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“Exotic becomes old hat, and the photos of regular African urbanites are suddenly new and enticing.  This is a gap in the world of photography that I’m happy to fill.”

– Kwemle

DSC_0105We were girls when we met at an international community school in Addis Ababa in the 1980s. Kwemle (her professional name) was virtually an only child as her siblings were adults already away at boarding school and college. I spent many nights at her home doted over by her gentle mom. She sewed us matching wedding dresses, with veils, for our first communion. In my childhood, everbody was eventually posted somewhere else. Kwemle’s parents were posted from Addis Ababa to Zimbabwe, and a few years later, mine were posted from Addis to Namibia. We exchanged letter, handwritten, up until college, and then reconnected online through our yahoo and hotmail accounts. We started to build a grown up relationship. We have known each other for almost thirty years, I am the odd-mother to her son, and finally, we rather unexpectedly actually live in the same country – a five hour drive away from one another.

DSC_0108Kwemle introduced me to these images with words:

K: There’s a funny story behind these photos… I first spotted the woman in photo 1 as Sol, the driver and I sat parked at the market, waiting for Mum to return. I had fallen asleep just before getting to the market, so I guess Mum decided to leave me in the car to catch some Zees. I’m sure I was drooling too. Anyway, I think I woke up hot, sweaty and a little annoyed, and this woman was the first person I saw when I turned my head.

I observed the woman being loaded like a delivery truck, with what looked like a stack of video machines. The lady delivery “truck” had a frail frame, which was a great concern to me. What if her “truck” broke down en route? This was a serious situation indeed. I grew so annoyed that I decided to take a picture, with every intention of submitting it to the newspaper as evidence of abuse. How could women be treated with such blatant disregard for physical or mental health? Hmnh! Men! I imagined them sitting somewhere having a cool Star beer, while the poor woman labours with that load on her head.

Sol was with me in the car, jumping around in the back and “making music” by banging various objects on the back window. At one point I turned around to stop him, only to look out that window and find a MAN (of course, more muscular) carrying a load about a hundred times bigger, higher, and I would imagine heavier than the “lady truck”, the same one I wrote off as a victim. I sat there staring, my mouth agape. I was so moved by the equal opportunity exploitation, and in awe of the ingenuity of that man’s stacking. My!

So there you go…so much for my argument about oppressed women. This looked more like a poster propagating equal rights.

SIN/GIN: You took the picture with a view to publicise the exploitation of women’s labor. Before this moment, would you describe yourself as an advocate with a camera?

K: No, I would not have described myself as an advocate with a camera.  The only thing I’ve done with a camera is expose beauty in all its forms.  Sometimes it’s an ironic sort of beauty, and perhaps it is in those moments that people may find an opportunity to advocate for a cause.

SIN/GIN: We have all seen the incredible images of Kenyan matatu’s overloaded with the masses, Egyptian camels burdened with the weight of the world, women, from all over Africa, carrying wood, water, video players(!) and the requisite baby asleep on the back….These images almost celebrate the incredible strength of the African bakkie, beast, or individual. However, your narrating the story in words adds an important dimension to the photo-narrative. Your words have the effect of making the audience look at you, and your awakening from sleep but also to the complexity of the scene. Is this marriage of photo-narrative with spoken narrative typical of your work?

K:  Photojournalism is something I aspire to do, because I love both photography and writing.  Thus far, though, I have concentrated on just photography, as I feel that photos can speak for themselves.  The interesting thing about them is that even though they’re not abstract images, everyone takes away something a little different, depending on their experiences and influences, their idea of beauty, and their method of information processing; some people are more visual thinkers.  I like that element of photography.  In this particular instance, the story unfolded with a twist, presenting a duality that I hadn’t considered as I was processing what I was seeing.  That duality wasn’t that obvious in the photos alone, which is why I felt it necessary to accompany the photo with narrative. 

 SIN/GIN: These days, National Geographic receives a bad rap in the arts and humanities for exoticising and othering non-white bodies and cultures. I confess to a passion for the national Geographic weddings section that lasted through childhood into my teenage years.Wangechi Mutu’s interview in NY mag revived the conversation.

 “It was National Geographic, she says, that originally “unlocked that critical voice.” Her father was a subscriber when she was a little girl in Kenya, and, in scanning through his issues as they arrived, she remembers feeling a sense of “that’s not us you’re portraying in there. In National Geographic you always saw pictures of tribal Africa. And here I am sitting in Nairobi, in our suburban house, watching TV and thinking, Why is it always going to be these tribal people that are the ambassadors of our image?” It’s akin, she says, to the Amish becoming poster children for America.”

SIN/GIN: Is the National Geographic dilemma a reality for you as a transnational and cosmopolitan woman photographer, when you visit your land of birth and view ‘locals’ through your lens?

K: Growing up, I always loved seeing National Geographic photos.  My eyes would gleam with wonder as I browsed through pages of their high-gloss, high-resolution depictions of native peoples around the globe and places I may never know.  I especially liked that they exposed sides of Africa that I hadn’t yet seen, even as an African national. I love colour, I love pictures, I love stories; each photo I saw would tell one or many stories.  I could look at them over and over again.  I confess it never bothered me that their galleries were angled toward shock and awe.

I’m not naïve to the business side of the organization; you sell what sells.  Colourful images of virile jumping Masai men, heart-pumping photos of leaping cheetahs across the Serengeti, photos of Surma Ethiopians with large looped earlobes, and clay plates lodged in their lips.  These are the depictions of Africa one has come to expect.  At some point you have to balance the narrative.  Yes, we have tribal Africa, and photographic anthropological antologies to prove it.  But after a while one tribal picture starts to look like the other, and boredom, scrutiny, and absolute annoyance start to set in.  People then start to look for a new narrative; Exotic becomes old hat, and the photos of regular African urbanites are suddenly new and enticing.  This is a gap in the world of photography that I’m happy to fill.

SIN/GIN:  I described you as a transnational and cosmopolitan woman photographer. How would you describe yourself?

K: I’ve often described myself as a global nomad.  Growing up in different countries, and seeing different cultures opened my eyes to the colourful world we live in.  It’s both the similarities and the differences that I love to celebrate.  For me, beauty–even in its simplest of forms–is always worth capturing.