We @ HIPUganda were very impressed by a review of one of the books in the Ebifananyi series. It was commissioned by the organisers of Writivism literary festival 2016 and written by Joel Ntwatwa, a.k.a. Nevender. Now that the whole Ebifananyi series is done, we asked Nevender to review all the books. These reviews, as well as letters written by Andrea Stultiens, who made the books, will be published here in the following months.
Nevender’s reviews are illustrated by photographs of the book in question, presented by Andrea Stultiens.
The first of Andrea Stultiens’ series of photo books is about a photographer – Deo Kyakulagira. One whose images capture a peculiar time in the history of Uganda -from during the age of Idi Amin, to the current times, the 2000s.
It is a biographical work; stemming from the initiative of one of his sons, Denis Kalyango, and it takes us through photos and testimonies that share history layered in not just a personal and family context but a political, social and work context.
Deo’s photographs from the onset display his life’s vocation. However, they do not start at the beginning of his life. The opening sequence shows him in a photographic lab, working. His gaze is one of total concentration. It seems to show a man for whom when it came to work, it was time to be as serious as one could get. It also suggests that perhaps the beginning of Deo’s life was photography.
The other time there’s a clear satisfied look on his face is when he takes his first portrait in his new suit and adorns the pose of Kabaka Muteesa II. The photo surprisingly is still clear to this day given that there are some other portraits of him that are faded or seem crumpled beyond recognition.
The intertwined stories bring context and perspective into the black and white photos. These, given from different people in his life, like that of his wife and his sons. In the telling of the stories one can notice the sore political life at the time, where the minutest thing could attract the ire of those in the ruling class -those in the army, and those with ties to the government. The blurb at the back of the book records
“Do you know the movie The Pianist? My dad was a photographer. He was just like the man in the movie. His camera, his passion, saved him. Several times.”
His portraits get him into a lot of trouble. What I find interesting in this is that these were not photos highlighting social ills or political misbehaviour or something that would greatly put a man in power at unease. No. The kind of photos that got him into trouble proved that there was a time in Uganda when those in power were literally teeming with insatiability for control. Those in power either had a lot of insecurity or just wanted to show they had power.
For example, the plot on his life because he captured a very beautiful portrait of a wife of a captain in the army, was for lack of words, petty. The attempts at framing, planting evidence just to get him to pay for that showed the wider state of those in power at the time.
Those who hunt him down somehow eventually became clients but not before putting him through some rough times.
Deo made a lot of photos about his family. Of his children while infants. Of his wife. One can notice that perhaps because of his craft as a photographer, they are not always in the setting of a studio as many family photos of the time were. Some are captured outside a room. It was an advantage the work brought him. The very astonishing one is where he is with his wife and I discover, eight children. In the solo photos, one cannot know how many, in this one, perhaps you get the feel he was very much a classical Muganda who believed in the importance of posterity.
There is an interesting revelation in his story. History has it that when Amin expelled the Asians, their businesses were given out freely to lucky Ugandans to take over. We don’t hear much of the detail. In the story of how Deo obtains Central Art Studio, one of Kampala’s long standing photo studios, we learn one had to make an offer/bid for these businesses. This is how Deo gains ownership of the studio. There is an interesting image of the studio with the image of Amin in the background seemingly gazing over the business. It asks questions. It makes me wonder, did the people who were apolitical live a normal life. Were they aware that they lived in a murderous regime or was it life as usual for them as it is for us now?
Next to his commercial photography, Deo works for the government in the late 60’s. In his photos for the ministry of Agriculture, there is only order. Photos of maize brands, bougainvillea, beans properly lined up and labelled, a nursery of pines in Kigezi show some order and an unawareness of the political. It is this government work that gets him an opportunity to go to UK and study. His second gig with the government is different because he is now capturing medical images, something that seems to have an effect on him.
It is uncanny that the photographer ends up on the anti-government side by the end of the 70s. What we do not know is whether his personal experiences could have influenced this or it was a general state of things. For a photographer like him to actively get involved in civil disobedience, or in this case, rebellion, there must have been a reason. Was it his experience at Mulago where his wife says he saw “terrible things”? Was it the 1979 burning down of his studio by Tanzanian soldiers? Although this would not make sense.
And still, by the time Museveni came into power, his involvement in resistance was not in his craft, photography, although his son and nephew did shoot images of early rallies and state visits. His part was providing supplies. The question then is, when did this man, who worked for the government two times become politically averse – could it be the encounters in his craft with the people in Amin’s government?
The photos of the early rallies are in some sort of sepia tone (it is said due to availability of only poor quality chemicals at the time), a change from the 70’s blacks and whites. As they progress into the 90s, and subsequent 2000s, they take on a clearer colour signifying a change in the times. Family portraits remain being made but changing with the colour.
There are photos captured twice. One in black and white, the other in colour. For example his photographic equipment looks alive in black and white with him operating it. Later it is captured alone. Presumably overtaken by the times. Another of one of his sons outside the independence monument near the then “Standard Bank”, quiet, focused. The other, of presumably his sons near the monument again, but this time with a focus also on the environment, richer, more alive, with more people on the streets and yes, near the now Standard Chartered bank.
Some portraits are as clear as light, some smudged with the effect of time. Perhaps history isn’t a clear story to all involved in it.
He was clearly a family man, the family and home photos are as many as they come but inasmuch as they show they never really tell more than the presence of these people in history. Some history hides.
In a time where photography is point and touch located in people’s relationships with their smart phones, stories and photos of men like Deo Kyakulagira might soon be forgotten. The book doesn’t touch too much on the technicalities of his craft just that this was the craft that got him through a changing nation, saved his life several times and has been passed on to others who will keep history stored in physical pages rather than the digital.
Reviews and letters published on this blog accompany the first exhibition presenting all the collections the Ebifananyi books are based on. The show takes place in Belgium, at the Photo Museum in Antwerp.
A presentation in Uganda will follow, from end of April 2018, at the Uganda Museum in Kampala. Exact dates to be announced.