“I do not think of it as a desire, but as a consequence of the conclusion that a photograph is essentially what Ariella Azoulay calls ‘an encounter’. It is produced collectively, camera, something in front of it, someone operating it. And once it exists its meaning is again a product of an encounter, between the photograph and the person(s) looking at it, using it, handling it. “
In my view, Andrea Stultiens’ unique practice forms at the intersection of photography, social practice and documentary. Her eight-part book series Ebifananyi, was released late last year and is currently on show at FOMU in Antwerp. I very much see her as someone who never stops questioning, neither her position as a cultural producer working in Uganda, nor the outcomes that reveal themselves working closely with individuals and communities. I really think hers is a commitment to process as an approach that is vital to working on equal grounds with people and their personal photographs. Stultiens, for me exemplifies a critical position in the politics of photographic representation, by not representing or aesthetically valorizing, but by presenting photographs and by finding ways to enable the collective consciousness that arises in their exchange.
Sunil Shah: Andrea, can you give me a little background on how your interest in photography has developed since you began and what took you to Uganda?
Andrea Stultiens: My initial interest in making photographs was a side effect of growing up with music. I volunteered for a local music magazine in Dutch provincial town Nijmegen. One thing led to the next… Totally unrelated, I visited a friend who I used to share a floor with in a student house (in the Netherlands), in her new chosen home country, Uganda. Initial fear and culture shock were dealt with through making and working with photographs.
SS: So what form did that photography take? Was there anything in particular you were working towards?
AS: On the visits to my friend I explicitly did not travel as a photographer. I was not comfortable photographing something I did not understand. I was (and am) convinced that trying could only lead to an extremely superficial way of documenting. But I did want to explore my culture shock. While making a book on a small Dutch community in Canada I noticed how I could work away from what I thought I knew, as long as I explicitly related to it, as was the case here. So I figured out a way to do something similar in Uganda. I asked two groups of school children, highest classes of primary schools, to make photographs of “Things That Matter” in their lives, to show to each other. The schools were both in villages that were small, next to a lake, in a remote area, and poor for each country’s standards. Kyabahinga can be found in south-western Uganda and Kreileroord, in the north west of the Netherlands. Each child was given a disposable camera, twice. In between the two sessions they saw the photographs made on the other side so they could respond to them if they wanted. After this we made school trips. With the children in Uganda we went to the National Museum in Kampala. With the Dutch children to a regional history museum. The trips and also the way history was presented in the museums was photographed by me. It was worked into an installation shown in an exhibition in the Netherlands and in Uganda. While working on this I started to ask around about local photo collections. I was introduced through a friend of a friend, to Kaddu Wasswa, and to another person who owned an impressive collection of photographs made by the ministry of information of the colonial government. This eventually led to HIPUganda and the Ebifananyi book series that is now done.
SS: So, was there always a desire in your work with photography as a social practice or collaboratively so to speak? And if relevant to ask, what were the specific issues you wanted to avoid in representational approaches to your work as a cultural producer (I’ll avoid the term ‘photographer’ from this point onwards as I think it’s too loaded as a role and too narrow in describing what I think it is that you do).
AS: I do not think of it as a desire, but as a consequence of the conclusion that a photograph is essentially what Ariella Azoulay calls ‘an encounter’. It is produced collectively, camera, something in front of it, someone operating it. And once it exists its meaning is again a product of an encounter, between the photograph and the person(s) looking at it, using it, handling it. So I think of all the processes around the photograph as (next name, sorry, Ingold’s) correspondences, collective rather than collaborative.
It is relevant to ask, but the answer is in the question. I do not want to represent, full stop. I want to present the outcome of correspondences. And I want those outcomes of correspondences to not be final results but part of potential other correspondences.
There is another aspect to my initial hesitance to be an artist/photographer when visiting my friend in Uganda that does not have to do with representation, but with the act of “making” (highly preferred over “taking” though the dictionary disagrees) photographs. It would have meant that I used the camera to place something between my fear and anxieties and the part of the world I encountered. I strongly felt that this had been the case with many of the photographs I saw. Maybe this was projection, but still, the photographs generated distance rather than access to what I encountered. I did not want to fall into the same trap.
