Constructing a Collective History: Photographic Memories from Uganda
In its essence, photography is always related to the past and thus to history. When the photographer has pushed the release-button, the moment has passed and written itself into the past. Photography is a way of freezing a specific moment in time, an imprint of a certain reality, selected by the man or woman behind the camera. The photograph is always subjective and can never be trusted as a truth witness. However, it can contribute to telling stories and give new insights or perspectives to history. It reveals a lot about its time, in terms of both content, composition, style, aesthetic, framing, etc. As the old saying goes, a photograph tells more than a thousand words.
Photographic archives are important components for putting together stories from the past, and widely contributes in creating coherent understandings of a specific time, country, people, culture etc. Unfortunately photographic archives have rarely been preserved, constructed or developed on African soil. And nowhere does building archives to compliment history seem more urgent and important than on a continent whose history is filled with disruptions, unease and struggles. Here in Africa, the ability of photographs to add nuances to prevailing histories and give new perspectives to common (mis-)perceptions and interpretations of events seems ever pressing.
Adding nuances to the prevailing history of Uganda was one of Dutch photographer, Andrea Stultiens, main objectives when she started the work on History in Progress Uganda in 2011. In all its simplicity HIPUganda is about sharing little pieces of Ugandan history in photographs and thus giving new perspectives of past events. Stultiens digitalize old photographs from a variety of archives and share them with the world through Facebook and a website. As the photos become public Ugandans can comment and provide new information about the photographic content, consequently creating new stories and contributing to history. As the name of this project indicates, this creates an eternal exchange and creation of knowledge and stories that keeps adding new elements to history, i.e. the history is always in progress.
An ambitious and hardworking woman, Andrea Stultiens is not only the woman behind HIPUganda, but is also a photographer, curator and will start a research Ph.D. centered around a couple of Ugandan photographers this September. She has been teaching, given lectures and trainings at workshops in Europe and Africa and is the author of several books. We asked Andrea to share some of her thoughts and ideas behind HIPUganda and to elaborate on the importance and power of photography in contributing to Ugandan history. Read her answers below and see a selection of photographs from the HIPUganda archives.
What motivated you to start HIP?
My own curiosity and a slight frustration with what I could easily find about Uganda’s history led to an introduction to Kaddu Wasswa. His grandson Arthur Kisitu said that his grandfather had some old photographs that might interest me. While working on the visual biography of Kaddu Wasswa the meeting with Kisitu resulted in, that I came across more archives that I started to digitalize on the spot. I was aware that those files would not do any good sitting on the hard disk of the non-Ugandan I am, hardly knowing what she was looking at. So I thought I should share the photograph, both to give a larger audience the chance to enjoy the images, and to try to crowd-source more information about them from the people seeing them.
When did it start and how does it work? Which photo archives/collections do you have access to, and how?
August 2011, after talking about the above with Ugandan artist Rumanzi Canon, we decided to start posting the photographs on Facebook, to set up a website and see if we could organise exhibitions of the material. We chose a name. He designed the logo. Interest in the Facebook page picked up fast. The website is there but very much needs to be developed. Rumanzi worked with me on this for a year and then decided to go his own way. I am now working with several people who advice me, and have some sort of interest in what I am doing. They comment on photographs, sometimes give me tips on who to contact to find more collections. I try to make what I do valuable for as many people as possible. If someone has photographs that he or she is willing to share, I digitalize them and of course give the files to the owner of the photographs. They can tell me whether they are comfortable with me sharing everything, or only some of it. In case the photographs generate income (which is rare) I share that with the owner of the photographs. I try to respect copyrights as much as possible, always credit the photographer if known, but I think that the openness and something you could call ‘collective rights to history’ is the thing that is really at stake here.
How has HIP been received?
I get very enthusiastic and thankful responses. Sometimes someone says the images are just boring, or that it is strange that a non-Ugandan had to start something like HIP. But, well, someone had to do it, and I am not forcing anyone to look at it.
It seems that HIP consists of photos of both publicly known characters and private family albums. What insights can private photos give in opposition to the more public images?
