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How to read a photograph

“In learning to read, I had to learn that an alien word could be made to yield its meaning by considering the sentences that hem it in.”

A photograph by Simon Berger
A photograph by Simon Berger

This picture is of a light-skinned boy. A girl several shades darker is in the background. The boy is dressed in the same long-sleeved T-shirt he had worn the day before, maybe the day before that too. The girl’s body is partly visible from behind, clad in a teal shirt. His lips are slightly parted, hands blurry in motion. She is looking away from him, blurred out, dreamy-eyed, as if uninterested in whatever he is saying. And behind them both, in line and vanishing, is another girl in white and yellow.

The photograph is not my favourite but I am its primary subject, the boy. It was taken at a book reading right after I walked in, was guided to a front seat and the host asked me to answer a question about language. The teal shirt girl staring away uninterestedly in the frame would later confess that she had her eyes on me the whole event. This had me wondering about the pretentiousness of photography. Had me considering the hundreds of billions of pictures in existence today—stock photos, the notorious selfies, even photojournalism—what truth lurks beyond their frames?

In learning to read, I had to learn that an alien word could be made to yield its meaning by considering the sentences that hem it in. In the same way, understanding a picture would require some context. A photo-essay would be easy to crack: a theme impresses itself upon the brain when you flip through a series. A standalone image may not be so cooperative. The photographer and painter Ayo Akinyemi realizes this imaging rigidity. That is why his paintings come with a caption written in the fabric of the work, almost as abstract. It’s a desperate solution, no failsafe.

Once, a poor quality, gothic, horrifying photograph appeared in my uncle’s Whatsapp. He passes the phone to me. It is a picture of recently slain bodies laid side by side in a clearing, the living standing over them. The accompanying text is typical, a warning that we should beware of ritual killers because several used bodies have just been discovered in a certain location. But the location is on my mother’s street and this news is false. While the integrity of pictures supersede words on a transparency index—and this is not to deny the genius of image manipulation—the association of a false text with the gothic picture, which must have been taken in a different place at a different time, compromises the photograph. This photographic fallibility is, perhaps, why photojournalism can be unpopular.

The most memorable image of Africa I have seen is also the most haunting—the haunting quality may be responsible for its memorial appeal: a black child is collapsed on her face, her anatomy distorted. Head is large and misshapen. Belly bloated, rib bones visible. Limbs long, thin and bony. A vulture is standing a little distance off. The setting is a desolate Ayod, South Sudan. The photograph, The Vulture and the Little Girl, was framed and shot by  African photographer, Kevin Carter. It was published by The New York Times in 1993, awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. The consensus is that the vulture is waiting for the starving child to become carrion. Two months after the picture was awarded a Pulitzer, Carter killed himself. If we’d go the entire way to analyse the cause of his suicide, I think we’d find, somewhere in the stack of straws, this heartbreaking picture of a South Sudanese child struggling to reach a food distribution centre.

After Carter won the Pulitzer Prize, queries flooded The New York Times, asking about the girl—what happened to her? Critics came for Carter too, condemning his ethics as a photojournalist—why didn’t he abandon his professional instinct and  help her? Sceptics said he exploited human suffering. And here’s the irony of The Vulture and the Little Girl: the photographer died 14 months after he took the shot, survived by his subject. The photograph, taken at the approximate climax, excluded the resolution in which the little girl regained her strength, crawled to the food distribution centre where her mother had gone, and lived through Carter’s death. The world would have been saved a lot of querying time, The New York Times saved response time and, maybe, Carter from the resultant global guilt-tripping. Writing many years before Carter’s (mis)adventure, in defence of photography, Susan Sontag posited, “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.”

While I do not imagine The Vulture and the Little Girl hanging on the pristine wall of a home, it has found itself in the archive of the Times’ 100 Photos, in the company of such work as Andres Serrano’s vulgar photo of a crucifix submersed in his urine, NASA’s 1995 picture of the Eagle Nebula titled Pillars of Creation and Richard Prince’s re-photography of a cowboy photograph. In its quarter-of-a-century of existence it has gone from being an urgent image of the South Sudan famine to a gothic work of art.