Looking back on the last 20 years (of which the last decade with projects in Uganda), there is a consistency to the actions following from these points of view. More recently I am finding the words for it and more and more connections to what others have been doing and are trying to do…
“I do not want to represent, full stop. I want to present the outcome of correspondences. And I want those outcomes of correspondences to not be final results but part of potential other correspondences.”
SS: You pre-empted me invoking Azoulay into this discussion as it switches towards the ontological and sociological aspects of photographs and photography. These can often take a secondary place in considerations of art and photographic practices which naturally place a great deal of emphasis on aesthetic concerns. Azoulay talks about the social relations and citizenry that photography can help foster together with a detachment to regimes of state control and perhaps also, as is the case with contemporary art and photography, regimes of power, whether economic, institutional or otherwise. From what I can see, much of your engagement works outside of these regimes or seeks to avoid them, allowing space for social relations and citizenry, yet at times, it also needs these regimes in order to situate and disseminate work. Are there conflicting forces at play here and if so, how do you negotiate these considerations?
AS: You are absolutely right that I seek to work outside – or on the fringe of – some of the obvious ‘regimes’ governing ‘photography’ and ‘art’. And of course also that I need them. But I do not have a gallery, I am not an artist who sells well. I refuse to edition my photographs. I make books that are rather unassuming. Charming but no ‘book award winning’ objects. Their power is, I think and hope, in the series. The whole is more than the sum of their parts. I hope it suggests that one needs to go beyond what can be found between their covers before allowing oneself to pass any judgements on the realities the books present. I like it when people feel the books did not satisfy them, and actually instill a hunger for more.
Over the past five years I have come to think of working in two worlds, not in the first place as offering unique opportunities but also as a responsibility. Both worlds inform the way I read photographs and the content I produce as an artist. I see it as part of my responsibilities to disseminate the outcomes of my artistic practice in both worlds. That seems to be the way for them to be part of ongoing investigations that expand beyond me. The content of each book in the Ebifananyi series has been exhibited at least once in Uganda, and once in Northern Europe. The places in Europe varied from gallery presentations, to exhibitions at the art school where I teach (Minerva Art Academy in Groningen), to photo festivals. The exhibitions in Uganda took place in the gallery of Makerere University and at Afriart Gallery, which is a commercial gallery. But also at schools and at the Uganda Cancer Institute. The different conditions these spaces and the context in which they operate pose challenges to me continuously. In the Netherlands you can think of the institutional bureaucracy and the limited understanding of Ugandan realities as challenging circumstances. In Uganda other things play out. The lack of quality control when producing prints, the availability and reliability of electricity or lack thereof etcetera.
Over the years I have found ways to deal with these conditions and have tried to make use of my changing position as relative insider/outsider in each country. In Uganda I sometimes benefit from privileges attached to being an outsider (that I try to be aware of). But the condition that generates this privilege (my skin colour in the first place, being European, carrying a Dutch passport) sometimes also shuts doors, or makes it impossible to understand what it actually is that I am dealing with. In the Netherlands I have learned to see the relativity of the possibilities that seem to be there. Ultimately I guess I feel that working in circumstances that differ from each other has helped me to be open and grow in ways that would otherwise not have been possible.
I learned, and continue to learn, partly by making mistakes. A mode of presentation of photographs which can easily be read by one audience, does not necessarily give access to what pictures have to offer for another audience. How much context does one need to give for photographs to be of interest? When is too much context something that excludes those who are too far removed, in time, in place, in cultural practice, from what photographs show, and therefore counterproductive? When is the aesthetic appearance of a photograph something that is recognised and therefore useful? And when is this exact same quality actually ballast, obstructing the view on connections that could be made from what the photograph shows?
