Rebel Cities: The Anti-Colonial Imagination & The Dilemmas of the Present

At the end of 2011 I stopped making photographs. I did not stop working as a photographer, but I stopped making the kinds of photographs I was making in India. Those were very special photographs.

From 2009 to 2011, my work on The Idea of India project, had been nothing short of a deeply ecstatic, emotional and powerfully creative experience. The process of researching, producing and struggling through the project, remains one of the most memorable experiences of my life. But it was a project that required considerable trust, and faith in luck and fate. It required relinquishing all expectations of results, all hope for finding what I was looking for, and all presumptions of planning and structure. In fact, I once wrote about how embracing doubt-as a verb and as a noun-remained central to the work itself.

It was doubt that made me leave the conventions of photojournalism and practice a different eye. It is doubt that keeps me asking, searching, wondering and growing as an individual and as a photographer. It is doubt that defines the seemingly random, apparently inconsistent trajectory of this project – precisely as I want it to be. Since beginning this work in late 2008, it has been doubt that has taken me into new worlds, and new understandings. It is doubt that has taken me to new photographs. And in the end it is doubt that I want this work to infect others with, to give them nothing more than an equal love of this act which realises that our worlds are far more beautiful, complex, complicated and varied than we were ever told.

By 2011, the project bought to a conclusion more from exhaustion than deliberation, I had become less and less comfortable operating that close to failure. Perhaps, or at least I like to believe, that it was because of the many personal failures starting to overwhelm my life. It is only in hindsight that I understand that the unpredictability and spontaneity I valued in my photographic process assumed a stability and certainty in my personal life processes–family, love, home. With all that falling apart, with unpredictability and instability assuming a dominant role in almost all aspects of my life, seeking it and embracing it in the photographic process became harder and harder.

I stopped making photographs in 2011.

I turned to a more predictable, more controlled, more structured form of photographic process. Portraiture. Landscapes. Studio portraiture. Situational portraiture. It was a way to gain control of some aspect of life itself, and to not be tossed about by chance and fortune. It was a willed inversion, where the instability of my personal life was balanced by a procedural stability, structure and predictability of my creative life. There is a distinct break from my India photographic practice where I had to face uncertainty and failure in my photographic process on almost a daily basis. On most days, there were no photographs to be found. I could not continue that way, given that on most days there was no solace or peace to be found.

All this is of course a story I have made up in hindsight. It is a good story I suppose, but I am aware that it is nothing but a story. A history. A convenient way to arrange some selected facts, delete and veil other critical facts, and offer myself a narrative that appears logical. A very Nietzsche-ian use of History. So be it.

Now, finally, in 2019, I am trying to return to a way of working I have not pursued since 2011. This isn’t a declaration of a personal life more stable, and hence a willingness to return to a creative life more uncertain. It is simply an acknowledgement of the demons I carry with me as I return to the streets, and to wander without a desire to find photographs or the guarantee of even making one. It is a reflection of a greater faith in the creative potential of failure and the willingness to see it as something that offers the unexpected, and opens venues and vistas previously shunned or feared. As Judith Halberstam argued in her book The Queer Art of Failure, that…

…under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world [Halberstam, Judith, The Queer Art of Failure, 2011;2]

I am on my way to Dar es Salaam. It is the first day of a new project that explores the legacies of the imagination and aspirations of the great anti-colonial leaders of the Bandung generation. Or more specifically, what David Scott called ‘The first Bandung Generation’…

…born around the turn of the century, men and women who are already intellectually and politically active during the interwar years and who were largely responsible for founding and leading the nationalist movements towards political independence [Scott, David, Refashioning Futures: Criticism After Postcoloniality, 1999;222].

I have no idea how to produce this project. All I know is that for some years now I have had a wish to say something about the imaginations and stories of the men and women who led us into the post-colonial present. Inspired by thinkers like David Scott, Amy Allen, Julietta Singh, Judith Halberstam and Saidiya Hartman, I have felt a need to think about the continuities that connect our neoliberal, aimless present, with the inspired, passionate, emancipatory dreams of the anti-colonial movements. How do we understand the near universal drift of our emancipatory dreams into our neoliberal nightmare? What connections–intellectual, imaginative, creative, political, economic–can we trace between the past and our apathetic present? How did some ideas of freedom and emancipation fail to materialise as others were pursued? Under what socio-political circumstances were imaginations of the future constructed? Can we look upon the present nightmare as a ‘failure of emancipation’, or can be re-examined as an inevitable consequence of the sort of emancipation sought? And how may these have led us to our present impasse? These and other questions are on the table. How exactly I will address them, I have no clue. The project is called Rebel Cities: The Anti-Colonial Imagination & The Dilemmas of the Present. It is a project I expect few to really engage with, and even fewer to even bother thinking about. It will takes a few years to materialise, but for once I am not anxious to instantiate it.

In 2008, determined to produce a body of work from India, and one that confronted the growing sectarian revisionism of its history and social fabric, I traveled to Faizabad, rented a small hotel room, and sat there for a few weeks to think. I walked the streets of Ayodhya, making small photographs, and allowed the place, space, and atmosphere to prod me towards a project outline, and potential structure. It was a gamble. I knew that I would never be able to design the project sitting in Stockholm, where I then lived. Eventually, through painful disappointments and painfully slow efforts, the project did emerge. It was never perfect, nor complete, but it was enough to give me three more years of production. And so this trip to Dar es Salaam; I land there without much hope, but only hope. I arrive there with research material, some rolls of film, a small camera, and a willingness–one that has failed me for nearly 8 years–to accept that there are no promises, and that failure is the most likely outcome. But, I have faith that within that failure, will be a gift, a potential, a possibility, a hope that can be built on.

And so I begin. This first trip is an experiment, and little more than a venturing out into the streets, and facing the truth that the streets always take from you. I carry with me the realisation of so many failures, but, for the first time, as I lift my camera again, I am fine with these failures because I do believe that they offer  “…surprising ways of being in the world” and what tell us where to look in the future.

Image Info: Chez Francoise – former residence of President Blaise Campaore, which was ransacked shortly after the events of November 30, 2014. Open to the public, a group of young men act as guides and tell visitors stories about the lavish lifestyle of the President and his family. Guides: (from left to right), Nikiema, Delma, Maxim and Baga. Ouagadougou, 2015.

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