What else can a photograph be?

by Jackie Karuti


In a conversation with Bob Nickas for Interview magazine, Nikas comments on Wolfgang Tillmans’s work by saying that it seeks to answer the basic question, [1]What else can a photograph be? This question also describes the thoughts I had when I first encountered Tillmans’s work. Taking it as a starting point, I will first frame it by referencing work by several Kenyan artists whose approach towards working through lens-based media seeks to address this question.


In his series [2]Undefined Constructions, James Muriuki observes a city whose architectural landscape is rapidly changing. Buildings under construction soar while swathed in brown tarp and multi-level scaffolding. The increase in seemingly misplaced high-rise buildings in Nairobi interrupts a skyline that is also scarred with brutalist, colonial era and Kikuyu-Gothic[3] architecture. In this regard, Muriukis work presents a reading of the city by questioning how sites of construction were determined and what purposes they might have served in the past.


I am also reminded of [4]VALUE, 2015 by Tahir Karmali. This work presents a series of provocative images documenting Nairobis male sex workers. Each subject is photographed with his most treasured possession leaving the viewer to perceive the objects value through the subject. VALUE is not simply a cataloging of those in the sex industry, but an active force in articulating, shaping, and contesting their value within the public sphere.


Lastly, there is [5]Naijographia, A play on travelling time & place, 2017 by Jepkorir Rose, Bethuel Muthee and Mbuthia Maina. We drift using Nairobi as a document bearing personal and collective memories, Jepkorir says. Their drifting is documented by both Muthee and Mbuthia through a series of hazy images featured in the text-based catalogue. There are photographs of buildings, trees, a section of the railway-station, a herd of cows feasting on garbage, petrified wood and piles of stones set up in strategic spots where vendors and hawkers trade their wares. The trio relates these small altars to an active act of performance where rituals and transactions occur. It is a collective labor of both love and necessity that lies in the building and rebuilding of these temporary structures. In his text, Naijografia, Muthee begins and ends by asking, [6]Uko Wapi? or Where are you? He further states,


To read a city is to assume the blankness upon which what is legible is written. It is to assume that a city begins as a void, a barren space, a suspended innocent space waiting for the inscription of culture and history in order to become the narrative of place.


Within the artworks mentioned above, Nairobi becomes a site where layered histories, truths and meanings are interrogated, thus giving chance to the idea of re-thinking the image. Tillmans gladly rejects the idea of being boxed within the confines of a photographer. He describes his process as making pictures. He is not interested in individual readings of his work but rather in constructing networks through images with layered meanings capable of reflecting the complexity of the subject. In my own practice, I have come to embrace this fragmented way of seeing by admonishing a singular definition of who I am as an artist and by extension as a human being.


What else can a photograph be?


One of the earliest uses of photography in Kenya was the documentation of the Kenyan population, land and wild animals by the British colonialists. A huge chunk of these records is housed at the Kenya National Archives. A popular search topic at the KNA is on the Mau reparations and the Maasai land treaty; an agreement through which the British colonial government acquired Maasai lands for settler development. The British also accorded more respect to wildlife that inhabited these lands over the Maasai and subsequently parks and reserves were created without their consent, pushing them further out of their homes. In the Greek mythology of [7]Iphegenia, a story is told of a kings son who killed a sacred deer on his way to war. This senseless act of violence later set off a series of unfortunate events. An unexpected yet common sight in Nairobi is that of Maasai herders crossing busy highways and penetrating the inner city with herds of cows grazing on the few chunks of grass yet to be dried up by the scorching sun. Its always a sad sight if you encounter this because it means there is drought where they came from and as pastoralists, they are conditioned to move in search of greener pastures with their cattle or else they will not survive. A reverence has always been bestowed upon the Maasai and their animals. If you are driving and the cows happen to be crossing the street, you are not to hoot or try and rush the herd. They have the right of way.


Finding animals in unexpected places directs me to one of Tillmans’s most iconic photograph; Deer Hirsch, 1995. Tillmans demystifies this photograph by stating,


[8]This photograph for example, is a good illustration of this correlation of chance and control. What looks like a heavily staged photograph has actually been a chance encounter on a beach in Long Island, where there happen to be wild Deer. We were feeding our food to the greedy Deer [laughs] and, then, when nothing was left, Jochen was gesticulating that theres nothing left in his hands. I saw that and just said: hold it! I just rewound the situation by one second, and took this photograph of an attempted communication between animal and human.


