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By Wambui Mwangi


Tuesday, August 16, 2011.



Recently, I have been working with the photography of objects of memory: trying to ‘handle’ memory, quite literally, experimenting with how to show it.  The images are connected to March 8th, International Women's Day, in several ways, amongst them that the theme of the images to be produced is 'African women.' 


I have lived most of my life away from the African women who matter to me, to the extent that they were ‘at home’ and I was ‘away.’  Although I met many other wonderful African women while resident in ‘away,’ most of my thoughts of African women are hedged about with sensitivities and pain. Not because African women are the iconic figure of The Victim in the Global South, but because I missed them. Most of my way of knowing them is through their absence in me, an absence that sometimes seemed more real than their remembered presence, because it was present.  It was always with me, this hole.



I missed my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, my cousins, my neighbours, my schoolmates, my friends, my teachers, my favourite book seller and my enemies, all of whom I left behind in Nairobi. The trace any and all of these carry is a melancholic one in intricate, self-referential, self-replicating ways. Some of these women died while I was elsewhere.  Some of them were even born in my absence, forcing me to miss them before I even knew them, having to love them without the benefit of touch and smell and presence.



I am working with objects that remind me of these various women, trying to show what I think I know or remember, and how, in a photograph.  Representational activity is always fraught, always already a dissimulation.  Distortion inheres in the attempt itself as much as in the particular modes and purposes to which it is put.  And beyond this foundational contradiction are all the other layers of contexts and purposes, social interactions, fantasies and memories that shape and mediate the acts of looking at and representing objects, further complicated when these objects are themselves representational gestures in the frame.  Echoes and re-echoes, versions, memories and interpretations reverberate and bounce off each other.


Gary Winogrand is reported to have said  that “Photography is not about the thing photographed.  It is about how that thing looks photographed."  I think he meant not only that when objects are photographed they appear different from when seen by ‘naked’ perception, but that the photograph has a different existence, a different way of being looked at, from the photographed thing.   The photograph is an act of creation, not a mimesis of reality, because the active (click!) looking-with-a-camera creates a new object in the world, a new existence.  It is an entrance, of this photograph-as-object, by which even the photographer who planned and executed the image is capable of being surprised.  Before the photograph exists, the photographer can only imagine it.  The actual photograph always exceeds (or fails) and thus escapes this origin in imagination.

Short: holding the camera, you only think you know the photograph you are about to make.   When you finally see the image, you almost inevitably perceive that you were mistaken (to cries of either delight or anguish.)


But there are reverberations also for the object-as-photograph, to quarrel slightly with Mr. Winogrand, although perhaps he is correct that this is not the proper domain of concern for photographers.  Nevertheless, that which is photographed is also changed in its meanings, and perhaps then in its material existence.  Photographed objects are isolated, revisited, re-imagined, repositioned in perspective and importance. Their textures become important, in ways different from their former lives, as do their surfaces, colours and shapes.  They acquire a new relationship to light, which now seems to exist only for interaction with these objects, in a drama of shape and light and movement.  


Light flirts, is seductive, difficult, temperamental, given to sudden lavish shows of affection and abrupt, uncommunicative withdrawals. It might decide to burnish a curve or cause high-lights to glint, to hide the secrets of some things and reveal others, to drape some objects in bluish or yellowish rays and ignore others entirely, refusing even to touch them.  In this soap opera of things, it is no wonder that the relationships between the objects are liable to change.  Some are raised and some are stricken—conflicting visibilities has many victims.  

 It is easy to see, with Rancière why the visibility of things is properly a question of the political.


The photographed object has new associations, a new status, a new way of being looked at. It is moving in different circles of imagination, speaking in different languages, wearing new clothes.Even if these are only marginal additions, slight accretions to its former life, even if confined to that one second where the object was of critical importance to the photographer, still, its life is changed.  It was once photographed, once lent part of itself, its appearance, to that great theatre of the  production of desire and dreaming, fantasies and phantasgamoria that sustain the image industry and its symbolic systems.   

This photographed object, if only fleetingly, has appropriated new possibilities and new material trajectories. It may enter into different stories and thus move into different spaces and locations.  Not ineluctably, but possibly.  Relative probabilities shift around, for this object. 


Perhaps it begins a new life as an honoured prop in a photographer’s studio.  No more washing floors or dishes, thank you very much.

Wambui Mwangi is a photographer, writer and academic. She is the founder of Generation Kenya and she blogs at Mad Kenyan Woman.



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