I am not sure what to say. Is it the interview photos when he’s being interviewed with his cat? Is it his unique hairstyle in a time when afros were the thing? Or is it his story…?
This book is intriguing from the start. An interview with Elly about a photograph he is said to have taken of Idi Amin that ends up in Newsweek is going on. It’s dotted with him having a back and forth with his cat – Pretty.
His appearance is of a youthful old man. Cap on his head, in a jacket and with none of those thick rimmed glasses. He looks like a jolly old man with a lot of stories to tell and that’s what this book gives us. All the tricks of Elly Rwakoma.
The interview takes us into conversation about the photo he took of Idi Amin. It’s a fascinating exchange especially when he’s asked about whether Newsweek was right in wrongly captioning the Amin photo. There’s no straight answer from Elly. While he says there was nothing wrong, he also adds it was after all for publicity yet at the end the photo sadly augured what would befall the president afterwards. His answers tend to disassociate him with controversy.
And controversy is not something far from his life but it is something he doesn’t actively embrace for the sake of controversy. It’s as if it is part of him whether he acquiesces to it or not.
If there’s a phrase to describe Elly’s life from his own telling of it, it must be street smart. How he learns photography is a combination of coincidence, curiosity and persistence. A camera box his brother had thrown away as scrap is what he found interest in and learned how to use.
Learning photography, its tips and tricks was not something he learned at school. It was something he did by observation and cunning. Plus it took some determination. Elly got his initial lessons from a gentleman called Yahaya, who lived 10 miles away and was the only photographer in the area. Yahaya never “shared all the tricks” to preserve a monopoly so Elly had to observe quietly and then reproduce what he had learned on his own.
From the text in the book we learn that Elly completed his training in Mbarara by understudying an Asian who had a studio called “Singh Photographic Centre”. This is where he learned about printing, developing photos and more. He did not pay for these lessons, rather he befriended the Asian and got them free of charge.
How he starts to make money and go up the ladder is littered with tales of inventiveness and patience. However it also gives us a look into more social aspects of life in his day. How travelling to school had to be done in numbers to mitigate risks like stubborn elephants on the road. How if you missed the ferry you had to wait hours and had to endure the inconvenience of being cramped up with cars and other people as you were pushed across the river. His attitude in all this is intriguing. He asks the question during this experience “What type of education is this?”
This is interesting because education itself was not a given. His father did not take it as priority to finance his secondary school studies, and it was his brother who made it happen by selling one of his bulls. However, he made the most of it especially regards his new learned photography.
When he enrolled for teacher training he joined and led the Panchromatic Club. Elly never waited for perfect conditions to do what he loved. While at Bishop Stuart College where he was doing his teacher training, he took photos of fellow students and developed them during the night in the toilet, with his blanket. Elly did collect some money from it. It was not the best choice seeing as there was more money in farming but for Elly, having the passion plus his own camera made the difference.
It’s interesting to note what time does to institutions. YMCA was at least from Elly’s view and from music I have heard, quite vibrant and popular in the fifties and sixties. It was influential in Elly’s life, giving him access to better cameras, in this case – a Yashica single lens reflex. A little historical research shows YMCA gave its members benefits wherever they went. Today YMCA in Uganda exists, however it is known more as an academic institution awarding diplomas.
Elly Rwakoma was seconded to YMCA while working as a community development assistant in Jinja in 62/63. Despite being part of YMCA and being in charge of Busoga district, he kept on practising photography and the networks it presented gave him access into politics.
He took portraits of children, wedding couples, sports and later being noticed by the presidential team became part of what we would now call the PPU – Presidential Press Unit. He became one of the then president’s official photographers (Obote I). He says of himself “Whenever he wanted to visit places I would be called upon because my work was quick and good.” However, that is not the only president he shoots. There are photos of Amin, of Binaisa, Obote II and of a young Museveni.
