Discussion at the book launch of Ebifananyi 1, The Photographer - Deo Kyakulagira

The first book in the Ebifananyi series was launched in Kampala at Makerere University Art Gallery with a panel discussion with David Tumusiime, Annette Seba and HIPUganda’s Andrea Stultiens. Towards the end of the discussion they were joined by Denis Kalyango who is Deo Kyakulagira’s son and heir. What follows is a transcript of a memorable afternoon that was only slightly edited for a more pleasant reading experience. We would like to thank Renée Rooijmans for making the transcription.


Andrea: Welcome everyone, to this small opening reception of the exhibition ‘The Photographer – Deo Kyakulagira’. Our panel is not complete, and actually a very important person is missing and that is Denis Kalyango, he was called away on an emergency and is now on his way back.

I met Denis in this gallery almost three years ago at an exhibition that accompanied the book The Kaddu Wasswa Archive. Denis approached me and said: ‘My father is a photographer and we have his collection. Can you also make a book about him.’ And I said: ‘Well I don’t know.’

But here we are, in the exhibition, with the works of his father and about his father and the little book is available in the other space. So it somehow worked. I made this book together with Denis and the family members, who told me about their father, husband. I didn’t talk to a lot of people outside of the family yet, but I think that it is important the conversations spread. Through that we learn more about Kyakulagira and about the role his photography could have; if we would write a Ugandan photo history, would he have a place in it? What is the value of his work for contemporary Ugandan photographers? Does it have even any value? Those are the kind of things I would like to talk about with David Tumusiime and Annette Ssebba. But please join in if you have questions or want to make remarks.

Welcome David and Annette and thank you very much to being willing to participate in this. Coul you start by telling us your relation to and interest in photography?


David: Thank you. Good evening. My name is David Tumusiime. I am many things, but one is off course – I am a photographer. Not much a photographer I would say – I cannot claim to be as good as I would like to be. But I’m very passionate about photography, I have been taking photo’s for about five, six years now. And off course studying photography both through exhibitions and my own research. I am also an editor and a journalist. I think I appreciated photography and its impact the most during the Walk to Work riots. Those demonstrations, riots, whatever you may call them; everybody had their own description of what happened exactly. During that period I was working at the Monitor and the photo’s I was receiving from the photographers in the field were really, really powerful. Whenever I would put up some of those photos, the reactions and the impact and response from the government really showed that an image can shape a narrative. An image can influence public opinion. So I really got a chance to see the impact of photography there and appreciate it more.


Annette: Thank you Andrea, good evening everyone [Good evening – by everyone]. My name is Annette Ssebba, I am a lecturer here in the Department of Visual Communication and Multi Media. My specialty is photography. I did photography for my Masters. I’ve been here for ten years now, teaching photography. What probably fascinated me about the exhibition most is that there are a lot of images and memories, which you pick from these images. Deo lived in a time that we grew up in, though I was not yet born. But the similarities are still existing and we’ve been discussing a lot of that with our students. What I probably would enjoy talking about would be the difficulties in which this gentlemen must have worked. Because it is similar to what I’m working with, which is black and white photography; the equipment, the materials. I think that is the most important thing I think we should really appreciate about Deo. If he could manage to work in such difficult times; you’ve had the introduction where he lived during Amin’s regime. The worrying and then the time you have to spend doing your work, I think that was tremendous.


Andrea: Is that something you see in the photographs also? 


David: Oh yes, now that she mentions the time and the circumstances. For a long time the country’s memory has kind of been wound to believe everything starts after 1996. It has kind of slipped into everyone’s consciousness, so that Uganda’s history almost begins then. But when you come to such an exhibition, and you see some of the work that History in Progress is doing; it reminds you that Ugandan people have always been here. It takes you back to childhood; it takes you back to a whole different  Uganda that we would probably forget if it was not documented. So for me, my appreciation of this work is mostly in the documentation that he did.


Andrea: But we don’t see any Walk to Work kind of thing … where do we see the problems and the trouble?


Annette: I think if you look at all, most, African photographers, there is more memories attached to the pictures then what is in the picture really. Probably when you move to South Africa, that will be different. But when you come to East Africa, West Africa and the other areas where photography was, most of the memories are in the words behind the pictures. A picture holds more memories than what maybe our generation and maybe other generations will ever see, which is very sad. This is where I think you got more information from the wife, then from the actual pictures. Because from what you’ve written in the book, there’s nothing I can see in the pictures. But the stories are very vivid and existed. 


