Having travelled and photographed people in Africa, I find it really interesting to go through the images in ‘Tribal Portraits‘. The organisers of the exhibition really went through great lengths to collect the photographs and albums and come up with a very wide range of images from people and places.
The reader said that looking at similar photographs, we feel a nostalgia for a certain primitivism that we in the West seem to have lost forever. I get the point, but don’t really agree with it. I think it is more the unfamiliarity that makes us decide on behavior to be primitive. I notice that when I see a place and people after a long time, I get a nostalgic feeling of recognition as well and automatically start to think of their behaviour as being old fashioned or primitive, because my own behaviour and experiences have been very different in the meantime.
But nevertheless, the images display a way of living that has been replaced by other practices, fashions and traditions and they do show scenes that are harder to find in this age of urbanisation and globalisation. Looking at the images now puts us in the same position as the people from the West seeing the images back then, people and places that are far away from our own reality.
However, I feel that there is more beneath the surface where we can recognize the practice of the photographer and the humanity of the people in the images. There is a distinct difference in the portraits of nudes, which in my opinion don’t stand out as typical African, the same type of nudes were made in studios in the West, and I recognize the female passive gaze that we are familiar with. The fact that these women would otherwise not wear many clothes doesn’t mean they are not being sexualized. There is a striking image with the expressions of the topless women in other images, where they are proud and confident.
Another aspect that I found interesting is the way people are dressed (or not), with some photographs standing out for the traditional clothing and others for portraying Africans in European (very uncomfortable!) clothes. As a viewer I am either intrigued by the differences in how and what people wear, but also the fact that we adapt our dresses according to the culture we want to belong to or have adapted to.
Maybe the most important point that I’m getting out of this exercise is that I become more and more aware of my initial reaction to photographs. I notice how I am drawn visually in an image, how I recognise elements from work I have seen before and how I respond on a personal level, judging or not, feeling resentment or awe, frustration or respect towards the person who has taken the photograph. Most of all, I notice that I am imagining what it must have been like to take the photograph, how the photographer established a relationship with the subjects, how he or she was looked on by the people themselves, the clash of technology with old traditions, culture and beliefs. It all somehow comes to the surface, which makes photography so fascinating.