Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A white person in a black land

Photographer wants to break cliché image of Africa
by Philip Smet*

A series of photographs taken in Ghana has won Viviane Sassen the Prix de Rome, a Dutch award for artists aged 35 or under. Viviane Sassen wants her pictures to break the cliché image of Africa. But even though her heart is in Africa, she does not want to leave Europe, where she works as a photographer for glossy magazines and fashion houses.
"Africa is almost a mirror to me. I encounter myself when I'm there. This is of course because of my childhood there. These were crucial years, which gave me my first memories," Viviane Sassen says. The photographer lived in Kenya until the age of five.
"It is all very familiar, being there is a bit like coming home. Even though I am also an outsider, a white person in a black land"

She first returned to the continent as an adult and travelled to South Africa, but did not recognise the sounds and the smells, the people from her earliest childhood years until she visited the townships.
"I discovered an energy there which I was unable to find in the white South Africa. I went back there every spare moment I had."
In Cape Town she simply photographed what she saw. Later, during travels to East Africa, she cautiously started staging photographs and during her latest trip to West Africa, to Ghana, she staged many more. She asks a lot from the people whose photographs she takes. "It means I have to explain why, to make sure my intentions are well understood"

"In creating their work, every artist or photographer also partly creates a self portrait," Viviane says. But she also wants to achieve something with her African photographs. She believes that the Western image of Africa is too limited.
"It often focuses on hunger and drought, in black and white, printed on coarse-grained paper. Or on nature and primitive tribes. Their worn-out Nikes are kept out of the picture because they do not match our romantic images of 'the savage'. This is completely different from the image of Africa that I have."
Viviane Sassen hopes her pictures will make people think and help differentiate the prevailing cliché image of Africa.

A striking feature of her work is the many faces that are in shade. This is intentional. Viviane says she wants to "stand the idea on its head that you believe you know someone when you see their face."
She says that allowing a shadow to fall on the faces of Africans so often is "almost a political statement. World power is in the hands of white men. Those who are least visible, are African women. That's where my fascination began." She also refers to an archetype by Carl Jung, who said that shadow stands for that which is repressed or denied.

"I don't care about money or awards, I care about recognising beauty, to capture and record it." Viviane Sassen wants to travel and work more in Africa. In addition, she wants to continue working assignments, for instance in fashion photography.
"I want to see and experience what it is like for a Westerner to integrate on the African continent, but I don't want to miss out on Europe. It is part of my heritage. I want to combine black and white."
In photograpy, a combination of black and white always means grey, but in this case Viviane thinks differently. "No, not grey, no," she smiles.

* RNW translation (gsh)

1 comment:

Persephone said...

I love these. Thank you for finding them and sharing them.