Reposing the Past (@SMACK)

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Almost a year ago we soft launched Ebifananyi 6 at St. Mary’s College Kisubi, the place the photographs in the book originate from. The school’s students showed a lot of interest in the book and the photographs presented. One of them, Daniel Omara, proposed to put his interest into action. Omara is not only a student but also a poet and the deputy editor in chief of the annual school magazine The Eagle.

This blog post grows between May 24th and early June 2017. Each addition discusses a photograph from the past and a photograph made by HIPUganda’s Canon Griffin, of a setting organised by Daniel Omara. He tells you about the making of the photographs. In addition I give the pictures context from the wider collection as I got to know it by digitising it, and, where appropriate from the field of photography in an international perspective.

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June 7th – How to handle a missing bugle (The Scout Band Member)

For this photo our aim was to have Francis Ocaka, a 2016 Senior 5 student, to play the role of a scouts-band member at a camp setting since he undoubtably emerged as our best model. We easily sourced the scouts uniform from Ntende Edgar, the President of SMACK Scouts Club 2015-2016. The musical instrument seen in the old photo was unfortunately not accessible, so we had to improvice with one from the SMACK Cherubin choir room. We had the chance of creating a Scouts Camp setting using a make-shift tent but that would have taken us a lot more time on the project than we had available to us.

Canon then suggested that we work around the school sports ground and see how we could improvise further. With this we managed to capture this repose.

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When I submitted the photos to the Magazine design team, they opted to omit this altogether. I only assume that the too much improvisation would take away rather than add to the concept we wanted to share with the readers under this HISTORY IN PROGRESS @ SMACK 110 article. In other words, I assumed they appreciated the efforts we’d made in the other eight photos and possibly felt this particular photo would dim our light.

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While the consideration to leave this repose out from the pictures printed in The Eagle is understandable following Daniel’s reasoning, it also leads to one of the core questions that surround the work HIPUganda does; Is digitising and sharing historical photographs about what is there, or is it actually about what is not there? And how can what is there help us to also be aware of what is not, what is in danger of being forgotten. Is it a bad thing to forget or is it useful? And what if things you want to forget are remembered by others? What power do they then gain over you?

These are question that have been asked and pondered upon by many, but that are of course never conclusively answered. HIP will keep working its way around them. For now I leave you with  a photograph in the collection of negatives made by Dr. Schofield that is part of the collection of the Africana section of Makerere’s main library that the photograph in the collection of the Brothers of Christian instruction reminded me of.

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June 4th: A rowdy bunch of teenagers

When it comes to complexity, this photo emerged as the most tasking to recreate. The old photo shows a typical Senior 4 class of SMACK, which means that it is a class of rowdy and hyperactive teenagers. How to mold them to hold a seemingly random pose based on a captured moment from the past?

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Our hopes lay in the fact that we were recreating this photo from the same classroom it was taken from. We had one of the S4 Arts Class 2016 students redraw a comic white-chalk cartoon character on the right blackboard as observed in the old photo.

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Our challenge was to make sure every model (all 2016 S4 students) put on the right facial expression and the right body language. The stray hands on the left end of the photo were also considered. When we had confronted this challenge to the best of our ability, we were proud of the product. No wonder Canon considered this his best photo.

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June 1st – The School Bus and HM’s Car

The behind-the scenes moments of this photo’s recreation was most memorable to me, and I suppose to the rest of the students who witnessed them.

We sought permission from the Headteacher; Brother Aganyira Deodati, to have the new school bus and his official car (a Toyota Mark II 2000 Model) availed to us. But the headteacher got an impromptu appointment in Kampala that necessitated him going with the car. Therefore Bro Agonyira had Mr. Ssemwogerere, the school bus driver, deliver only the school bus to our agreed site, the assembly ground. While we were still discussing options on how to compromise with only the bus availed to us, we saw the headteacher’s car coming, with Mr. Ssemwogerere on the wheels. They were welcomed by the applause of the students watching the scene with great interest.

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Mr. Semwogerere said Brother Headteacher thought twice about it and opted to go for his appointment using the brother’s Noah van. This particularly gave me an unimaginable vote of confidence and made me happy too.

As we had already designed, Otafiire Nkashaba, Kidulu Nathan, Gobba Solomon, Ocan John Ben and I were the model students posing by the Headteacher’s car. As a compromise, the bus was reversely parked to allow the school’s name to be seen as it was in the photo.