Elly doesn’t look like many of the people in his shots. He seems to have taken a more carefree approach to his appearance. A non-conformist look. Sure, one or two of his portraits has the typical sideburn look of the day but not the majority. It’s hard to place him. Maybe this was the look of journalists? When he has sideburns, he has a polo neck on and white shoes…very – different. Generally speaking, the seventies version of Elly could easily fit into a youthful Ugandan now. However, if you did read Ebifananyi I, comparisons between Deo and Elly will show contrasting fashion yet they both live in the same time period.
There seems to have been a lot of exchange programs back in the day. In Ebifananyi 1 Deo Kyakulagira spends time in the UK learning photography on the behest of the government. Elly’s experience was in Russia and then Israel and later on a scholarship in the US. It was on his return from the US that he grew his business and rented a shop for his studio, Assorted Stores in Jinja, which helped him navigate the murky waters of economic trouble that would come during Amin’s time. Photos were items whose cost could not be regulated by the government, so while his other businesses didn’t do too well, his photography made certain he survived.
I couldn’t tell whether it was the style of the time or whether it was his creativity, the photos he took that had unconventional frames – layer masks – maps of countries. Or the photos which had other photos superimposed on them. I certainly haven’t seen them in other older collections at least those in HIP collections.
The subject of the conversation in the book is one he is said to have taken of Amin in a pool of which Newsweek captioned “Is Amin swimming or sinking?” While Andrea has this photograph on her mind she comes across it in the National Museum of Liberia where the caption places Amin at the Ducor Hotel. Amin in Liberia. It is as if Liberia wanted to create some ownership of Amin – as this was in the seventies, at the height of his popularity. Urban legend has it that Amin swam in the pool with his gun, it is like one of those legends we heard that Amin had a fridge full of human heads. Unfortunately this time, Elly’s photo in the museum gives the story some believability.
The photos of Binaisa at a rally in Busoga are somewhat scary. Scattered images of people on the ground, moreover a black and white picture, elicit an uneasy feeling. It was business as usual as he covered a political rally but then Elly was witness to an attempted assassination on the then President. He notes that as gunshots took over the rally, he tried to scamper to hide too but a BBC filmer rebuked him and told him to cover the events as he was a photographer and had a duty to perform. It’s a little hard to tell whether he was more traumatised by the “three bullet holes” in his trousers, the 30 people who died that day, or that local media didn’t tell the story or print his photos. Or if he was traumatised at all. In the telling, it seems business as usual.
This coverage of presidents put him at a risk. Before the Binaisa incident, after the price of beer was hiked from 50/- to 120/-, he had remarked in a bar that he would never drink beer again until Amin was no longer president. This caught the attention of the spies of the government and had he made a visit to that bar again, would have lost his life. His best man and friends who went back did not survive.
We can say that at this point Elly was no longer as okay with Amin being president as he was before, covering him as a photographer, as a friend. Maybe he falls out of love with the president because of things like his business failing, except of course he had photography to fall back on, things like that hefty increase on the price of beer, things like the murder of his best man and friends.
Maybe this is when that photo of Amin slips into the hands of Newsweek. When Elly takes flight to Nairobi, where he struggles for a while paying off corrupt policemen and is unable to practise his photography because of jealous Nairobians. When Uganda is no longer home.
This attempt on Elly Rwakoma’s life might tell us something about the kind of man Amin was. Or perhaps it explains hierarchies. Being a personal photographer to Amin didn’t mean Rwakoma was trusted by Amin. Which is the irony. Most people, he says, thought he was a spy for Amin.
When I said Elly was street smart, this was no overstatement. There is a time he ran out of chemicals and had to resort to using family urine he collected to make his “fixer”. He seemed to have had a solution for every problem regardless how inconceivable it was.
Some of the photos he captures have a youthful feel to them. It feels as though he captures the spirit of the young people of the time and puts it in a frame. Whether it is photos of young men on the street, women besides a car, boxers in training or even a young Museveni campaigning.
I think a lot of Elly’s tricks as a photographer and a person were about him managing to do what he loves to do and stay alive while at it. How he becomes a photographer, how he makes money from it, how he creates his own chemicals, how he makes a run when his life is in danger, how he survives in a foreign land unwanted by the locals and more.
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.