Confronting the weapon of photography

Maaza Mengiste

The imperial legacy of the camera and the narrative power of words and images.

Image credit Maaza Mengiste.

Interview by
Zachary Rosen

With the establishment of the practice of photography in the 1830s, those who controlled that dark image-making machine—the camera—and its photographs, inherited the imperial claim of monopoly on truth and history. And yet, as the political theorist of photography, Ariella Azoulay, elucidates, the event of photography involves more than just the photographer and the camera; rather, those photographed, and later the spectators of images, also figure into the

Weizero Abebech Cherkos Addis Ababa, 1935. Image credit Maaza Mengiste.

social meanings forged by the shutter’s verdict. This more comprehensive conceptualization of photographic images, and the histories in which they are embedded, uncenters and unsettles the photographer’s gaze, opening up space for alternative histories, memories and stories.

It is with this sense of unsettling the European history of conflict in mind, that Maaza Mengiste’s acclaimed second novel, The Shadow King, confronts the Second Italo-Ethiopian War of the late 1930s. Rather than fixating merely on the war’s most prominent events and depictions, Mengiste transcends the traditional historic frame of the battlefield by exposing readers to the intimacy of her characters’ lives, each with their different vantages to invasion. In the unfolding of the story, she draws from the shadows struggles of both the everyday and the extraordinary, waged on the fronts of class, religion, gender, the body and photography.

To shed light on the deeply textured specter of photography in The Shadow King, which intersects in myriad ways with these other themes, Mengiste generously spoke to us about the imperial legacy of the camera, modes of resisting the colonial gaze, differences in the narrative power of words and images, and her new image-oriented archive initiative—Project 3541.


ZR

Photography is one of the threads that is woven throughout the storytelling of The Shadow King. There is a character who uses a camera, though the allusions to the histories and philosophies of photography are very textured and expansive in the story beyond any single character. Did you plan for photography to be a key element when you began writing, or did it emerge along the way?

MM

I have to think about that. This final version of the published book was not the draft that I had initially written; I got rid of that one. And in that draft there was really nothing about photographs and photography. Once I started thinking about this Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-41, and the relationships that were developing over the course of those five years or so in Ethiopia, I started thinking about the use of photography as a weapon of war by the Italians and by most colonial forces and imperialist regimes. I’d been writing about photography already. For nearly a decade, I had been collecting photographs that Italians took in Ethiopia. At the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing. This was even before I was writing; I was not a writer, I was just interested in this. I was collecting these photographs, not knowing but looking, thinking, “Oh these are beautiful. This is nice, oh, this is not so nice.”

At some point, when I was in Rome doing my research, I became really invested in the photographic history of this war and started diligently collecting the photographs, not clear at that point, still, what I wanted to do with them. It was helping me to look at history through a different lens. No pun intended. I was looking at the intimate aspects of the war, not the big battles, but trying to figure out through these photographs the intimate connections that war forced on groups of people. So when I had that first draft, I had those photographs, and I was looking at them to rewrite history, but not as history. But once I got rid of that initial draft and started thinking, well I can do anything, what would I like to do? I went back to these images and started considering them as their own versions of history; they are preserved memories, but what exactly did they preserve and what were they trying to force us to overlook or forget? Along with the choral voices in the book, the use of photographs became for me another way to upend what we assume history is, and it was enjoyable, but also really insightful. It helped flesh out details of moments and characters for me that just a straightforward narrative wouldn’t have done.

ZR

You’ve spoken about how history books are told from certain perspectives, the photographic frame has limitations of what is inside, what is not inside, who is holding the camera, what their intentions are. The narrative of the writing then becomes a way of going beyond the frame, can you speak more to that process of going beyond?

MM

I think the photographs were a way to go beyond the frame. It also forced some questions on me about the identity of the photographer. And if we imagine the photographs that are taken—the cameras are no longer these big bulky things, they’re handheld—these are not taken by photojournalists or professionals, these are soldiers who are leaving Italy for the first time. For some of them, it’s the first time that they’ve left their small town. These soldiers were there for an African adventure. They were promised a quick easy war. They were promised women as trophies. You get the land, but you can also get the women. And they bring this camera. I started thinking about how they wanted to shape the memories that they brought back with them, because the photographs as candid as they were, were very calculated in terms of who got to see what—“when I bring this back home, this set I’ll show my friends, this set I’ll show my family”—these memories were curated. I started looking at the photographs like that. As tools for remembrance, but also tools for amnesia, for erasures.

Ethiopian Army. Image credit Maaza Mengiste.