Andrea: I think that this is a very important thing to think about particularly with photography. You say it shows so much and it engages people, but it does that often not really by showing anything, but by making us remember. Just like a smell can make you remember something.


Annette: Yes, associations and memories… We’re not going to see many Walk to Work related pictures, because I imagine the kind of camera that Deo was using. I saw the picture of the Mamiya. I had one and I couldn’t use it for more than two hours. They’re really heavy. So if you want to take that out, to run around and take pictures, then that should have been really difficult. I think also that needs to be appreciated. 


David: What is really interesting about Deo’s work is also what he decides to photograph. I remember when I was much younger, in the late ‘80’s, going to the studio was a family event. It was something that the entire family planned for, budgeted for, dressed up for. So any photo that was taken had to have (as Annette says) a lot of meaning. When you look at the photographs, you can see the kind of life that Kyakulagira was aspiring too have, for him and his family. And sometimes the life that they were actually living, I mean you can see that he was someone who was very career focused. At least from the photo’s I have had access to. When you see these photo’s, the history we have is that everyone was running around in the 1970’s for their dear life, and life was sort of just surviving. But when you come to this exhibition, it, at least for me, opens my mind. Do I really know what life was like in the ‘70s after all? I mean this is a man who is in a suit, he is working in a fairly modern looking laboratory, at that time. So it makes me wonder; what do I really know about the Uganda of my parents? It is very interesting for me in that respect.


Annette: What is really surprising is that many of these pictures are made up with women, maybe we can also discuss that. There are fewer men apart from him. Maybe we could also throw some light on what was happening in that time. Why there are more women in the studios.


Andrea: He was mainly a studio photographer. I never thought about this. Do you have an explanation for why there are more women?


Annette: I don’t know… It is a question we could put forward. Some of the pictures are just family parties and get-togethers, which is something that is still happening. We take many pictures at these occasions. But when it comes to studio, even today, I think that more women are going to the studios. Which is something we could discuss.


David: From a photographer’s point of view, any photographer would find it more interesting to photograph women because women obviously have a greater variety of how they dress, how they try to look. If you see the photographs of Kyakulagira throughout the exhibition, he is suit-tie, suit-tie. But the women, their hairstyles change, the dresses change, the types of dresses they’re wearing change.

Maybe he was simply expressing his pride in the women that were in his family. It seems like it was a very close and neat family. It’s the women who kept the family together and going, whenever he had to be on the run or be arrested or troubled. For what I have read in the text, he used to travel from Masaka to Kampala and then to Entebbe. In the seventies that was quite a journey. It was not something like one and a half hour; that was something that would mean he’d be away from the family for a long time. I would imagine as a photographer he was probably also expressing his appreciation of the women in his life.


Andrea: We are using this word ‘photographer’ and of course it is also the title of this exhibition ‘The Photographer’. Annette, would you say you are training photographers? The people who followed your class, could they call themselves ‘a photographer’?


Annette: Yes and no; photography has taken on another dimension because of the new technologies. When you look at people like Deo, every picture was a precise calculation. That is nothing compared to the modern camera’s where you shoot and delete and you do everything you want to the picture. Every picture had to mean something, which is very different from now. Not to mention the technical input. Today we have more cameras where the technical input is already inbuilt in a box, unlike the camera’s Deo used to use. The photographer had to have the technique himself.

He had to sell his pictures. If you don’t look good, you usually don’t buy the picture. He had to make sure to make a picture his clients could be happy about.


Andrea: What would now be the most, according to you both, important quality a photographer needs to have here? You say now a lot of the technique is solved in the camera, you don’t need to necessarily know the technique to make a good photograph. What do you need to be able to be a good photographer in Uganda?


David: Isn’t it about being at the right place at the right time to get a really great photo?


Andrea: Well, not as a studio photographer.. Aren’t you describing a specific type of photography, a photojournalist maybe?


David: Off course technique never goes away. That’s especially important for studio photographers who go out of the studio to take photo’s at weddings. Then you actually have to have the skill to understand the light and things like that. As a photographer you have to be smarter than your camera. But that never changes that you have to know which moments to photograph, especially when you are taking photographs for other people, not for yourself, not for your own pleasure. So many people complain that wedding photographers are in a hurry, that they do not take photographs that capture the event, as how people who were at the event remember it. You still have to have that concern for the subjects you are photographing. 

