Thursday, October 29, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘Camera and Gun,’ On a photography field trip in Nairobi with a group of Norwegian students.

Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘Camera and Gun,’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News, Yr.51, Vol. 44, 25 – 31 Mar. 2005.

The city of Nairobi. ‘Mad’ is the word Kodi Barth, owner of the Media Maverick column in the Sunday Standard newspaper (6 Mar.04) used in criticizing an announcement by the Kenyan Ministry of Information that anyone who wanted to make a film or do still photography in Kenya would have to have a license from the government. If not, they would be guilty of breaking Kenyan law CAP222.

Although this law applied primarily to filmmakers, Mr. Kodi saw it as a limitation on freedom and an attempt to control the media, especially the photos in newspapers.

I read the article on my last day before boarding a plane and saying goodbye to the city of Nairobi, so I didn’t feel too strange about the decree. Not because Kenya is governed by dictators and not because the media was being put under pressure. Quite the opposite. Kenya is more democratic than her neighbors in that part of East-Central Africa. And the media have a lot of freedom there: they fearlessly critique the government.

But, because ‘things left over from the colonial era’ which I and the art of photography students from Norway – 14 of them – saw for ourselves while doing a workshop for about 2 weeks. It made me feel no surprise about the ‘crazy’ law in that country.

The tourist guide in Kenya warned me that taking photos there remains a delicate subject. Some groups ask for money in exchange for having their photos taken (like the hill tribe people of Thailand). But some groups in the North in Thailand get angry if you photograph them, regarding photos as a way of stealing the soul. (In the past, the Thai used the YMCA as the place to practice giving reasons directly.)

But Robert Karuiki, teacher of architectural geography at Nairobi University explained in depth: “The people of Kenya have a bitter past,” he said. “The English colonizers used photographs to carry out violence against the people in Kenya society for a long time. We always feel on our guard in the presence of a camera.”

It is very interesting that, as the teacher was explaining about Kenyan’s not liking to have photographs taken, he used the word ‘brutalize’ many times. Those who did not know the history of Kenya and of Africa might have thought he was exaggerating.

I tried to imagine the past of this country with the Western colonizers, their soldiers and their guns. Certainly it would be important, essential even, to have cameras – the most recent technology at the end of the 19th century. The camera had many uses for colonizers, for example, recording scientific information in archaeology, anthropology, natural science and wildlife, and in recording the history of the people and the tribes in the colony.

The guns were a threat. The camera swept everything into photographs as witnesses to take back and use. From this point of view, photography was the stealing of the soul, really, of those photographed. What followed was the loss of rights and property ownership of the homeland when the colonizers took it. And the humiliation of being taken as goods, as slaves (though this didn’t happen in Kenya) – it is a violent history which Africans suffered for a long time.

Taking photos and shooting guns is also similar in the ‘aim and shoot’ methods. So it’s not strange that Africans who have been colonized in the past see cameras as being abusive, like guns.

The first day we arrived in Nairobi I saw a sign, “Guns and Cameras,” on Kenyata Street, in front of the hotel. I felt strange and amused: how could they sell together? Guns mean violence, but cameras mean beauty.

Four days later I went to the police station with Henning Sam, whose project was to take portraits of ‘Kenyan Policemen.’

The sergeant on duty took us to the officer in charge. Along the way, we saw many beautiful pictures. In the office where we were questioned, there were piles of yellowing documents in dusty stacks from floor to ceiling, like a wall. When you passed the thick, old, blue metal door of the detention room, you saw a small gap which allows one to look in on detainees standing in the dim light like ghosts. When you saw them, your flesh crawled. I immediately wanted to take a picture, but stopped myself because of the laws – it is illegal to take a picture of a policeman, a police station, or a government building. Doing so can result in arrest, or at least, your film can be confiscated.

The man in charge, plump in khaki uniform with his rank fully displayed smiled with white teeth in contrast to his very dark, plump, swollen, rich man’s face. Henning and I smiled to each other, a sign that this policeman would be a good subject. The director used the state bureaucracy to put us off, telling us to go and get permission to take photos from the public relations section of the police department. We went there as directed and found the officer in charge, by chance, at the door of the office. He told us to come and see him tomorrow and made us an appointment. But he was never there to speak to us, though we came on two more occasions.

“Avoidance means denial among Kenyans. What you are asking is a challenge, an attempt to destroy the wall of authority, which they don’t want to happen.” Tom Anyamba, a teacher of architecture and another person who could give reasons and explain: “ If we attribute this to corruption, we see they don’t want anyone taking pictures. They are afraid they will be photographed accepting bribes, a major problem in this country.”

Marianne Haugen, another student, saw kindergarteners learning to swim at the YMCA. She found these scenes very charming and suitable for photos. She went in and asked for permission to take pictures of the kids. She was denied permission. The teacher said she was afraid the pictures might be misused. This was not excessive for a teacher protecting her students.

This was another lesson for my students and for myself. That is, carrying a camera – as a student, a tourist or whatever, doesn’t mean you have permission to take pictures. That is something you need to have, as in Thailand and many other countries around the world.

But what happened with Stian Nielson, another male student, was quite the opposite. At first, Stian was tense and nervous about succeeding with his ‘ Street Fashion’ project, taking pictures of Nairobians in their dress in daily life. He had to talk with his subjects. He knew that Kenyans don’t like to have their pictures taken – so different from the experience he had in Bangkok the previous year.

One afternoon toward the end of the workshop, Stian decided to jump into it. When he found a pretty wall, he would talk with the people passing by and – lo and behold - he got their cooperation. They only wanted to know why he wanted to take their picture and would there be any consequences for them personally.

Seeing that the Kenyans were very sensitive to the good and bad ‘power of photographs,’ the reason was not clear as to what was the use of the crazy law which Mr. Kodi Bart opposed.
Except as part of the gathering up of rights from individuals and giving decision making power to the state.

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