Writing about them in the book really enabled me to look in new ways. I’m aware that I have a character Ettore, and he has a camera, and I’m looking at the photographs as part of a conversation that this photographer is having with himself. Something that moves beyond the ground that he’s standing on, and is also going to extend back home. It’s the part of him he wants to take back—this thing that has contact with the exotic, the erotic. Back home, the photographer takes on some of the exotic nature of the photographs. He’s heralded as something different from others in his town, heroic, and in some way as unknowable as those he’s captured on film. These photographs really reflect back on the image maker, and I found that this thinking helped develop the story. It helped me understand a lot more about all of these images that we’ve taken for granted—that I took for granted, even as I was collecting them. Saying, “Well this is a beautiful picture,” but actually when you look at a picture of a warrior who is proud with a shield and his spear, and he looks dignified, it doesn’t look like a negative or stereotypical photograph at all. Until you realize the photographer and the man should be enemies. Then, the fact that the photographer is still alive says something about his power and not the person who is being photographed. It’s a photograph of domination.

ZR

This book reveals how a central legacy of the camera is as a technology of imperialism. In the story you describe how the Italian forces document their work as evidence of occupation and justification for colonization; how a photographer shoots, captures and steals moments, brings people into focus for their subjugation, how typographies are imagined from photographic prints. With such a burdensome heritage referenced, has the process of writing this book made you consider if photography is irredeemable, or whether it can be valuable as a creative form?

MM

I think that in the photography world, within the world of photojournalists, we see a clear lack of photographers who are from the places that are being reported on. We see this all the time, most of the photographers are white, they’re male, young photojournalists who are enrolling in journalism schools and imagine this adventure; they’re enamored with the danger of being a photojournalist and going into a war-torn country. That way of thinking is a form of imperialistic ambition. It is war-like in its desire to “conquer” to make knowable what seems remote, unknown, exotic. You still see it now.

Recently there was a well-known photojournalist who was advertising for a photo workshop that was going to be online in the coming days but the image that he used was of a young woman in India who was a sex-worker. In the photo, a man is on top of her, it’s in the middle of the sex, you see her face—the blankness—she’s somewhere else and disturbed. And the camera is looking down at this woman. Her face is not covered. Every voyeuristic aspect is at play in that image. This is something that’s used to advertise a workshop. And I’m thinking, what is being advertised here? What’s happening here? I asked the photographer these questions and the image has since been taken down. On Twitter, somebody named Ritesh Uttamchandani—a photographer from India—said, “I went into the brothels also to photograph and this is what I did.” And it was brilliant. He photographed from the bed up to the ceiling. So, you get the room, you get what this girl might be looking at, and he said from that vantage point, he was able to see baby photographs, a family, there was a whole world that opened up. It puts you in the position of the person who is there. This makes me think about the ways that photography is done now, and how it has always been done. The power dynamics are skewed, and unless we’re able to see ourselves in the person that we’re pointing a camera at, unless we recognize or seek to recognize some part of us in the images we make, what we’re doing is projecting people’s experiences as fascinations or curiosities or metaphors or lessons in living. And we’re still outside.

I made a very deliberate decision not to put photographs in the book. There are two, the bookends. Writing the word-images inside book was my way of thinking about how to move beyond “bearing witness”—where the witness is always outside and bearing the burden of witnessing—and the act of looking is an unwieldy responsibility that’s put on that person, and it’s not a natural thing, it’s a weight. I’ve been questioning for a long time how to eliminate that. The photograph is a weapon, it’s a sign of power and it’s still being turned on people. Those who are looking are not the ones bearing anything. It is those depicted in the frame who hold the balance of the weight. How do we honor that, respectfully, and see ourselves in every image we make?

ZR

Has your interrogation of the way photography transforms people affected how you take photographs, especially those of people?

MM

I take film and I will shoot and I’ll have rolls of film piled up for three or four years. Eventually, I don’t know what they are, I forget. I keep shooting and then periodically I get a whole bunch of rolls and I send them to my developer and then they come back and it’s always interesting because I don’t know where or when some of the rolls were taken. If photographs are a form of erasure, then perhaps I’m also trying to understand what remains there, preserved, when certain markers no longer exist. In looking at them I try to understand my eye, what is it that I’m looking at? What is it that I’ve always seen? I put mostly portraits up on Instagram and that really tends to be the thing that attracts me. I’m interested in the face and I’m interested in what the face reveals. Photography is something to take me away from writing, from that place that’s continually worded and seeking more words. It’s a good way not to think of writing but I realized I’m always thinking about narrative when I’m looking at the camera. Something very interesting happens when you’ve got your eye behind that viewfinder and you’re focusing—here’s another world that starts to exist within that, and in that way it’s a lot like writing. I’m trying to develop my eye, because that’s the same eye I use as a writer. And the camera is my tool.

ZR

You’ve spoken about how some core characters seem to have emerged from archival photos you encountered in your research. How did your interactions with these archival images translate into characters in the story? Did the photographs speak to you?

