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Monday, 16 February 2015

Photograph what you want, but photograph it well.

It was interesting to read Aminatta Forna in Don't Judge a Book by it's Cover. She talked about the problems of having a complex identity ( a black middle-class woman with roots in both Sierra Leone and Scotland) and the problem of getting both pigeon-holed as a writer and limited as a writer, and how to get around those limitations. Should her books be placed on the African Shelf (this has happened), the European Shelf (this has happened) or should there not be a shelf at all.

Here are a few snippets from the article.

'I used to be a journalist and I know the limitations of the short form. Journalism does not on the whole embrace the idea of complexity. So when newspapers started to describe me as an “African writer” I was not greatly surprised. Literature is about nuance and understanding the intricacies of life. Journalism prefers simplicity, even at the price of reductionism. The idea of a person with two parents, two nationalities and two cultures is apparently just too much for the readers of newspapers to absorb. Though I was irritated at the way my British heritage was airbrushed out of the picture, I tried not to let it bother me too much.'

'The academic world surprised me more. I read law at university, so I came with unformed opinions about how the teaching of literature might be structured. Some years ago I was invited to speak at Oxford University, and I was perhaps naively surprised to find my book taught by the African studies department and nobody from the department of English literature in attendance at my talk.' 

'Chinua Achebe was a longstanding critic of Joseph Conrad’sHeart of Darkness, and wrote Things Fall Apart partly in response to Conrad’s depiction of grunting Africans. He said his novel told the other side of the story, what the Africans were actually saying. Achebe is often called the grandfather of African literature, and, as labels go, it probably isn’t the worst to have pinned to you. But the trouble with labels, even a label intended to glorify, is that they are limiting. Achebe often found his universal themes overlooked in favour of an ethnographic reading of the novel’s story of Okonkwo. In his collection of essays,The Education of a British Protected Child, Achebe recounts the tale of a young man from Yonkers who wrote to thank him for “making available to him an understanding of the customs and superstitions of an African tribe”. Contrast this with James Baldwin’s response: “When I read Things Fall Apart in Paris … the Ibo tribe in Nigeria … a tribe I never saw; a system to put it that way, or a society the rules of which were a mystery to me … I recognised everybody in it. That book was about my father … How he got over I don’t know, but he did.”

Baldwin, being a writer himself, understood what the young reader had failed to see. Writers do not write about places, they write about people who happen to live in those places. This is something that the labellers and their labels don’t understand either. Achebe did not “write about” Africa, he wrote about people who happen to live in Igboland. Likewise, I do not “write about” Sierra Leone or Croatia, those places are the settings for my characters.'

And so I wonder about photography and how many people make images of places, or wars or issues without really getting to grips with the heart of the story which is not something abstract, but is something human and real. Or are limited by what they feel they can photograph because of self-imposed artificial boundaries imposed by some semi-imaginary ethical committee. 

Forna ends her article with a little story about meeting her new intake of students: 'And inevitably the question came up: can I write the story of a person who is not like me? Write what you want, was my reply. To which I added only one coda. Write it well.'

Which also applies to photography.

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