I also think that you actually have to know your subjects, at least a little bit. It seems, from what I have read on Kyakulagira’s life, most of the clients became friends, with time. That shows that they must have had a connection with him, which is why he was able to take photos they wanted to keep. Which probably explains why the photo’s he is left with in his archive are mostly family photos. Because the other photo’s obviously went to the people who commissioned them.


Andrea: The family does have quite a number of studio photographs that were commissioned, but you won’t find them in the book because they are still protective of their customers. We looked at the photographs and I would say ‘I would like to use this one, and I’d like to use this one’, but I could only use those that the family was comfortable with. There were wedding photographs, for instance, of couples who now split up… you know, life continues. I’m very glad they were that considerate about the photographs. With this book or this exhibition we do not want to embarrass anyone.


David: I hope the people who come to the exhibition and walk around to see the photographs appreciate how much skill Deo had. Especially compared to some of the photos that were taken by his sons and nephew; the political photographs. The photographs of the president, you can see there is a difference in quality and focus. I found this difference very interesting.


Andrea: I think that difference has several reasons. One is that it is more reportage. Another thing is that the circumstances in the mid-eighties, when these photographs were made posed a big challenge; there was no proper chemistry. Meaning that the films were not fully developed and not all colours were there. That is why they look pink and green, that’s not poor printing quality or lack of skill.


David: Which really makes the way to survive all the more remarkable. 


Annette: To stress on what David was saying about the technical element. There’s a saying that you can trust a good photographer with a bad camera, and you can’t trust bad photographer with a good camera. To take a good photograph you have to be a good photographer. These things go hand in hand. When you look at Deo’s self-portraits, someone was asking how was he able to take these. Cameras have got self-timers; this has been there for a very long time. You can set it, you go and pose and take your own picture. There is that photographer, who took thousands of self-portraits in his studio. I think all night he would stay in his studio taking self-poses [Samuel Fosso?]. When you look at what Deo did, the self-portraits could have been marking a time in his life.

And then we have that element of the African photography where we document everything that happens in our lives. You buy a new radio, you take a picture; you buy a new tv, you take a picture; your brother is born, you take a picture. In many families that is how we kept our calendars. Someone would ask you ‘How old is your first son?’ – ‘Seventeen, ok that is seventeen years ago when we did this and this, and the plantation did that.’ That is how we kept our calendars. Otherwise most of the times the pictures, like we’ve already said, came at an occasion that was going to be remarkable.


Andrea: Then you need a person who is able to read that calendar. Without someone saying ‘oh that was then’, the calendar looses its value.


Annette: There is a picture of Deo’s son, I think it is Dennis, in the shoes. We had that habit that used to go in families that when you outgrew your shoes you pass them on to someone else. So when we were discussing these pictures, we were like ‘Is this Dennis, is this the same boy who was at the monument or is this someone else?’ We discovered this was a brother who followed him, though the shoes look the same. 


Andrea: These are things that I didn’t notice… I think a main reason  why we are sitting here now and the book to exist, is because Deo took those self-portraits in the dark rooms. I’m a photographer so I was interested in those and felt I needed to do something with them.


Annette: A darkroom has two lights, there’s the red light which is totally seen dark, and then you have total darkness when you’re developing films, that is black and white, and then you have white light, if you want to move around or check what you’ve cleaned; if you wanted to pick things from those old big dryers.


Andrea: You read completely different things in the photographs. 


David: Speaking of the pride Deo had of his work  in the dark rooms, there’s something that comes to mind now that I had not thought about before. The fact that the photographer did not always have a good reputation, which is why Deo ended up in trouble quite a number of times with some of the husbands of the women who’s photo’s he took, who were thinking he was having affairs with them. At some point when I was growing up I remember, that was the common myth around the neighbourhood. Once the husband goes to work and the photographer comes around through the neighbourhood, he does more than take photographs. So there was that reputation around photographers that was not always fair.


Andrea: They would produce all sorts of likenesses.


[the crowd goes wild]


David: That is something now connected to boda boda drivers have, you know. They spread more than just… themselves.

