Eric Gyamfi is mainly a photographer. His body of work comprises self-portraits and portrait series shot in monochrome. His work interrogates societal complexities and even, paradoxes. His portraits have been shown in many exhibitions, most recently, in Lagos and have been featured on Huffington Post and the BBC website.
Like his self-portrait series ‘Asylum’, the ‘See Me See You’ exhibition highlights the queer life in Ghana. I, KAY, speak to him on his art of photography and work of documenting queer lives.
KAY: Your series ‘Urban Nomads’ surprised me a bit. I thought it would be photos of only people. There were concrete buildings and kiosks too. To think about it, these physical structures are nomads as they are exchanged among owners and caretakers.
EG: To a degree they are. The kiosks, in this case, assumes a little more. They come to represent, in some ways, the thoughts of their owners with regards to how temporal the desire to remain in a certain space is. You find some kiosks with concrete finishes at their base, others without. Intention and time disposition are easily read. For those who inhabit uncompleted buildings, choices in types of household equipment that is owned, foldable chairs, etc also to a degree speak to this disposition. The kiosks can be swapped for money or another kiosk in a different location. The ‘caretakership’ can also be swapped by handing over to the ‘true’ owners after completion. Mobility is at the heart of this.
KAY: I am interested in the ‘caretakership’ bit. Simple consent or otherwise could make one a legal or an illegal occupant. I see this relationship between a photographer and her subject. How does consenting make good photography or otherwise?
EG: Consent does indeed play an important role. There are instances when people inhabit a space because well it is empty. Bearing in mind the possibility of an owner (however dormant or absent), some start right away even in the absence of such consent, taking care of those spaces, guarding, claiming territory, etc. When an owner returns to find such persons they are presented with the option to eject or maintain such persons on their premises and confer (or affirm in this case) on them this ‘caretakership’, a position they have already assumed. Now, I am not entirely sure if consenting necessarily makes good photography or not. Depending on the gaze of the photographer and what exactly it is that one is trying to say, I think getting consent or otherwise has almost equal probabilities. The other vector, of course, being the space within which one is working from and its probable consequence on both the photographer herself and even the ‘subject’.
The photographer/subject relationship is a complex one. From Weegee to Nan Goldin to James Barnor, we get a sense of varying degrees of consent. Weegee’s ever present attitude to getting the photo with or without consent to Goldin’s involvement with her subjects in ways that make them more of participants, blurring the subject-photographer hierarchies, to James Barnor’s studio portraits in Accra where there is an exchange/transaction (if I may) presents varying degrees of consent, which make their individual works great in unique ways, in ways that would not be possible if they all sought one single idea of consent.
KAY: How much of yourself do you consent to in your self-portraits?
EG: To be able to properly comment on this would essentially mean being able to define who I am. But that also is something I cannot have a definite answer for. It becomes easier to define who I am presently. I get the feeling that I cannot also properly answer the question on how much of myself I consent to in my self-portraits. As a form of performance, we bring on board as much of our individual and collective self, both past and envisioned, into the creation of self-portraits. It is myth making that is true (if that means something).
KAY: There is a photo that I think is the pivot of that series. You are sitting on a bed with a gun in the mouth, another body of yours, supervising the act of the suicide, maybe. The photos that come after do not show signs of injury or even, mortality. Rather, you leap into different things, kind of an expanse and kind of a freedom to own one’s body. How do you think of freedom when you are composing your photos? Is the metaphorical death of one’s self (which is only an inference from the series) a point of self-actualisation?
EG: I will quote a few things from Lyle Ashton Harris’s book, ‘Blow up’ (Lyle’s work moves me incredibly). On page 93, a contribution to the book by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, she says something about Lyle being a living testament to Alice Walker’s stated truth: ‘When life descends into the pit/ I must become my own candle/ Willingly burning myself to light up the darkness around me’.
She goes on write to on page 100 – ‘ Lyle has been willing to descend into the pit into which life has fallen for us all … he says that it came at a point when he had to get in his own face. It came with a willingness to admit that he might be, that we all might be, complicit with the very acts that dim the lights’.
KAY: In your current showing at Nubuke Foundation, ‘See Me See You’, the focus shifts to other people but you explore the same themes as you did with the self- portraits. Will you speak to why you become a passive participant, a witness in this series as opposed to being an active participant in ‘Asylum’?
