Wim De Schamphelaere’s ‘Village Portraits’, often made out of more than 700 different shots, are printed on meters wide photographs and displayed at galleries in Europe. The photographer prides himself on returning to the (African) villages where he took those portraits — and where the first reaction usually is “to cut them up and divide the different parts among the ones portrayed”.
De Schamphelaere’s panoramas are really gorgeous, exploring the linkages of families and familiarities in close-knit communities where there is a sort of “calling out” to each other through signals sent by physical stature, facial features, clothing, ways of standing and arranging oneself. We also see that smiling for the camera, a trope that only came to be common in the West as photography became faster, and more ubiquitous (and therefore, not a solemn occasion to comport oneself for a portrait), and when one’s teeth were expensively cared for (see the gloriously irreverent A Brief History of the Smile by Angus Trumble). When there’s a slightly odd-man-out, we see that difference immediately, too, even though these are not our own people; and yet, we also see that he, too, is embraced and included (hilariously, this inclusion/exclusion reminds me of Southpark episodes).
And we also get to see a certain picturesque diversity in what and who constitutes an “African village.” It is the kind of thing one would want to have hanging above one’s settee, or in the headquarters of your NGO’s office.
For the photographer’s part, we can comprehend that he feels a wonderful connection to the people he photographs, who must bestow upon him a great deal of love. And yes, of course we understand that the people in those villages want to get copies of ‘their’ picture. They are poor, and will not have many chances to see themselves in print. And a powerful white figure from another world arrives with his magical, expensive equipment, including them in his generosity — what’s not to like?
The images are striking: quite beautiful, quite poor, quite “villager/other”. But if the purpose of making images of the other is to create intimate links of familiarity, and share with them one’s own ways of seeing self and other, why display the images in the west? If the purpose is to give the photographed people a way to see themselves as beautiful, as photographers of otherness often claim, then De Schamphelaere might think about limiting himself to giving those very subjects a copy. To display them — with all the connotations of poverty, the hovel-quality, and the dirtyness that those of us who live outside of that existence (such as a gallery-goer in Europe) will undoubtedly assign — simply reifies that otherness and difference. I’m not saying that we must all pretend that poverty, grass-hut dwelling, and otherness does not exist. Nor am I saying that it is impossible to look beyond our frames of reference and see people who are simply living their lives without National Geographic-ing them. But why display it all, and why stare at this?