Savela Stephen Sanda amongst the Inyunchwi bushes, Mbalawala, near Dodoma, Tanzania. 2018. Scan from 8×10 inch negative.
This photograph was made as a part of ‘From Where Loss Comes’, while working in Tanzania during the Summer of 2018. (Thank you, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Appalachian College Association for your fellowships!)
Savela patiently waited while I set up an 8×10 inch view camera, sliding, as I often hope that the people I photograph will do, into her thoughts. Sliding, through my slow and tedious arrangements, exposure readings, focus adjustments and camera movements, into accepting the process of being photographed. sliding into a miasma.
What is not apparent in this photograph, I hope, is the distraction, intrusion: the cluster of people around us. Rachel and Sarah were assisting with a large reflector, Richard was ready to hand me film, a box to stand on, or anything else I needed. There were curious neighbors and a few animals hovering around too. But Savela, who had herself been assisting us with other photographs earlier in the day, knew she was needed here and now, knew her story and experience of being genitally cut was possibly going to be translated into this strange visual form. She understood, how this moment, granted to any of us looking at the photograph, may serve to bring us up against an ache.
I think, somehow, all the women I am working with know that cutting is a way of remembering, of being reminded. And they also know that memory and suffering are interlinked, sometimes in direct proportion to each other, and at others, inversely. I also believe that being photographed, in this context, is a way to always be reminded of a particular ache, a particular inhumanity, and to remind others. It defies what Hermann Hesse (and many others, in many other ways) wrote in The Journey to the East, “Next to the hunger to experience a thing, humankind perhaps has no stronger hunger than to forget.”
A photograph stands to remind us of what is being forgotten.
A photograph is less a matrix of codes than it is a cluster of tinted and varyingly surfaced mirrors. A code implies that specific bits of information may be accessed with permission or privilege. I don’t deny this completely. But the analogy of mirrors does not absolve the photographer from intent and effect, nor does it leave the regarder in a safe and distanced zone. Instead, the former is charged with configuring and encoding, biasing, the image towards particular zones of meaning. And the person looking at a photograph is left feeling like a beam of light passing through a prism: one passes through from one substance to another, and out again, but feels shifted.
That is what the Inyunchwi pods are doing in the areas surrounding Savela. They are parts of a larger mirror. Hesse, again, from The Journey to the East:
“And now that I want to hold fast to and describe this most important thing, or at least something of it, everything is only a mass of separate fragmentary pictures which has been reflected in something, and this something is myself, and this self, this mirror, whenever I have gazed into it, has proved to be nothing but the uppermost surface of a glass plane.”
Translation is the touchstone, the process that transforms. Savela gave me her story as a gift, as a memory to be translated into this. I can’t wait to do her justice, as I move towards making a platinum-palladium print.