MM

I had these photographs before I was writing the book and some of them I had framed. As I was writing, I realized they were helping me envision some of my characters. Then, somewhere along the way, I dug into the photographs of Italian babies I’d collected from the early 1900s. I didn’t know why I had searched for them, years ago, and I don’t know who they were, but I was having trouble developing the Italian Colonel in the story, Carlo Fucelli. I decided to consider him as a baby. So, I put “his” baby picture up at my desk and used that to understand his evolution into the man he became. I describe a photo that Ettore has of his parents on their wedding day. I have that photo, I have a photo of a couple. I had been trying to find a way to describe the character Hirut in my head to myself, and I started looking through my photographs and as soon as I came to one particular photo, I knew I had it. I said, that’s her. The V-neck dress I’d been describing, the scar that the dress can hide, that was in the photo, and that’s who she is. I have a photograph that could be Aster, I envisioned this woman in a cape and I had the photograph in my collection. I had done the description—who knows if I had looked at those photos much earlier and they had stuck with me, but they definitely helped me envision an attitude, not a look, but an attitude. When I was writing my Italian characters, if I could not imagine these soldiers as little boys, it was going to be really hard to develop them as complex human beings with both cruelties and vulnerabilities.

ZR

The book contains several types of interludes, including a form called “Photo,” where “word-images” describe pictures without displaying any visuals. How did you envision the function of these fragmented texts? Some of the passages are almost shaped and sequenced like small photographic prints.

MM

The overarching narrative is that those are ostensibly the photographs that Hirut is looking through when she opens the box in the story, and it’s in chronological order so as each photograph is encountered it unfolds into another part of the war and into the story. The thing that I wanted to make happen within those images was movement; to try and imagine the moments before and the moments after, which is what a photograph will often eliminate for us. It simplifies a moment. I’ve been really inspired by one of my favorite paintings—Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson.” You have in that painting medical students who are around a corpse and there’s a doctor in the middle; everybody’s looking in different directions but the doctor is pointing at something and his hand is up. I’ve stared at that for so long, moving from the gazes of the students, to the body, to the doctor, to his hand. At some point I realized he’s pointing to the muscle on the corpse that his hand illustrates, and what he’s doing is mimicking the movement of that muscle and pointing at that. So, this painting is caught mid-act; the doctor’s hand is just a flick of muscle and movement, paused by the painter. It is really a lesson that is in motion and this is not about the corpse, it’s about life, it’s about the hand that’s moving. The anatomy of the living. This way of looking, of moving past what is most obvious to those revelatory details in a frame … that has stuck with me ever since I’ve seen that painting.

John Berger writes about this painting, and he writes about its connection to Che Guevara’s assassination photograph, and the eerie coincidental posing of both of these—the way that also in Che’s assassination photograph there are all these soldiers standing around his corpse, looking in different directions while a superior is pointing at the corpse. And again, the lesson is not about death, it’s about the life that’s going to happen beyond that image. Beyond Che’s death. Beyond a revolution that they believe has now failed. I have found it really fascinating to look at those two—the painting and the photograph—as a way to understand the malleability of history, or memory.

Both of these images are on one level about death, but they’re also about who is looking, who is pointing, who is moving and who cannot move. That was the idea that I wanted to translate into the book’s word-images. Who is moving and who cannot move? You think this is about dying, but it’s actually about the person who’s alive and in power. There are levels and layers of looking. When you have that word-image, there’s the reader and then there’s also history that we have to read through to get to the core of what was really being made or taken in that photograph.

ZR

There are some incredible moments of resistance to photography in The Shadow King, in which gazes withdraw or accuse the camera, relationships and senses transcend the photographic frame, and quaking bodies defy the limits of the shutter. Can you speak to why you described these disruptions to image making?

MM

It started from just looking at these photographs and paying attention to what people are actually doing even as they’re standing straight and looking at the camera. If we assume there are really no voiceless people, there are really just people we don’t know how to hear, then my task is to observe what it is they’re telling me that I couldn’t see at first glance. And what I started noticing could be things like just a gesture of the hand, a clenched fist, toes that had been curled inward when that’s not necessarily a natural stance, that blurred movement, the look away, those quick gestures that would happen, the refusal to smile, all of those were small acts of defiance. They’re muted, but they were there if I only knew how to look and that was part of what I was really working on, how to look closer at them, how to listen to them. There are always tell-tale clues, always in these photographs. I wanted to bring that to life, to return to people their due respect for what they did, their acts of bravery.

ZR

Who are the image makers who have most shaped how you think about photography and treat its practice in writing?

