This review was originally published by Writivism and the Daily Monitor. Since it is no longer available elsewhere we share it here.
I have had the pleasure of watching Andrea Stultiens work. We had visited a mother of a mutual acquaintance at her 100+ year-old home in Mengo. Stultiens had photographs from old Mulago. We had learnt that the mother of our mutual acquaintance had worked as a nurse in old Mulago during the time when the photographs were taken. Stultiens hoped she would identify some of the faces in the photographs.
Stultiens showed our host the different photographs and explained her research and intentions for the images and information. Although we failed to get any names, our host was useful and valuable in other ways. Her memory was still sharp, and she was able to give Stultiens a contextual history of Mulago then, and of the move to the new Mulago. As she spoke, her great-grandchildren returned from church and she told them the stories she’d been telling us. Our attention wandered during the re-telling and we discovered very old copies of Musizi.
Stultiens – after obtaining permission – took copies of Musizi outside for the best light and took pictures of them. She told me that she was particularly interested in the advertising and what it could tell us about times in Uganda’s history. For example, what does a 1977 fashion advert tell us about life during the Amin years?
It is therefore, with great interest, that I picked the copies of History in Progress Uganda (HIPUganda)’s photography collections. History in Progress Uganda was born out of Andrea Stultien’s PhD research on photography. HIPUganda has an accompanying Facebook page where many old photographs from the Uganda archives, old newspapers and family collections have been shared. Working with photographers and their families, HIPUganda has now published select collections as books.
The first three books- The Photographer, People Poses Places and All the Tricks– have the shared authorship of the photographers and Stultiens who selects the photographs, compiles them into a story and edits the text that goes with it.
My favorite, The Photographer, is a collection from Deo Kyakulagira’s photographs. The experience of flipping the pages is like a visit to a home where the family avails you with their photo albums. Most of the photographs are self-portraits of Kyakulagira and his family through the years, with an occasional anecdote provided by the family members. In the Kyakulagira’s sitting room, with the family album in your lap, you pause at a page and listen to a story from his son. You then flip through a couple more, and pause as Eva, Kyakulagira’s wife, complements with stories even the children have not heard before. The experience is made even more intimate with Stultiens’s notes on the political context at the time, in her handwriting. This particular book, for many Ugandans, will not just transport you back to a different time, tell you of photographer Kyakulagira’s life, but will also remind you of the visits to homes and the physical albums we flipped through, before digital cameras and the internet.
The Photographer also carries photographs of a young Yoweri Museveni during state visits and rallies, but the more political collection is Elly Rwakoma’s All the Tricks, understandably, considering that Rwakoma was a presidential photographer for Milton Obote, Idi Amin and Godfrey Binaisa.
Elly Rwakoma is alive, unlike the other two photographers so his presence can be felt through the text. The collection starts with a series of recent shots, mirrored in text with transcribed conversation between Rwakoma and Stultiens. The reader is immediately pulled into the story, and we know we can trust this when Rwakoma asks “Are you recording now?” and laughs.
There is too much text in the beginning, perhaps a function of having the photographer alive to provide his story. Rwakoma tells his journey to photography, how he taught himself to use the box camera his brother brought from Jinja, sought out photographers to instruct him in the trade, and printed his pictures from the toilet of Bishop Stuart College (now Bishop Stuart University) where he photographed fellow students and discovered the toilet would make a good dark room. He talks about his life as a photographer after a scholarship to Rochester University.
One of the more interesting photos in the collection is a series from a political rally with then-president Godfrey Binaisa where there was an attempted coup. Binaisa is shown on a makeshift stage, with celebrations and crowds. Then, the images that follow show panicked crowd, an empty stage, and bodies on the ground. And then the rally continues. I went back and forth a couple of times, wondering if I had missed something. Did they just go back to the stage and continue with bodies on the ground? Later, when I asked Stultiens if she had rearranged the photographs, she said she had not.
All The Tricks has some of my favourite photographs. However, the ones that I return to continuously are those of Idi Amin. It is because of the packaging of the information where Stultiens combines the photographer’s first-hand information, the interpretation by other sources and her own anecdotes of her journey as she sieved through all the information gathered. It is in looking at the intent and thought while arranging these photographs that I remember why I enjoy, admire, and respect Stultien’s work.
We first hear about it in the first pages when she asks Rwakoma about one of the photos. The photo, showing Idi Amin in a swimming pool, appeared in Newsweek with the headline ‘Is Amin Swimming or Sinking?’ Rwakoma used to take pictures of Idi Amin because “he [Amin] liked the way I photographed him.” The series of images that show Idi Amin swimming are accompanied by a narration from Stultiens of her own journey to get the story of the photograph that appeared in Newsweek. She met the photograph in Liberia’s National Museum, in a documentary about Rwakoma’s photographer friend Mohamed Amin (referred to as Mo), and her journey to the archives of Mo’s Camerapix in Nairobi to which Rwakoma sold the original photograph. Stultiens lets us in on her process in both text and photograph, without taking away from Rwakoma’s recollection.
The packaging of these collections is a deliberate process, yet it manages to come off as uncomplicated.
People Poses Places, unlike the other two, needed a bit of theory to be fully appreciated. It is a collection of photographs from Musa Katuramu, one Stultiens said is “the best-kept photo collection I have seen in Uganda.” Stored in envelopes by his family, the collection had about 1,500 negatives, 750 half size prints, 2 albums and some enlargements. This collection feels like something is missing, which probably has something to do with the fact that Katuramu had been dead since 1986.
According to Stultiens, the missing information and context in People Poses Places is not necessarily because Katuramu is not physically present, but because of how he photographed people. She says you have to look at the photographs together because “you cannot see it in one.” Many of the photographs are portraits of people in poses recognisable from other albums elsewhere, from that time. Stultiens’ keener photographer’s eye says it is in the way that Katuramu takes the photographs. While some of the scenes are arranged with props and some guidance from the photographer, Katuramu takes the photographs in such a way that people show themselves to the camera. He does not capture the moment so much as they let him capture it.
These books, I should say, are a must-have for any Ugandan interested in both the country’s history and photography. The stories they tell are warm, rich, and oftentimes intriguing. Just like we had – and still have – albums in our homes to show to people who visited, the three little books are national albums. They show, and tell, of some of the key moments of this country, present random but typical Ugandans from our not-too-distant past in poses we have seen before, although within a context we did not fully know.
We are very happy to be able to present different views on the same books and stories as one view is only, well one view, generating the risk of claiming a certain truth. So, if you like this, please also read Joel’s thoughts: 1, 2, 3
An edited version of this article was published in Monitor’s Arts and Culture magazine towards the end of 2015.
Book can be internationally ordered through links above. Within Uganda, find (most) of them @ the Uganda Society and/or Afri Art Gallery, both in Kamwokya. We try to stock them up. Bear with us if a book is temporarily unavailable. The Photographer is, in Uganda, for now sold out.