HIPUganda weekly, July 4th-10th, Clear boundaries

This week’s most popular photo posted on Facebook has a bird’s eye perspective, and an important landmark; the Owen Falls Dam. Looking at the world from other vantage points than eye hight gives other types of information about it. Both distance and proximity allows us to see other things, consider other aspects of the world than our social position in it. Distance of course creates an overview. It makes certain structures visible with the blink of an eye.

Both the birds eye perspective and the subject of the photograph ask for a blog post. I decided to go with the perspective first, and connect images of the dam from various collections to each other later this week, which also gives me a reason to share a rather curious document, that Edward Bisamunyu showed me a couple of years ago, with you today. At some point before independence Edward’s father, the late Mr. E.N. Bisamunyi was asked to translate a long call in English into Rukiga for radio broadcast.

Imagine a radio voice explaining to its listeners why they should make hedges, how those hedges would be visible from the sky and useful in quests for land titles, that are of seemingly obvious relevance. Before arriving at that point of the message, one of the challenges of photographic images is explained and countered. This challenge is the reduction of the three dimensional reality of what is photographed, into a two dimensional surface of the photographic image. The solution is a second image, that helps to make a reconstruction of the depth our brain constructs of the information given through our two eyes. The example that illustrates the challenge is not the macro scale of the landscape, but the human face:

‘I must first tell you a little about how maps are made from air photographs. As you know if you take one photograph of a man’s face, the picture looks flat – you cannot tell from the photograph whether he has a long nose or not, whereas if you see him face to face you can tell. The reason for this is that you are seeing with two eyes while the camera has only one. With each eye you see a slightly different aspect of the man’s face – when these to views are connected by your brain you can see that one part of it is further away than another. You can see in depth. Suppose now that you stood on a very high hill and looked down into a valley. Once again you could see small hills and valleys below you while if you took a photograph the landscape would appear flat.’

Two photographs will give ‘trained operators,’ enough information to work with. ‘[…] from the picture of the ground which they see [they] can produce very accurate maps. Except that this is not about accuracy, as we now soon learn if we continue to read the document, but about boundaries and ownership, and the possible recognition and documentation of that ownership by the creation of visible boundaries in the form of hedges, and of course it is also about cost efficiency.

‘If a plot has a good hedge round it [..] it can be seen clearly on the aerial photographs, and can be drawn straight onto a map without a surveyor going into the field. The Adjudication committee can then go round with the map showing each plot and can tell a surveyor who owns each piece. There is no need to put in mark-stones because the hedge is a clear boundary which cannot be easily removed. There are no disputes because when two neighbours hedge their land they mus have already come to an agreement about where their boundary is.’

‘To save yourself trouble in the work keep [the lines of the boundary] straight and have as few corners as possible. If you can by mutual agreement get your plot in one rectangular piece, so much the better.’ Both neighbours were told, by the radio voice, to place plants on their side of the border, to produce a hedge thick enough to be seen on the aerial photographs.

Straight lines in the hilly landscape. With hedges in between. Something like this, in the photo above? (From a series of photographs that is part of the archive of the Brothers of Christian instruction, made in south western Uganda.)

Straight lines is what comes to mind when I think of the Netherlands. The country I grew up in. The country that is said to not have been created by god but by men. Straight lines are not what I think of when moving around in Kigezi. Or in Kampala for that matter. While by now I now the latter better than the city I live in when in the Netherlands, it took me a long time to more or less master the routes of the roads. The experience on the ground, and the one from the sky do not seem intimately and logically connected as, for instance, is the case in Amsterdam, New York, or downtown Monrovia, where straight lines (or curved but placed in a system), resulting from the way the cities were planned and built, are indeed the guiding principles.

The map that was up at our most recent exhibition at MakArt Gallery, last March, did generate some conversation about this translation from the experience on the ground to the observation from the birds eye perspective. It was not at all easy to locate where we were, looking at it. This is different of course with a major structure such as the Owen Falls dam. There other issues emerge. Not just around the perspective of the photograph above, but around what in the past could be and in the present no longer can be photographed. More about that in the next blog post later this week.

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