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There were debates about the exact location where these two vehicles were parked. A Many possibilities emerged we agreed to ignore that circumstance altogether. And anyway, it could have been a field trip the students had gone for. Who knows?

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In a repost of the old photo of the bus on Facebook one of the boys posing with the school bus in the 1970s was identified as Makerere University Vice-Chancellor John Ddumbu Ssentamu. This post and identification led to a string of comments, among which references to the school band The Skylarks and asks for photos of that band. 

 

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The call for photographs of The Skylarks is only one of many of this type of question that HIPUganda receives. These requests show how little we have, despite the thousands and thousands of photographs that have gone through our hands and have been made available. It may also be a sign of what was and what was not considered to be worthwhile to photograph by those who could. And, lastly there is also the chance that there actually is a photograph of the band, somewhere among our files, but that we do not know it, we do not recognise it, just like we had no idea there was an important Ugandan economist and banker posing with the bus.

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May 30th – Safe Swimming

This photo was a subject of unconcluded debate while seeking to establish where the old photo was taken from. Kisubi Brother Beach emerged as the most possible suggestion. Compromise was employed and we unanimously agreed to consider the current college swimming pool as our replica site. This pool officially opened on 27th October 2013.

Consensus was easily reached to have Aine Keith (left), Nkashaba Otafire (Centre) and Mwange Denis (Right) because of their resemblance to the students in the old photo.

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Alex, the pool caretaker, helped us to secured acces to the pool area during a Saturday midmorning lesson time. We got their recreation neatly done while paying attention to the shadows on the water and the attitude of the students plus their posture. The background features were, because of our choice of location, an area we had no control over.

While Daniel points out the attention that was given to the shadows on the water it is clear that lake water and swimming pool water have other qualities when photographed. In the black and white photographs there are reflections rather than shadows thanks to the sandy lakeshore. Where there appear to be six boys with only upper bodies in the old photograph, the legs of the students photographed last year are optically transformed into some sort of swimming device. 

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Brother Ernest Paquet worked with the Brothers of Christian Instruction for decades after the second world war. In his memoirs I found a description of the pool:

“We had a swimming club – whose members practiced often at Nnabinonya, our vacation camp on the shore of Lake Victoria, where a swimming enclosure made of flimsy reeds kept the crocodiles out and the schoolboys in. This friendly arrangement with the giant reptiles was still respected by both species many years later when the reed fence had decayed into insubstantial tatters.” (p33)

I hope the arrangement has lasted, and the swimmers at Nabinonya Beach enjoy their peace as the SMACK students do in the school swimming pool. 

 

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May 29th – The (state of the) Art Room

To recreate this photo, our first challenge was to identify a student whose physique most closely resembled the student or staff member seen at work in the old photo. The second challenge was to identify and position the work of art in the foreground and in the background.

Unlike the second challenge, the first one was quite easy to fulfill; we identified one Okot Ben, a 2016 S6 student of Physics, Chemistry and Biology whose physique we credited as suitable.

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Assuming that the works of art in the old photo were works of students too, we decided to use the works of art of the art students as of 2017 in our setup. With this done, Canon was ready to take the photo. Working with this photo meant for us acknowledging that the modules of teaching art at the college had dynamically changed over the years, as the two photos may suggest. The Art Department in the earlier years possibly engaged the students in more practical hands-on tasks contrary to these later years when the art room is described by colour drawings made by oil pastels on brown art paper as students assignment on imaginative composition.

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The young man who is posing in the old photograph in what Daniel read as ‘The Art Room’ is not a student. It would also not be right to simply call him a staff member. It is Brother Anthony Kyemwa, an artist who would, in 1969, become SMACK’s first Ugandan Head Master. He is praised in this role for instance in a blogpost written by old boy William Kituuka Kiwanuka: “I will never forget the parental care of Brother Anthony Kyemwa former Headmaster of St. Mary’s College Kisubi (SMC). Kyemwa saw the school through very difficult time in the 70’s. The school had no fence but trust the Brother, he was in control.”

