Village Portraits

Wim De Schamphelaere’s ‘Village Portraits’, often made out of more than 700 different shots, are printed on meters wide photographs and displayed at galleries in Europe. The photographer prides himself on returning to the (African) villages where he took those portraits — and where the first reaction usually is “to cut them up and divide the different parts among the ones portrayed”.

De Schamphelaere’s panoramas are really gorgeous, exploring the linkages of families and familiarities in close-knit communities where there is a sort of “calling out” to each other through signals sent by physical stature, facial features, clothing, ways of standing and arranging oneself. We also see that smiling for the camera, a trope that only came to be common in the West as photography became faster, and more ubiquitous (and therefore, not a solemn occasion to comport oneself for a portrait), and when one’s teeth were expensively cared for (see the gloriously irreverent A Brief History of the Smile by Angus Trumble). When there’s a slightly odd-man-out, we see that difference immediately, too, even though these are not our own people; and yet, we also see that he, too, is embraced and included (hilariously, this inclusion/exclusion reminds me of Southpark episodes).

And we also get to see a certain picturesque diversity in what and who constitutes an “African village.” It is the kind of thing one would want to have hanging above one’s settee, or in the headquarters of your NGO’s office.

For the photographer’s part, we can comprehend that he feels a wonderful connection to the people he photographs, who must bestow upon him a great deal of love. And yes, of course we understand that the people in those villages want to get copies of ‘their’ picture. They are poor, and will not have many chances to see themselves in print. And a powerful white figure from another world arrives with his magical, expensive equipment, including them in his generosity — what’s not to like?

The images are striking: quite beautiful, quite poor, quite “villager/other”. But if the purpose of making images of the other is to create intimate links of familiarity, and share with them one’s own ways of seeing self and other, why display the images in the west? If the purpose is to give the photographed people a way to see themselves as beautiful, as photographers of otherness often claim, then De Schamphelaere might think about limiting himself to giving those very subjects a copy. To display them — with all the connotations of poverty, the hovel-quality, and the dirtyness that those of us who live outside of that existence (such as a gallery-goer in Europe) will undoubtedly assign — simply reifies that otherness and difference. I’m not saying that we must all pretend that poverty, grass-hut dwelling, and otherness does not exist. Nor am I saying that it is impossible to look beyond our frames of reference and see people who are simply living their lives without National Geographic-ing them. But why display it all, and why stare at this?


5 thoughts on “Village Portraits

  1. Beacuse those pictures may broaden one’s (even if a “gallery-goer in Europe”) perception of the world? Why could this be a bad thing? Where you see poverty and dirtiness, one might see also diversity and “linkages of families and familiarities in close-knit communities” (as you pointed out). But even if someone just sees poverty on them, should this be a reason for not displaying them on art galleries? As someone recently mentioned here (quoting someone else, I guess), if finding a new way for depicting Africa on the global media means hiding the bad parts, then I’m against it. Should’t this rule also apply to art?

  2. isn’t this one of the primary purposes of art? to pry open a glimpse for “those of us who live outside of that existence”. the problematisation should not be directed at the works themselves but rather at this conception of the “other” world inhabited by the photographed as inferior. automatically reckoning that the beholders of this image will react with a “aww, the poor, dirty africans are so savagely beautiful in their bare habitat, aren’t they richard?” speaks only to western systems of assigning value based on material wealth and perceived hygiene not to the value of the photographs in and of themselves. these pieces allow us, as gallery-going-residents-of-europe, the unfathomable ability, if we choose to embrace it, to briefly enter into and witness, be it imperfectly, the existential situation of human beings who would otherwise be irredeemably estranged from us by thousands upon thousands of kilometers. display them because they are true. and as far as we can tell, they are true; De Schamphelaere has seemingly done his best to capture the lived conditions of the photographed. any turning away from this truth would be a perversion of the authentic for the sake of some western notion of what the “good life” entails and for fear of reifying ignorance in the minds of the ignorant . stare at them because they are truly beautiful. the beauty of the images, i feel, needs neither elaboration nor proof. but then again, this is both the glory and the weakness of our individual (thus subjective) apprehension of beauty. all the best. i love this blog.

  3. Thanks to both @hugo and @Joao F: your discussion gets to the points that I was wandering around in my mind about… No need to whitewash ‘Africa’ with the positive or the negative – but how does the photographer (or writer) deal with audience/readership and with the subject(s) within the images? What are our responsibilities as readers of images, and as commercialised subjects who view others and others’ subjectivity within commercial spaces and museum spaces (which themselves have a strange and wonderous history of exoticising and musuemising peoples)? And how do images/stories continue our legacies of framed reading, rather than permit us to step outside of those well-trodden ways of seeing? As active, engaged readers, asking these questions is essential to walking outside and away from those problematic ways of framing the other and self.

  4. ‘I’m not saying that we must all pretend that poverty, grass-hut dwelling, and otherness does not exist. Nor am I saying that it is impossible to look beyond our frames of reference and see people who are simply living their lives without National Geographic-ing them. But why display it all, and why stare at this?’
    Good point. Maybe we should send the villagers some Martin Parr photographs to stare at?

  5. Challenging questions – and i can’t answer any of them rationally. i do like Kathy’s suggestion that we send photographs to the villagers – an act of sharing ways of seeing humanity – when i first looked at the photos i was struck by the horizontal symmetry – and the repeating patterns of color – looking more closely at the individual faces i was taken by the exceptionality of each face – rather like minor white’s photos of americans in the southern states during the 1930’s – or any other documentary photos that Bernice Abbott did – which now are so important in grasping that distant time and context. for in the end, for me, it’s not the poverty, but rather the pride and centered grounding of living life as it is. the photo of the nine children in from of their small home with the pink and red cloth curtain over the door immediately transported me back to my childhood, the eldest of nine children, living in a very small house and i remembered how siblings can fight as well as also lovingly take care of each other.

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