EG: ‘Just Like Us’ is the photo essay which culminated into the exhibition ‘See Me See You’. In this series, as in ‘Asylum’, I am still very much a participant and activity and passivity play out more in a continuum and are not clearly defined. In ‘Asylum’, for instance, there is a level of passive activity, which results from my being the observer and simultaneously the observed. The lines are not clear cut. The apparent activeness may be the result of my role as performer. Sometimes that same role becomes increasingly passive.
In ‘Just Like Us’ (See Me See You), there is a high level of active passivity. I seem to be the one observing. But sometimes I am observed too. For instance, there is an image of myself and one of my friends which was not taken by me but by another participant. There is also an image of a couple that I did not take. We were living together and they could use my camera on themselves or on me just as I could use it on them. These were all conscious attempts to bridging the photographer-subject hierarchies in documentary relationships. I felt the power was not only with me to tell this story as we were in the same boat and one of the ways to move was to take turns. We had to be able to look at and see each other. Both literally and otherwise. I was conscious of my role as a photographer but it was life for the most part. We were just going on but I also had to learn to pull back a bit sometimes. So that could probably be where the feeling of witnessing came in. Those were probably the times where I was looking in by looking out.
KAY: ‘Looking in by looking out’. That is about gazing. It reminds me of one of the photos in ‘See me See You’. You took the photo from the behind of a man at a beach. He is looking deeply forward. There is a blurred somebody in his front, women in bikinis dotting the sea shore on the former’s right hand side. You can see, not quite clearly, the gaze of the man from his spectacles. He is a window to a spectrum of gazes. At the exhibition opening, I heard someone say that the series is about queer people. I disagree. I think it is about an anatomy of ordinariness. What do you think this is?
EG: That is one way of looking at it. I think it rather contributes to that anatomy of ordinariness as queer life here is not lived in exclusion from the heteronorm. Because really, if we are to break down that the overall structure (society), anyone or thing carries the potential to be ‘othered’.
But for history sakes also we cannot quite remove the context on which this work was built in our quest to draw on sameness as that erasure will make the work pointless. So essentially yes, it is about queer people but it is even more about consolidating all our possible identities and how they intersect to make us who we are and what experiences we can have… potentially. When asked 20-50 years from now if there ever existed queer people/life here, we have a starting point. The idea of erasure is scary.
KAY: You do not provide text to contextualise the photos in this series. How do you hope they find their subtle, poetic language?
EG: This was a hard decision to make. In the end, I decided against providing captioning for the individual photos to avoid a possible implication of the participants in the works. The theme of the work, the everydayness of the images functions as fertile ground in which multiplicities of interpretation spring. With sexuality and queerness being only a starting point, it becomes easy, for most people regardless of their background to find derivative narratives pertinent to their own experiences.
KAY: There is a room, the last one, a photo of somebody’s gait with the head almost hidden hangs on the wall. In the set up, you kept asking if everything was okay in the room. You kept coming to it. It seemed to me that it was a special place for you. What was it?
EG: Systematic oppression. I did not want anyone coming into the space to forget that this quiet systematic oppression against queer people here. You are right about how invested I was in that last room. It was the only room with a door, it was the most claustrophobic of all the rooms. You could easily feel the distress and sense of alienation that the participants in that room feel. As the last room and possibly the last impression from the exhibition, I wanted to provide that quietness for introspection. The pursuit of the entire work was mostly geared towards establishing sameness. To pursue such an agenda so passionately means that there must have been an ‘other’ to begin with, especially within our current socio cultural climate. I felt responsible for showing the possible psychological/emotional distress and abjection that queer people face here, even in places where they are tolerated. Tolerance and acceptance are not the same thing. I wanted to highlight that. I wanted that to be the last thing people encounter. That there is room for improvement. And that the box is big enough to accommodate us all.
KAY: Let us end with what should have been the beginning. Why do you compose photos in black and white?
EG: For this particular work, I had to shoot in black and white for a few reasons. My main mode/ channel for dissemination of this work is slide show presentations (mostly on college campuses). It is a limited audience in my head but I know complementing it with exhibitions and online publications widen that audience scope. Black and white here is meant to create a kind of ‘pause’, a brief moment within which you are not sure if the work and its subjects (participants) are from this time or geographical location. That pause enables people to go in slowly, and engage to find out when and where and who. People are curious, and for the most part especially here in Ghana, would deny that queer people exist and can show their face in this sense. Some people completely refuse to engage with queer themed work if it is close to them, if they can readily tell where when and who, something color easily affords. Black and white here is meant to create a temporary disconnection.
Eric Gyamfi : See Me See You,26th, November, 2016 –28th, February, 2017, Nubuke Foundation, Accra, Ghana.