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Brother Kyemwa studied art with Margaret Trowell at Makerere College. Examples of his work can be found in the semi public spaces of the Brothers of Christian Instruction in Kisubi. There may be a connection between the rather well utilised art room in which ‘colour drawings’ are made and Brother Kyemwa’s education. In any case, the former Head Master who was also an artist can be seen in the photograph today’s addition starts with among his own sculptures and not those of students.

The majority of the photographs Daniel chose to work with for his reposes come from Brother Anthony’s personal collection.

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Above top: Left to right, Denis Kalyango, Brother Anthony Kyemwa, Brother Kiza, Canon Griffin in 2012 / Above bottom: Brother Anthony with and speaking about one of his albums.

 

HIPUganda’s first visit to SMACK was the result of a repeated suggestion by Denis Kalyango, son and heir of Deo Kyakulagira (see Ebifananyi 1). While he was never a student of the school, his father did have a studio not far from the school in the late 1960s and early 70s. Denis was aware of the rich history of the school and assumed that there had to be some sort of photo collection that would be of interest. We were introduced to the late Brother Kiza, who was in charge of the archive room of the brothers, and to Brother Anthony. While Brother Kiza knew hardly anything about most of the photographs under his care, Brother Anthony was full of stories that made pictures come to life and sometimes brought the malleability of images to the forefront of attention. An example is the photograph of the portrait he made of one of the French founders of the order of the Brothers of Christian Instruction. Brother Anthony told us he tried to make him look Ugandan…

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May 28th – The Ngeye Clan

The models (all S-6 students 2016) for this photograph made commendable efforts to pose with great likeliness to their counterparts in the old photo. This was after we did our best to identify them guided by our principle requirements of physique and social appearance.

For this photo, we also took advantage of the African palm tree next to the assembly ground in order to draw resemblance to the one seen in the background of the old photo apparently having students belonging to the ‘Ngeye Clan.’

Starting with the coat-wearing student at the centre of the photo, we positioned the rest of our models outwards till we were convinced to take the photo.

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Not long after the photoshoot at SMACK I had a chat with Canon. He said he was not sure whether the outcome was any good. Daniel had been putting a lot of emphasis on the likenesses (ebifananyi) of the students. He had carefully selected fellow students who appeared to look like the boys posing decades ago. And that, Canon understood, was not what this was about for me. The school itself, the structures in which the students operate, conventions that stayed the same or developed; classrooms, uniforms, hairdos. In this case there are, for instance, the shorts that have been replaced by full length trousers. Why? When?

This is one example of the things I hoped the photographs would make visible, questions they would raise. Questions that would, precisely because raised as part of a playful visual approach communicate to both audiences familiar with St. Mary’s College Kisubi, and audiences who were not.

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Once Canon sent me the photographs he made I was pleasantly surprised. It did not look as though Daniel’s focus had stood in the way of the objectives Canon and I had. It actually added something to them. Another engagement with what the photographs had to offer, another approach to the individuality of the students pictured. An approach in which the individual does matter (Daniel made sure to name and position the people who posed for him in the text he sent me) but the similarities in appearance to a rather random other individual matters more.

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May 27th – The Biology Laboratory

This was a photo recreated under great compromise. The building in the photo was and still is the school Biology laboratory. However, the side of the building from which the old photo was taken is now covered by plant species that would render it unrecognisable if we were to insist on taking our new photo from that very side. In fact, the student in the old photo stood on the spot that now has the college’s agriculture laboratory facility. Fortunately, the opposite side of the biology laboratory provided us a better opportunity.

After compromising to this effect, we identified Masengere Henry, a 2016 S6 student of Mathematics, Economics and Geography, as our near-perfect model. By paying attention to our model’s posture and ignoring the physical and structural differences in the left plank of the photo, we captured the new photo.

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‘The Bicycle’ (further down in this post) and ‘The Biology Laboratory’ are the only two reposed photographs that find their origin in one of the negatives we encountered in the archive room of the Brothers of Christian Instruction in Kisubi. The late Brother Kiza was in charge of the room at the time. He was rather protective of the albums and photographs under his care. And he did not share my excitement when quite a number of black and white, mostly 6×9(cm), negatives showed up in a box mostly filled with photographic prints.

To my surprise he gave me permission to take the negatives with me to the Netherlands for digitisation. This may have to do with the fact that the pictures that could be made from the negatives were not accessible to him (or others) as they were, and that therefore the negatives as objects did not have any value for him. To me they were a treasure.