In 2017, in a more disingenuous endeavour, Nadine Ijewere assembled a number of stills shot in Nigeria. Born and raised in South London by her Nigerian father and Jamaican mother, Ijewere returned to Lagos to shoot The Experimental, DIY Fashion of Lagos Youth for Aperture magazine. The denominator of the pictures is inventiveness. Only that this inventiveness does not belong to Lagos.  It is one made up by the photographer and conferred on the city for Aperture’s European voyeurs. Having lived her entire life abroad, Ijewere’s notions of her father’s origin are romantic in the way that foreign gazes are.

Lagos is Bohemian in the way that metropolises are, favouring aesthetics over conservatism. The self-conscious agbero, his eyes shadowed by eyeliners, worn-out clothes as uniform, trousers riding low on his waist to reveal one or two waist beads, is not an odd sight. Neither is the dreadlocked corporate worker rocking her loose blouse, denim shorts and a nose ring to work on a Monday morning. But stylist Ibrahim Kamara took the axiom that situates every Lagosian in the sphere of insanity too literally when he decided to style Ijewere’s subjects in such pedestrian materials as footballs and electric jugs for hats, plastic bags and black-and-yellow striped traffic-barrier tapes for clothes. The semblance of dignity in the images is lent to them by elements of European fashion: suits, veils and jewellery.

In critiquing Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, Melissa Smyth wrote in an essay for Warscapes: “HONY aggressively promotes a wholly sentimentalized experience of New York City through a real-time disbursal of faces, espousing an idea of inclusivity through a process of enforced uniformity.” Ijewere’s process in Lagos was similar to HONY’s. She sourced for subjects in the streets, casually requesting people to participate in the shoot. But once her subjects were gathered, they were stripped of their identities and costumed like the caricatures in the photographer’s limited vision. Where HONY’s sentimentality lists dangerously towards uniformity, Nadine’s espoused a kind of grandiloquence and, in this way, lost the plot.

Emmanuel Iduma, in a conversation with M. Neelika Jayawardane (the writer whose words introduced Ijewere’s The Experimental, DIY Fashion in Aperture) remarked that his attraction to photographs has to do with how “the people depicted are their truest selves in the light of another’s imagination.” In Ijewere’s images, ‘another’s imagination’ is present, the ‘truest selves’ are what is missing. I make recourse to Susan Sontag’s proposition, “to photograph is to frame and to frame is to exclude”, to incriminate what is included. To frame is, definitely, also to include. If the series was not pitched as a representation of the fashion of Lagos perhaps we’d be discussing the speculative genius of Nadine Ijewere. But as a documentary, the photographs are plainly dishonest. While the creative dishonesty of what is crammed into The Experimental, DIY Fashion of Lagos Youth may be disconcerting to the demography represented, I imagine Aperture’s European audience had mad fun engaging with it.

Speaking of fun, one harmattan midnight, I took intimate shower photographs with a friend using my android phone. The mood was just right, the lighting good and the images were glorious. My friend was awestruck but scared. She couldn’t get over the accidental genius of the pictures but she didn’t trust me to keep such artistry away from the public eye either, so she transferred them to her device and wiped them from mine. She used a selfie from the album in which we, dripping wet, kissed passionately as her Twitter avi even though she would replace it in less than an hour with a headshot of herself alone, also from the album. Then she would delete the album for fear that by some computer error it could be uploaded to the internet.

A mutual friend downloaded the headshot and sent it to me with the caption: “The question is who took this photo?” It was rhetorical, of course. He had visited us a few hours before the pictures so he knew who. I must confess that in the few minutes the album was still accessible to me, I felt myself more present in the frames I didn’t appear in, posturing behind the camera, seeking the perfect angle to shoot from. A photographer can be likened to a trigger-happy soldier in a war zone. He shoots and shoots, then he shoots some more and that is all the joy he desires. That would explain why photographers like the late Kevin Carter favour the adrenaline of the back streets, hopping around the conflict zones of the world.

My own conflict zone would return to my room the next day, lead me into the shower and we would try hard to recreate the images she had trashed. We’d fail. ✚



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