The end of the beginning

There will be a moment, somewhere in the weeks to come, that the last photo in the Uganda Protectorate Public Relations Department collection will be posted to HIP’s facebook page. A good reason to briefly look back, while at the same time of course we move on, History is In Progress as ever. It all started sometime in August 2011, even thought there is a pre-history of course that I should mention. Because why would a photographer from the Netherlands have any interest in old photographs from Uganda. Well. It’s because there is so much I don’t understand. I realized this after experiencing a big culture shock when visiting a good friend who had migrated to East Africa. As a photographer I think, hope, that photographs and talking about what they show can help me and others with that. I no longer have a culture shock when in Uganda. I actually feel very at ease, if not at home now when around the equator. But photographs, making them, looking at them with others, still teach me a lot. When working on I was introduced to the man who has the Protectorate collection in his garage. Some metal drawers in a corner held brown envelopes with photographs. Some were very moldy, most a bit curled but kind of o.k. All prints were made on 8x10inch paper. They all had a stamp on the back. Most of them a number. Very few a caption. The quality of both photographs and prints was very constant. No extreme focal points, no long shutter speeds, no sign of a photographic signature at all. All was pointed towards ‘showing what things look like’ or maybe more accurate ‘showing what has been achieved’. A photograph is never neutral, and this collection made that once again more than clear. I recall the feeling of disappointment that entered my body when opening one envelope after the other and browsing through the content. It was all so colonial. Most of the photographs had such a propaganda feel to them. When I mentioned this to my host he said that ‘yes, that may be the case, but that that doesn’t make it less relevant to add a Ugandan perspective and reading to what the photographs are showing.’ This was a defining moment for me. He was right of course. I proposed to digitalize the photographs. This kept me busy for about a week (and then some to adjust, crop and number the files). And then they were in a folder on my harddisk. What good was that going to do?nThese images had to be shared. Somehow. There was no funding, but luckily I did have opportunities to be in Uganda again and discuss this idea with several people. A name was chosen. Rumanzi Canon was a great help. He also designed the logo. And I posted a few photo’s on facebook. Easy.nInterest picked up quickly. Some photo’s were given a story. People were recognised, places named. I started looking for other collections to share, first online, later (mostly) in Uganda. Luckily many people both in and outside of the country agree with me that it is important to share what is there, to be open about the past. We can learn a lot from each other.nWhen I saw that the end of the files to post in this collection was near, and I checked which photograph would be the last (of the numbered ones. I admit I am cheating a bit, will post some damaged and not numbered photo’s first), it turned out to be this one. A black man and a white man boxing. It is to me, not knowing the least of the boxing sports, unclear who just hit who, whether one of them is about to fall (if I would be forced to bet my money I would say the white man is going down). Strange. You can read a lot into this photo if you want. You can make it a symbol for colonial attitudes, for problems that have been or should be overcome. But in the end it is two sportsmen in a ring. We do not (yet) know who they are, how good they were or who won.nThis is not the last image made by the Protectorate Public Relations Department. Photographs with their stamp on the back appear in several other archives digitalized by now. The Gayaza High School archive. The Ham Mukasa Foundation archive. The department seems to have been giving images away quite generously.nHIP has only just begun. Sometimes people ask me why the website is not yet more functional (ideally it should work as a database at some point, where you can browse the digital collection by topic and keywords). Why I am not more actively trying to get more comments to the photo’s posted. Well, I am just not in a hurry. August 2011 I didn’t expect HIP to be where it is now. The number of photo’s digitalized and posted is enormous (didn’t count, feel free to do so). There already have been a few exhibitions. Efforts to get funding to professionalise all the efforts made are in progress. My passion for what I’m doing only grows with time, just like the facebook crowd, and just like the group of people in one way or another involved with HIP. I will not end this post with an endless list of names, but all those who have been of help in one way or another, who made introductions, posted comments with photo’s, opened up their own collections; Thank You. Your trust and support makes HIP possible.

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