Below you see some of the negatives, digitised in this case by photographing them on a light-box and then inverting the negative in photoshop into a positive picture. With this way of reproducing the materiality of the negatives as objects is preserved a bit more than in scans; they curl up a bit, the edges that sometimes got exposed to light a bit are visible. The reproductions were printed and displayed as part of an exhibition in Switzerland that took place in the second half of 2016. The photo of ‘The Bicycle’ at the biology laboratory is among them.

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May 26th – The Bicycle

This photo was of all the photographs chosen the easiest to setup for the repose. First, Wandera Trevor, a 2016 S6 student of Mathematics, Economics and Geography, was identified as best model in place of the student in the old photo who was fortunately standing in front of the A’level wing of the Biology laboratory which was still intact by the time of our photoshoot. 

Our outstanding challenge was therefore to source a bicycle which (by the Headteacher’s permission) we managed to get from one of the workers at the Kitchen Department. I pushed the bicycle across the college central compound to the Biology laboratory, washed of the mud and dung before assembling the setup.

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After multiple attempts with different camera lenses, Canon considered this our best attempt. The fact that the bicycle we got was older than that in the old photo and that we covered its seat with a black polyethylene bag instead of a white one was negligible. The flower vessel having no plant life as in the old photo was also left out.

 

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This was not only the easiest of the chosen photos to remake, it was also the only one that is actually published in the book this whole adventure started with. It is part of the opening sequence that visually tells the story of a group of Brother of Christian instruction traveling to Uganda. First they are on a boat, then the take a train. Once in Kisubi they meet their students, one of whom brings them to the biology lab that plays such an important part in the book. This whole section is not printed in black and white, which usually means black ink on white paper, but in white and black inks on brown paper. The effect of this way of printing is that the photographs do not give themselves away too easily. The viewer may not be quite sure what is seen, a negative? A positive? This mode of printing resulted in pictures that obstruct the view on the past, which is exactly what a lot of ‘history’ does by fixing it to certain ‘facts’. 

 

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While for all the other reposes print outs of the chosen photographs were made, in this case a copy of Ebifananyi 6 was used…

What was the ‘colour’ of the polyethylene bag in that black and white negative again?

 

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May 24th – introduction and afterthought

The remaking of photographs that Omara proposed was known to me as re-photography. One artist in the genre who continues to impress me is American photographer Mark Klett. In the late 1970s he, together with several colleagues, set up the ‘rephotographic Survey Project’. He revisited sites that were photographed about a century earlier when photographers were surveying the American west. Klett and Co. found the places on the photographs and developed a method to calculate the almost exact position in which the camera should have been. They minded the light and tried to make their photograph during the same time of the days as their colleagues in the past. In the late 1990s another round of work resulted in the ‘Third View’ project. This time not only the direct scene was (re)photographed, but also the condition in which views were made. This led to poetic freedoms that do not only make direct comparisons possible but also trigger imagination, as is the case in ‘Yosemite in Time’. 

Below: a re-photograph from Mark Klett’s ‘rephotographic Survey Project‘  “LEFT: Timothy O’Sullivan, Green River Buttes, 1872 RIGHT: Mark Klett and Gordon Bushaw for the Rephotographic Survey Project, Castle Rock, Green River, WY, 1979″

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However, Omara speaks in his descriptions of the making of the photographs not about ‘re-photographs’ but of ‘reposes.’ It is, for him, then not the photograph that was remade. Instead it is the pose on the photograph that was ‘re-staged.’ This re-staging has also been done by others. Sometimes (usually well known) existing photographs are directly restaged, sometimes existing ‘images’ are referred to or recalled more loosely. A well known example that comes to mind and that does both is Samuel Fosso’s ‘African Spirits’. You may immediately recognise the people below, but they are all Fosso. By making these ‘self portraits’ he could make us reconsider what we think we know about these famous people, and how we know it, what role their likenesses as they reach us in photographs play.

Below: From top left to bottom right, The Artist as Kwame Nkrumah, Angela DavisHaile Selassi, John Carlos. All from ‘African Spirits’, 2008

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In the additions to this post you’ll find the SMACK remakes and may see elements  from Klett and Fosso’s work and approaches return… 

Below: most of the remakes that will be discussed as they appear in the SMACK school magazine ‘The Eagle’, 2017.

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