Though this is not always the case nor always their intended purpose, photographs can sometimes help us to better understand our world. Continuing our ongoing dialogue this month of August 2011 with Dutch photographer and teacher Andrea Stultiens, we talked with her about “Things That Matter.” A project that she made following her first visit to Uganda, an experience where she inadvertently faced culture shock and perceptions of “otherness.” Through this encounter, she mulled over how the notion of identity is created and what if any influence does imagery have on this. In her first interview on this project, we spoke to Stultiens and asked the following.
What prompted you to make the project ‘Things That Matter’?
Andrea Stultiens: The feeling I experienced whilst traveling in Uganda as a tourist that I did not understanding anything of what I saw, and at the same time things being ultimately so ‘the same’. I guess that is what having culture shock means. I had the feeling that I was only scratching the surface of a world that I wanted to know more about. This project was an attempt to create a nice experience for two groups of children and at the same time to get involved in a way beyond what I could as a tourist.
What inspired the project title?
It was inspired by the question I asked the children who worked with me. I asked them to photograph the things that mattered to them, which would then be shown to the children in the other country.
In your opinion how does imagery influence the way we develop and represent our own identity? And how does that influences the way we perceive and judge ‘others’?
Well, actually those were exactly the questions I asked myself when I started working in Uganda. And that I keep asking myself. I don’t have answers. I do know that they influence us hugely, and think that wondering about their influence is more important than finding the answers.
You created two parallel narratives with primary school children in two villages, can you tell us about this?
The children that participated in ‘Things That Matter’ were all in the top classes of the primary schools in two villages. Both villages are small, remote, located next to a lake and poor for each of the respective country’s standards. Kyabahinga is situated in south western Uganda, while Kreileroord can be found in the north west of The Netherlands. The children were asked to photograph what was important in their lives, to show it to the children in the other country. They did this twice. In between they saw each others photographs I tried to talk to them about what they thought they saw. After the second photography session I took each group on a school trip to visit the national museum of history in their country. Those trips, and the way history is made tangible in the museums was photographed by me and formed a framework for the children’s images.
How many children participated?
About 25 in each village.
What were the similarities and differences in terms of the manner that the children photographed their daily lives?
They all stayed close to home. That is the similarity I guess. But the children in the Netherlands photographed more things in the very literal sense. The Ugandan children mostly photographed their siblings and friends. In both countries the landscape was photographed, the school and animals. But in the Netherlands those animals were pets, and in Uganda they were life stock such as cows, goats and sheep. A very obvious thing was that food production was not at all part of the daily life in the Netherlands, and that it was in Uganda.
You visited museums with both schools, what impressions did these visits seem to leave with the students? and yourself?
In the Netherlands the school trip was one activity of many in their routine lives. A busy 45 minutes between other competing schedules. They had to be home early that day because it was the week of the evening marches that some children were participating in for pleasure. For many of the children it was a repeat visit to the museum. In Uganda there is only one major museum, and that museum is a daytrip away from the village. We stayed in a university hostel for two nights. For all the children it was their first time to visit Kampala, and more for most of them their first time to see a multi-story building. This seemed to have a huge impact on them as well as on me. It is hard to prepare for an experience like this. Seeing children, who are used to padlocks, trying to figure out how the lock to their room in ‘Lumumba Hall’, our accommodation, worked. The cold showers, (running water!) that were occupied all the time. Impressions that have stayed with me since…
Through this project what insights did you gain in terms of determining how we base our ideas about each other?
Well, I think the Dutch children were more obvious in ‘sending’ messages to the Ugandan children. This was partly due to the little project the school made out of this, with information about Africa. This resulted in photographs of toilets, water taps etc. On the other hand this reading of the Dutch photographs might again be too easy, since I read them from my experience there. Maybe the Ugandan children were also very deliberately showing something, that I just didn’t or couldn’t decipher.
Was there any interaction between the children in Uganda and Holland?
Only through me. And even that was very limited. The children in Uganda were very intimidated by my presence, their English also was extremely limited making it hard to have a real conversation with them. The interaction was basically through the photographs.
Did the children have any curiosity as to why you were developing this project? What were their reactions and reflections? And the reactions of their teachers?
Not that I noticed. I think they just enjoyed the experience and opportunity. The same goes more or less for the teachers I think. But this just my interpretation. Actually, I would be curious to know how they would answer this now… or would have answered at the time. I can’t remember asking it very explicitly. So if I did, the answer probably also wasn’t too outspoken.
How does the presence or lack of public photographic archives influence the way a community sees itself?
I am not sure. Again this is hard to read for an outsider. I just admire the statement that opens a more recent work, the Kaddu Wasswa Archive, that I think is very revealing: ‘Usually people do not write their own history, some people are given a history that is not really theirs. But who can oppose and prove otherwise.’ It states the problem and give a possible solution at the same time.
In the case of Uganda you have mentioned that most of the archives contain ethnological or political documentation. At this point in time, do you foresee any changes to this, a diversification of viewpoints?
Well that is what I am trying to work on with the project that I am doing and the Facebook page History In Progress Uganda, that will hopefully develop into a web database.
The images above represent a selection of photographs taken by the children of Kyabahinga and Kreileroord. Following a selection of images from Andrea Stultiens documentation and visual narrative of the students visiting the museums. For more images.
Andrea Stultiens does things with photographs. She makes them, collects them, looks at them, thinks and writes about them, and sometimes she makes the results of this visible to the rest of the world. She is amazed by how we are influenced by our environment. By how we take control of that environment, how we mould a fictional variant of ‘real life’ and remember it with the help of photography.
All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.
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