These are all not questions that can easily be answered. They need to be asked time and time again and in each emerging condition lead to slightly different answers. This is why the exhibitions/presentations of the content of the Ebifananyi books are very important to me. While the books are stable in their form and content, the possibilities of their content is rethought for each new space and audience in which the exhibitions take place. Previous experiences shape the decision making process towards follow up presentations. None of the books are ‘finished’ in that sense.
I guess that a difference between Azoulay’s interest and mine is, not sure how to call it, but lets say for now the social level we engage with. Both spring off from political circumstances, and comment on them or the conditions they result in. But what I do plays out on micro levels in particular geographically defined contexts on two different continents. And hers primarily concerns a geographically defined context that has been highly contested in its governance on a level that instantly connects to geopolitics. ‘My’ micro levels are not disconnected from geopolitics, but they are further removed. This goes back to the ambition of making connections, and a sense of proximity, possible, rather than establishing, confirming or even generating a distance between viewer and what is viewed. This also relates I guess to why I do not use the term ‘spectator’ which Azoulay employs when mentioning people looking at, seeing photographs. There is too much of a gap for me between the connotations generated by the word spectator and what is seen. The spectacle is always present, and something I try (but know I do not always manage) to avoid.
“In Uganda I sometimes benefit from privileges attached to being an outsider (that I try to be aware of). But the condition that generates this privilege (my skin colour in the first place, being European, carrying a Dutch passport) sometimes also shuts doors, or makes it impossible to understand what it actually is that I am dealing with.”
SS: Can you tell me about History in Progress and your thoughts around the online dissemination and community possible through such a project? It is something that has the ability to operate at both a micro and a macro level. Was this a precursor to the subsequent decision to create the 8 book Ebifananyi series?
AS: From its inception in 2011 HIPUganda was meant to serve two purposes. First to give digitised photographs the possibility to reach other, wider audiences than the physical image objects had reached thus far. Second to crowdsource information with the often mute (in terms of information attached to them) photographs. Both purposes worked, but I found out soon that it was important not to have expectations. Photographs that I initially expected to ‘do well’ in terms of engagements sometimes did not resonate with the Facebook crowd at all. And then other, to me unassuming pictures raised a stir. Taking all the relativity relating to the Facebook’s algorithms into account, I learned a lot about which photographs are important to who by monitoring posts made to the page. There was a difference, it turned out, in interest from Ugandans, members of the Ugandan diaspora and expats who used to live in the country who follow the activity on the page.
One thing the sharing of photographs made possible more often than would have happened with only having conversation about the photographs on the ground was (and is) the magic of the positive identification of a person or a scene. It continues to give me goosebumps when this happenes. The moment when an anonymous face becomes a person with a story because someone out there is able and willing to add what they know. It is a power very hard to underestimate, but, considering how easily people are served off as part of a certain group ‘and therefore…’ all too easy to ignore.
Book 4 in the series is literally the result of someone recognising her grandmother on a photograph shared from a school collection. Book 7 exists because Marissa Mika knew the Facebook page. She approached us to work with photographs she had come across based on the page. And the last book in the series is also a rather long term, but direct result of a low res photograph that was sent to me by people who followed the page. I in turn shared it on the page. I knew by then that photographs directly related to the Buganda Kingdom usually ‘did well’. But this unsharp black and white picture of a 19th century Kabaka (King) did not resonate with the crowd, I wondered why and started to talk about it with Ugandan friends. One thing led to the next and, over the course of four years, to this book.
SS: I like how circumstances, correspondences and dialogues which you hope that will emerge from the books, were also actually responsible for the creation of the books. Can you say something of the challenges involved in producing these books, not in terms of your position as a white, European woman directing the project as a whole, you touched on that earlier, but about aspects of language and translation of cultural complexity and nuance. Through titles and names, the books maintain a strong connection to languages and to the people involved yet there always seems to be a requirement for English text and I wonder what that does to any cross-cultural project. Having said that, for the main part the books are not reliant on image captioning but interspersed, supplementary short biographical anecdotes. My hope is that the overall economy of visual images help transcend certain language barriers and limitations, what do you think?
