, and I wrote about it earlier, but it has been on my mind once again and this time around I am going deeper into it.
My mind has also been on the issue of borders – national, sectarian, personal, geographic, and others. Obviously, the idea of borders and separation was a key element of my work in India. My The Idea of India project attempted to cut past cultural, national, historical, political, ethnic, religious and class boundaries and look for the continuities of culture, and life that continue to exist in South Asia. But a recent meeting with the sharp, intelligent, and combative writer and photographer Suchitra Vijayan, has me thinking once again about my own ideas for a borders project that I had been working on for some time but as yet not gotten around to shooting. Suchitra has embarked on a project to explore the meaning of national borders for people, communities and histories that abut the physical spaces where the borders cut past.
Her work begins along the India – Bangladesh border regions. As Suchitra explains on her website:
This is a [project] about relationships; between the people who inhabit the border and their rulers. What happens when an arbitrary border is imposed on people? Human and political consequences of a border. Question of identity and citizenship: “who belongs and where, of defiance and accommodation.”About systemic nature discontent and alienation.
It is to these un-articulated borders I seek to travel. Journey to the farthest outposts of India, to her ungoverned spaces, to regions forgotten, governed by competing histories. To explore the uncomfortable, the barren frontiers transforming themselves into ideological battle fields.
Its a fabulous project idea, and I think she will return with things unique and fascinating. Suchitra and I had some interesting and intense conversations when I met her in New York recently – she was practically camping out most all day at a lovely coffee shop on the lower East Side, and single-handedly helping the owner achieve her entire month’s revenue goals. Our conversations took us to the question of strange borders, and the rather unique enclaves, and the contortions of geopolitics that the India / Bangladesh border region represents. Suchitra is now in the region, and shooting and writing her first stories. This is a smart photographer – our conversations revealed a very independent mind, a critical thinker, and someone prepared to stand apart and walk her own path. I was immediately impressed by her self-confidence and for me personally, it marked her as someone to watch. I am quite excited to see what she returns with.
Her work also reminded me of my friend Gael Turine’s new project about walls, barriers, and demarcation lines.
Gael too began his work by documenting the fence that is being constructed along the India – Bangladesh border. As he describes the project:
Barriers between countries, walls around towns, and fences through districts – these are the solutions imposed on millions of people throughout the world on the pretext of fighting terrorism, illegal immigration or else drug trafficking. In 1992 the Indian government decided to build a border wall between India and neighboring Bangladesh.
Before the construction of the barrier, thousands of Bangladeshis used to cross the border every day to work in India. This was not felt to be migration, more simple comings and goings. The purpose of the report is to show that the erection of the fence has upset the religious and cultural socio-economic mechanisms that existed before the wall.
These two works are quite close to the project I too had in mind – about borders, and about how they carry along them histories that are often contradictory, combative, confrontational, connected, inter-linked and constantly malleable. Borders offer a remarkably flexible way to speak about a number of issues that relate to the struggles of post-colonial nations, and the entire project of the creation of nationalist histories. For us in South Asia, our incomplete projects of creating a common national identity, discovering a cultural cohesiveness and imposing a historical uniformity continue to teeter on the edge of collapse. Works that explore the reasons why I feel are critically important. Suchitra is on such a course, and yet I also feel that there is still so much that can be done.
Speaking on so much that can be done, I return to Africa. The latest installment of Al-Jazeera’s Artscape: The New African Photography is now online and it looks at the work of the South African photographers Neo Ntsoma. It is yet again a fascinating documentary about the life of an African photographer, her struggles, and her documentation of a history of an African nation through her own experiences and her own social world.
As she explains:
I was 22 years old. I was just thrown out of photo school for being a black woman pursuing a career, which was seen as inappropriate. I ended up having to work night shifts at The Star, taking pictures of news events …. I was just so sick of all those negative things.
In the early 90’s, something new was happening in South Africa. We were full of energy and exploded with our dreams and ambitions onto the scene. We wanted to be – to create dance, music and fashion. So I took photographs of what was happening around me.
Her comment reminded me of something that in fact Ben Rawlence had told me about – a quote from the Swedish writer Henning Mankell:
Still there are too many people…who only know how Africans are dying, not how they live.
What I love about these African photographers is the way they speak – great honesty, great sense of vulnerability, a confident humility, and a ravishing sense of joy about life and about photography. Ntsoma’s film opens with this surprising admission from her:
Every time I lift up a camera…there is always that voice that says that you are not good enough, that you are not going to make it in this profession. I have tried, I have tried to ignore that voice. But it is that very voice that has pushed me to do better every day.
Precisely. As the amazing Raymond Depardon, one of my earliest inspirations, said, the photographer is filled with doubt. Nothing will soothe him. Amen / Aameen to that!
Most all of these sensibilities are missing in the language of photography and photojournalism in the West, where bravado, machismo, braggadocio, a violent competitiveness and swagger taint the world. What one understands from photographers like Ntsoma is not just a sense of their frailty, but a sense of their deep connection to their humanity and what all that means. Its just a lovely and exciting way to speak, and perhaps most importantly, it is inspiring for others to hear. What you once again hear as well in the words of Ntsoma, is a voice of dissent, speaking out against the reductive and dehumanizing representation of Africa and Africans that has been the bread-and-butter of hundreds of photojournalists from around the world. As she argues:
My parents used to buy newspapers, and all the stories that were of black people in newspaper were always negative – extreme poverty, black people fighting, everything negative…they wanted to paint black people as barbarians….
..My interest in photography goes back to the misrepresentation of the black people and I have managed to make decisions and changes that will not only benefit myself but my son’s future as well.
What you have here is a thinking photography, not merely a professional one. For me, this is what defines and completes a photographer. Its not just the aesthetics, but the ideas and thinking that inspires them. I recently made the same argument about the work of Simon Norfolk. Ntsoma is aware of the limits of the profession, the compromises demanded in order to earn a living, but it remains something she is constantly working to move past. Ntsoma never surrenders to it, and eventually moves out to do the work that she really wants to do. She never becomes a part of the machine, certainly not longer than she needs to to survive as a black photographer in apartheid Africa. She moves past it, and she moves closer to her own voice, her own passion and love of what South Africa means to her. It is an independent voice, and whereas her work is largely commercial and cultural, I can certainly respect her for her individual journey. And yet it is not one that veils her nation’s issues, but one that can see it in all its complex breath and diversity of human struggles and realities.
Random thought: South Africa. The Country of My Skull. Antje Krog’s remarkable work. Each time I think of South Africa I do think of kwaito, and I think of Krog. And this book. Amazing. Remarkable. An individual’s introduction to the remarkable story that South African remains.
It is an Africa inspired morning. I have not even had my first cup of tea. There are so many works to explore, and so many ideas that are constantly coming up. At times I feel crippled – like a deer in headlights, as I try to cope with the thoughts and inspirations coming at me. At times I fear that I will just never finish anything, but start too many things. I have friends in India still writing and insisting that I must return there, lock myself in an apartment, and finishing editing and writing the final pieces of my India project. They are right.
But I am just distracted with the beauty of this world, the seduction of the million stories to tell, and the possibilities offered by journeys that I want to make to tell them.
The ‘work’ will have to wait because today, right now, this very present, is still a time for dreaming.