The photographs from private collections can bring nuance to the way history is perceived. Uganda’s history has largely been written by outsiders. A collection like Jerry Bagonza’s, whose father was the only photographer in Ankole (Western Uganda), next to an Asian who owned a studio in Mbarara, shows mostly unknown people. But the way the people are photographed somehow gives away that this was done by an insider, someone who knew where he was and who he was picturing. It is hard to put your finger on it, but also hard to miss.
What is the most exciting photo/history you’ve come across since you started?
There is not one most exciting photo or story there are a lot of them. And the reasons for the excitement/surprise are almost as many. Sometimes it is the beauty of the image, sometimes it is the story connected to it, sometimes it is the connection to the ‘big history’. The Kaddu Wasswa Archive, named after the man documenting his life, not a photographer, has some fabulous images in it from around 1960. What makes these images even more interesting is that Kaddu himself kept on using them in his own designs to tell his story (see picture to the left). The photographs in the Ugandan newspaper the Voice of Uganda from the last years of Amin’s reign show a country that is full of entertainment and very well internationally connected, completely different from what the outside world saw and thought about Uganda at the time. Deo Kyakulagira (1940-2000) made an amazing set of self-portraits in different dark rooms he worked in around 1970. Elly Rwakoma’s (1938- ) favourite thing to do was to portrait women and children, which his photographs show. And the already mentioned images by Musa Katuramu (1918-1986) are stunning in their simplicity and beauty. In the national Archive there were photographs that first looked like a strange fashion shoot, but turned out to be portraying the first African plane hijackers.
Are old photos from times in turmoil, war and suppression perceived as sensitive in Uganda?
I am not sure. Again, I am an outsider myself. I don’t think Ugandans share their sensitivities too easily, so it is very likely that I am often not aware of them. I try to use this naivety as not only a challenge to what I am doing, but also a benefit. It allows the openness that I think is crucial in what I do.
Photographs tell stories of times past, but are hardly ever a truth witness. Although we widely interpret truth, fact and reality into them, we – especially in HIPU’s case, I imagine – often don’t know who took the photo, his/her motives, and little do we know of what’s going on outside the picture frame. But despite its subjective character, the photograph is often viewed as a direct representation of reality, which puts it in a powerful position as a communicator. How do you see this ‘the power of the photograph’ in relation to telling stories that may, or may not be reflections of reality? Especially in a country where photographic collecting for the future, preservation of history and free press has not been prevailing?
Photographs are fluid in meaning. That is their power and at the same time this can be very problematic. The photographs itself doesn’t tell a story but it can trigger a story. And each story has its value, especially if you look at it within its context. The photographs in the Voice of Uganda, from 1977 show Uganda as a proud country, with an even more proud president that is well connected to the rest of the world. Not as the international pariah that Uganda must have been seen from the outside. That gives the photographs in them their relevance. We can now look at them within the bigger story and without the burden of journalism under (a lot of) pressure that the writers for the newspaper must have been dealing with at that time.
Do you see the representations of Uganda through HIP being in conflict with the prevailing representation of the country? And what is the prevailing representation of the country seen with your eyes?
The prevailing representation is not in conflict with what HIP comes up with. But I think, as said before, that HIP is bringing nuance to it. Not only showing the (political) leaders, or the ethnographic perspective, but more of everyday life and photographic practice in general in Uganda.
Finally, where is HIPUganda heading? And what should, in your opinion, ideally be the function of a photographic archive of this type?
One big HIP ambition that I will not be able to realize on my own is to create a database (ideally online available) that will make the digital HIPUganda collection searchable. Some funding and specific knowledge will be needed for that. A first grant was just awarded by the Endangered Archive Fund of the British Library to digitalise the collection of the Ham Mukasa Foundation in Mukono. This is something I am currently working on. Next to that I am starting an artistic research PhD this September that will centre around the work of a couple of the already named Ugandan photographers. I will work with their families or, in the case of Elly Rwakoma, with the photographer himself. The only thing I am sure of in relation to HIP is that there is no end date to it. As the name suggests, it will keep progressing.
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