The photo’s Deo took tried to show that he had pride in his work and he thought that being a photographer was a dignified profession. I think the way he dresses and the poses he makes in those photos show that he was trying to elevate the profession and that he was trying to show it can be as serious as being a doctor.


Andrea: I would like to take a some questions from the audience. 


EdwardI don’t know if it’s just a question, or more an expression of opinion. I’m Ugandan, coming back after 45+ years, I left Uganda when I was 13. I photographed Idi Amin when I was about 12 years old, no problem. But now it’s hard to carry my camera around, because I get arrested or ran after by soldiers with guns saying ‘Why are you photographing our mall?’. I’m not even photographing their mall, I’m photographing from their mall across a valley looking at the other side, which land doesn’t belong to them. What happened in Uganda that’s led to the suppression of our collective memory that this exhibition tries to contribute to?


CanonI’ll start as the one answering because I have been arrested. Several times. At some point I was annoyed, but then I realised that what happened did not happen in Uganda. It happened in the world we live in. It’s this age of terror and the age of accessibility. You can take a photograph, of the president, or of an industry. Let’s leave the power sections, because they’re troublesome. For example, we’ve got [in the HIPUganda collections] some photographs of a boy fishing, from Owen’s Fall Dam. But today, to go to Owen’s Fall and try to photograph, it would not happen. But when you look at it; you could be an innocent Ugandan photographer, you may post it to your Facebook wall, Al-Shabaab is sniffing around ‘Oh there it is – OH the guards post is just there – oh there’s a bush there – ah we could start.’ Then they look around for more of those photographs. What happens tomorrow? Everyone drowns.


David: Honestly, I can’t answer when we became this frightened of photographs. 


Andrea: But it’s not only about being frightened, because it’s not always and all the time, and sometimes you just have to help the security guards to a cup of tea.


David: I think it’s not just about the photographers only. Ugandan society has always been a society of rules. That seems to be the default mode. When you ask ‘Can I take a photograph’, the first answer you usually get is ‘No’. I think it has always been that way, for almost everything. Even just to go into a public library and say ‘Can I read a book?’. A librarian will not even think about it and say no.


Annette: We’ve done a little research; we’ve had difficulties with taking pictures outside of campus. When you go to take a picture these days, people expect you to pay them. They know you’re going to publish these pictures and assume that you’re going to make big money out of it. And if you’re going to make big money with it, then I as well can come up with something…


J: You seem to have concentrated on Deo and his family, and the studio. Did you ever come across pictures of other prominent families that you will work on? 


Andrea: Actually, on the HIPU website and Facebook-page, there is a lot more. I think the most prominent family collection is the Ham Mukasa Foundation collection, that we are still working on.  In subsequent books that I am planning to make, other photographers and other collections will be featured, that will show very different types of photographers. I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘a photographer’. There are many different types of photographers and many different types of photography. That’s I think something important to think about. I hope, as more materials become available, we can also continue the discussion and focus on other specific issues over time. Like, photojournalism and documentary stories, where the photographers have a specific intention to documenting something. With Deo’s book and exhibition it is his practice we want to show, and the variety within the practice.


Mr Mayanje: Apart from his life, family life and the workplace photography, did he document something about the politics of the time?


Denis [who arrived in the mean time]: Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Denis Kalyango Kyakulagira, the heir of the photographer, who has gathered us tonight. That questions I’ll answer straight away. This professional photographer took quite a number of photographs, before the 1960’s. So we have one of the biggest archives in Uganda, including exactly what mr. Mayanje, a prominent economist, is asking. We do have a big archive that includes the politics of this country. All the changes that you’ve been seen in all the eight presidents till to date. He died in 2000, but by that time he’d taken quite a number of photographs. So yes, our professional celebrity photographer here has accessed some part of the archive, but we still have a long way to go. That means we do have another exhibition, maybe when we talk about the Bush War 1986. Before 1986 when president Museveni had started the war. We do have all of that, but you can’t just overnight create an exhibition of everything. But we give you our word, that we shall call you upon you distinguished guests for another exhibition.


Andrea: I think we shouldn’t waste more time away from the snacks and drinks. Dennis is here and I’m sure he’s happy to answer more questions. Thank you all very much for coming, we’re also here if you want to discuss something in relation to the photographs. Enjoy the exhibition.


Thursday, May 8th, 2014.

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