MM

Diana Matar, for starters. She has one book out called Evidence and another on the way where she considers what still echoes, invisible but present, in places where state-sanctioned violence took place. She visits those places after the fact and photographs them. She’s really considering the question of what remains? She’s looking at the erasures, but also the memories that still linger in those sites, of those lost lives after a disappearance or after an atrocity. In Evidence, she goes to Libya and looks at locations of Ghadaffi’s executions and where people were disappeared. She then photographs them. Those images are a silent testament to what’s now absent, but also an acknowledgement that, in the looking, something is replaced, affirmed. I was in Brussels before this whole thing kicked in with the virus, and she had an exhibit connected to a new book, My America. In it she traveled across the United States photographing sites of police violence against marginalized people in society. The walls of the gallery were filled with these photographs, with the names of the dead, their ages, the date of death, locations… these are astounding memorials, and acts of remembrance. I look at her work as another way to consider the power of photography, but also the necessity of remembering even if there’s no visible trace of what was once there.

Along those lines, I’m indebted to the work of an Argentine photographer by the name of Gustavo Germano. The first time I looked at his photographs, they stopped me in my tracks. He works from childhood photographs of people who had been disappeared by the Argentine dirty wars. For example, in a photo, two brothers are running down a hill and they’re young, maybe 10 years old. One of them eventually, years later, was disappeared by the military. Germano photographs the surviving brother on the same hill and captures the same run and then puts those photographs together. You see, very starkly, the absence of that other sibling, the absence of so many memories that make up a life.

Image credit Maaza Mengiste.

Speaking of these disappearances, there’s a wonderful Chinese photographer named Zhang Dali who has published a photobook called A Second History. He considers the propaganda photographs that were printed in the news during the Mao Tse Tung era. He is looking at the manipulation of photos as a way to revise history and collective memory. He shows you what was printed in a newspaper and what was actually the real photograph. It’s fascinating, the way people who were out of favor with Mao Tse Tung were erased, and how, if the size of crowds didn’t reflect on him positively, those were added. People were shifted around, rearranged, or just eliminated. When you see those, it’s a reminder of how flexible truth is, of how fragile history, and memory, and collective memory, and fact are. If you can’t see it, how do you know it actually exists? This is a question I thought about in my book.

The work of those photographers from Africa, who were photographing the post-colonial era right when different parts of Africa were basically shrugging off Western powers. Malick Sidibe is the most obvious one, but there’s Jean Depara, there are so many more. The life that’s in those photographs I find really exciting and inspiring. Aida Muluneh, Nader Adem, Malin Fezehai, Martha Tadesse—photographers from Ethiopia and Eritrea—are doing some incredible, innovative, sensitive work, but there are so many more that are coming up. They’ve got the cameras in their hands, they just need the assignments. They need representation and to get these agencies to call them and say, “You’re there already, can you do the work?” There’s Mulugeta Ayene, an Ethiopian, who just won the 2020 World Press Photo competition. His photography surrounding the Boeing crash in Ethiopia is both epic and intimate. It’s evidence of what happens when the photographer knows the culture, knows how to see and sees himself in every image made. It’s good to see some of those photographers getting recognition, but more needs to happen.

ZR

For some time you’ve posted archival photos on Instagram connected to your research for The Shadow King, and now this collection is the foundation of a digital photo archive called Project 3541, which is described “as an act of reclamation” in its intimate assembly of images connected to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia from 1935-41. How do you envision the impact and growth of this project?

MM

This project is a community effort in how to speak about and understand a moment in global history. This history is not just Ethiopian, it’s not just East African. It involves Italians, it involves the British, it involves people who were part of the British colonial forces from India and different places, who remember their family members who went to Ethiopia. I’m looking for some of those photographs. I would like the site to be a hub for this history—for stories. I’m well aware that most East Africans did not have access to cameras, and that the photographs they may have had from that period might have been taken by an Italian. I also have a page up, which is “Memories Without Faces,” where I’m asking people to contribute whatever memories they have. Inspiration for that page came from someone saying to me, “My great uncle was taken to this prison and the last place he was seen was here. There’s no picture but how can I find out more?” I’ve had an Italian say, “I know my grandfather had a child by an Ethiopian woman, maybe you can help me find this person.” And I know there are stories that are not about seeking, but acknowledging, reclaiming, and this can happen without a photograph, too. I’m really excited about this project because this book, The Shadow King, completely changed my life in a way that the first book did not. This book introduced me to a different culture, a different language, but also really introduced me to different aspects of my own history. I don’t think it’s over yet, the book is done, but this thing is not over and I think the photographs are the vehicle to moving it forward.

Further Reading

Cameras and the Indian Ocean

In 1883, the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, commissioned a camera obscura room in the tower of his new palace, the House of Wonders. Royal family members were early enthusiasts and collectors of photographs, part of …

Escaping categorization

Ethiopian photographer Michael Tsegaye doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Neither does he want his country to be. So his art actively works against that.