AS: English is the interface language of the project. It is also the official language in Uganda, the one in which Ugandans, who mostly have another mother tongue, meet or are supposed to meet. The use of Ebifananyi/Ebishushani/Picha/Ekifananyi on the spines of the books is not the best way to sell them as a unified whole. It is confusing and looks inconsistent. But it is an attempt to at least acknowledge the challenges of language in a country in which so many languages are spoken, and more particularly for me personally working in Uganda without even speaking one of the vernaculars. That there are so many languages in the country, next to the constraints of time and my primary interest in visual languages, this is the reason why I have not forced myself to become familiar with any of them.
I try to weave pictures into a system of communication that you could, if you use the word in a rather wide – or if you will metaphorical manner, call a language. It has no fixed grammar, no classes of pictures, no pre or suffixes (that are so important in the Bantu languages spoken in the southern part of Uganda), but there is a structure. The readability of the structure depends to some extent on a certain level of visual literacy on the side of the members of the audience. But I think, hope, that it can also contribute to that same visual literacy, without enforcing concepts from the outside onto members of the audience. It simply tries to make conversations and thus translations possible. It all starts (and sometimes ends) with (a lack of) good will and a certain level of generosity on all ends.
SS: The books reflect a great deal of Uganda’s history and how this history is tied up to politics, to modernity and to progress in the lives of Ugandans, pre and post-independence, post-Asian expulsion and through to the turn of the century and after. Having worked with photographs as way of re-visiting the past with the photographers and their descendants, what sense do you get of what that past means and how it shapes the current times for Ugandans?
AS: One can never fully see and be aware of the normality one operates from. That goes for me as well as for the Ugandans I work with. This makes your question both interesting and relevant and impossible to answer. There is of course no such thing as ‘Ugandans’ that would make it possible to give a sensible answer. I try to avoid such reductions of an ever more complicated reality.
Like anywhere else interests and awarenesses among people I meet vary. That said, the lack of availability of materials, the ways in which parts of the past have been cut off from the present is potentially (depending on what is taken to be an authority when it comes to the narration of the past) more problematic in Uganda than in the Netherlands. And also, the disconnect between those who write history and those who lived it is rather big in Uganda. Dutch histories are more often written by Dutch scholars than Ugandan histories by Ugandan scholars. This situation cannot be seen separately from the colonial past, from several ideologies and political realities who were and are at play. Any conversation about this very complicated relationship between past and present has the danger of falling in the vacuum between the universal and the particular. What is the past we (brushing here the Ugandans I work with and speak to together with interested outsider me) are interested in? How do my questions allow certain answers to be given? How do photographs not only as objects but also as actors in my investigations make certain insights possible while they obscure other possible routes? When are we simply looking for the spectacular and do not allow complexities to enter the story? Are we allowing inconveniences that are part of the past to enter the present? Which inconveniences matter and why? Particularly when answering the last question I have learned that my position differs hugely from that of some Ugandans. The stakes are too different. Who am I to question their stakes? I can try to explain mine, and then think about how, where and in which way our differences can (and sometimes cannot!) be communicated in my work and for audiences both in and outside of Uganda.
I have had several experiences and observed instances when the present was what shaped the past rather than the other way around. I have also seen how this sometimes misguides fellow researchers in their investigations, because they think from the past towards the present and then are puzzled about what they are presented with. Things may not add up unless you change the direction of thinking. But how do you become aware of this? As far as I am concerned there cannot be a rule, a method when answering the question. There are only particular situations that should be met with humility when trying to understand.
This may seem to move away from your question, but it also goes to the heart of it. The main insight that the making of the books led to for me may be the growing humility in formulating questions and expecting answers. I have become more (but will never be able to be fully) aware of embedded assumptions.
Ebifananyi is on show at FOMU, Antwerp, Belgium until 18th February, 2018.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Sunil Shah. Images @ Andrea Stultiens.)