What is photography and why?

Gaya Morris - Senegal


October 27, 2009

Yesterday afternoon I had a very troublesome discussion with my host brother Amadou about photography. After being in Dakar for about two weeks without taking out my camera, I have only recently started to photograph, trying to do it discreetly while  just sitting around, taking spontaneous shots of random things that made interesting compositions, hoping that eventually everyone would just ignore the camera. But I have yet to feel comfortable hanging out with my camera in hand. Photographing like that has always made me feel kind of sneaky and dishonest, because the only pictures I like to take are the ones people don’t know about (after of course letting everyone pose as much as they like), but now I definitely feel that way – now that I have learned how unwanted these sorts of pictures are here.

Yesterday afternoon as my host brother Amadou was making attaya (tea) after our midday meal, he asked if he could see my pictures. Of course I was happy to show him what I thought were some pretty cool, artistic compositions. Amadou flipped through all my pictures of the past month, some taken within the house and some without, and he was horrified. In his mind the only type of photo that should be taken is a “proper photo” for which the subject is pretty, smiling, clean and perfectly centered. You probably know what I’m talking about. In his mind this is the only type of photography that should exist. Do you take pictures of “salete’ ” (dirtiness) in your country? he asked.

I tried to explain that the photos that I like to take are spontaneous ones, that capture meaningful moments from unusual angles. I even tried to explain the idea of citizen journalism – although I realize now that was probably a little irrelevant – and how the purpose of photography and art for me is to capture reality, the beauty of things that are clean and well represented, as well as the beauty of those that may be dirty and awkward.

Amadou just kept on shaking his head and clicking his tongue. He is only a twelve-year-old boy and yet he is very responsible and mature. He studies hard and corrects his sister’s homework each evening. He prays five times a day without fail. Although, like his siblings, he is very manipulative (having grown up with American students always living in the room upstairs), I value his respect very much. But whats more, I fear that the majority of the household would share his opinion on my pictures. Grandmere would be very angry if she saw your pictures, he says.

This conversation has left me very torn: between my yearning to produce art that captures memories of this stage of my journey, and the importance of respecting the wishes and values of my hosts. I wish there were some way for them to understand that I mean them no harm or criticism with my spontaneous photographs. On the contrary, I only wish to capture glimpses of the moments that will retain meaning in my memory, things that have made me smile, sigh, laugh or shake my head in wonder. Things that I will want to remember.  But I know that no matter how hard I try, I cannot make them see through the lens of my past, that turns their everyday life into something beautiful and wondrous.

Amadou demands that I delete all my photographs, and quite honestly I am considering doing just that. At the very least, I will certainly never share the pictures without their permission. I feel confused, maybe a bit ashamed, and frustrated that something so personally important, inherently good and stimulating (art!) is a cause of conflict and misunderstanding between my family and I. And I am interested, and a little worried about where I may run into differing understandings and concepts of art later on in my journey.

Gaya Morris