The other day the online version of The Monitor, one of Uganda’s leading newspapers, posted a story on Katanga. Not a word was a lie, all the photographs taken in Katanga. However the contribution tells a somewhat removed story, showing the problems of the area such as how filthy it is or the unfortunate living conditions of its residents from an obvious distance which made it appear like a spectacle.
It made me think of Jacob Riis’s photography of impoverished New Yorkers from the end of the 19th century. He too meant well, wanting to improve the harsh living circumstances of its residents. At the same time however the people seem more like objects, there to illustrate the circumstances and not recognised as individuals in their own right. Riis’s work generally is seen as the start of what we now refer to as documentary photography. A genre that is related to a wish (if not demand) for social change. I think we should not over estimate what photographs can do, and personally try to stick to doing justice to all parties involved, by making the relationship between photographer and photographed transparent and part of the story.
During this year’s Bayimba photography workshop, we have concertedly tried not to portray the residents of Katanga as “those people”, but rather as specific individuals. Okujo Joel Atiku Prynce, one of the workshop participants, for instance worked with Helen and Diana, whom he will introduce to you first-hand. They each have a name, a face, a story.
Prynce discovered that photography can do more than ‘catch’ impressions. He was also confronted with the capriciousness of reality, and the flexibility this demands from a photographer. During the course of the workshop a heavy rain shower caused the roof at Helen and Diana’s house to collapse. Dealing with this meant putting aside their “big passion” for that day…
BY ANDREA STULTIENS
Text and images by Okujo Joel Atiku Prynce
Helen and Diana are siblings from Katanga, a big slum in Kampala. These two are not your ordinary slum dwellers; they are women of substance and deserve much more respect than they actually get in my opinion. After meeting them and interacting for a week and a half, I could see their enthusiasm towards life, their ardent determination which propels them forward. They actually became my inspiration. Their energy and focus somehow seems to come across through their eyes; it makes me appreciate life seeing it through a different light.
Helen, the eldest sister is a proprietor of a small business. She runs it from the living room of her mother’s two rooms shack. She sews kyangwe, a local bathing sponge that is widely used throughout the city and supplies it to supermarkets. It supplements their mother’s meager income, money that goes towards the upkeep of their family of nine. Helen is also a mother of a handsome one year old boy, Wasswa. Diana, her younger sibling, attends nursing school at Mulago National referral hospital, she says she wants to become a midwife.
Though the sisters have differing career paths they share a common passion, a love for boxing. Defying the popular belief that this sport is for men, they are both medalists in the sport. Each have won championships at Ugandan and East African boxing challenges respectively. When I asked Helen what she would rather be doing, she says she would opt for boxing. Diana couldn’t agree more; “You see I consider my school as a secondary career, because I want to help women deliver safely but boxing is my major career.” They both love boxing champion Floyd Mayweather, who is their source of inspiration.
Their normal day starts at 6 am, with road work, then return home to make and eat breakfast, at 10 am they hit the boxing gym till 1pm, then Helen starts with her sewing, Diana leaves at 3pm for class.
The photography workshop has been very practical. Our teacher, Andrea Stultiens has been here to help us, providing assistance whenever we needed it. Personally it has been a fantastic experience for me. I got the chance to discover my environment and use skills that I had not explored before. I realised that there are many things that I have always taken for granted, like getting to know your subject and creating a rapport with them and developing a story from there. Until now, I have always snuck around people stealing shots of them often leading to out of focus pictures. I have also learnt about having a visual strategy, one to communicate your story better. I feel like my camera has more character now.
I have made new friends at the workshop. That is the greatest a man can ask for, we Africans live by a philosophy of kinship called Ubuntu, the more people I know the better…
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.
Okujo Joel Atiku Prynce is a lecturer of creative writing and the fundamentals of television at Uganda Christian University, Mukono. A four time international award winning professional actor and model. He is also a cinematographer and story board maker. “Photography is an excuse for my painting, when I gave up painting and sketching I sought refuge in photography. It is a way of life, because I believe in life, we are all photos!”
All images courtesy of the respective artists. All rights reserved.
Where is Kampala, Uganda?