Sometime last year I came across a striking Tintype photograph online of a black woman holding a deer. It was captioned as [9]A young Kenyan woman holds her pet deer in Mombasa. This image first came to light around 2013 when National Geographic released archives to celebrate their 125th Anniversary. There are disputes as to whether she was even Kenyan, whether that was a deer and not a Dik-dik and whether the photograph was indeed taken in Mombasa. The location is sometimes listed as Zanzibar. The photograph was taken in March 1909 and is credited to Underwood & Underwood, a stereographic distributing company founded in 1818 by the brothers, Elmer & Elias Underwood. The identity of the woman in the photograph is still relatively unknown, the markings on her face making her even more mysterious. Through the perusal of aforementioned archives, we can perhaps discover her identity or trace the circumstances that led to this picture being taken and how she came to own a deer.


Coincidentally, this image of woman and deer as companions would later be mirrored by Nickolas Muray’s photograph of Frida Khalo with her pet deer, Granizo around 1939 and Bob Willoughby’s photograph, Audrey Hepburn with Ip in the supermarket, 1958. Some of the earliest images captured as works of Art were women and children. They were almost always under the title Mother and Child and depicted the nurturing figure of the mother cradling, lying or standing beside the child. This common depiction of women as caretakers is hereby given new meaning in this captured moment between woman and animal making it both refreshing and enchanting.


What else can a photograph be?


It is February 2nd 2018 and I am among millions of people whose eyes are glued to the sky or in my case a screen, waiting to witness the live launch of Falcon Heavy, the biggest rocket yet. The main attraction, A car is on board, about to be catapulted into deep space for an indefinite fantastic voyage.


The image is startling, incongruous, barmy. The Guardian reported.


[10]A car floats in space. At the wheel is a spacesuit, seatbelt on. Earth hangs behind it. The two objects dont work together. The image jars like bad Photoshop. But it is realIt is human folly and genius rolled into one, a picture that sums up 2018 so far. Life on Earth feels precarious, so we look to the stars.


Stargazing and anxieties about life, especially the future, are particularly scoffed at because such theories and thoughts are dismissed as escapist and can only manifest as dreams or works of fiction. It reminds me of a line in the film Adaptation; Life seemed to be filled with things that were just like the ghost orchid. Wonderful to imagine and easy to fall in love with but a little fantastic, fleeting and out of reach. Tillmansts passion for Astronomy began when he was very young. [11]There was something that I found deeply comforting about it all. I was always an inquiring boy, but I remember that with the stars, with this encounter with infinity, with this connection to something larger, I had a sense of not being lonely. This is well captured in the making of the Venus transit photographs. His ESO series, 2012 explore the work of the European Southern Observatorys telescopes at Cerro Paranal in Chile where he turns scientific data and imagery into works of art.


I have been fascinated with such fantastic journeys in my own work as well. There are worlds out there they never told you about, 2016-2017 is a collection of drawings, video and installations portraying a vast and vague world seemingly set in space where a black man wanders in search of home. The sparse terrain is often times littered with crows, ladders, watchtowers, satellites, fences and a sense of chaos and transmission looms. Space is alive. Entertaining the idea of an alternative world is less about occupying physical space and more about imagining a society where one is free. Unfortunately distant lands have and still are prime targets for colonization under the guise of exploration and discovery. Even in an imagined world, home and freedom are elusive. However, this allows for alternative ways of thinking about the self and community where our prejudices and biases are called into question.


What else can a photograph be?


Embracing the offerings of nightlife and club culture as a way of liberating oneself brings me to my last reading of Tillmans’s work. His fascination with a myriad of other art forms and the auteurs leading the way has led him to photograph famous music icons such as Kelela, Lady Gaga and Frank Ocean. When the long anticipated [12]Blonde by Frank Ocean came out in August 2016, I was undertaking a residency in London and that album became my summer soundtrack. The tracks White Ferrari and Nikes particularly still transport me. Tillmans’s photograph of Ocean, green haired and dripping water for his Blonde album cover is one of musics greatest visuals for it compliments both their art and status especially in the queer community. In his visual album, Endless, Ocean even samples one of Tillmans’s tracks, Device Control. It is believed Tillmans once took Ocean to Berlins most exclusive nightclub, Berghain, a hardcore venue for Electronic Dance Music (EDM) where anything goes and whose walls are adorned by Tillmanss photographs. Berghain is not just a nightclub though. It is a site of resistance. A space for them that have arrived at beauty when people still call it madness.


Tillmans had already been documenting youth culture through party scenes much earlier. His photograph Morning, 2009 gives us entry to the aftermath of a party while After Party, 2002 shows two mirrors propped beside a wall creating an imaginary time portal that might suddenly play back everything that was reflected upon those mirrors. In his work, [13]In Search of, 2015, Johannesburg based photographer Musa Nxumalo brilliantly captures the daily life and partying of South African youth in his own journey towards self-discovery. A few miles back home and you are bound to encounter similar scenes. A Berghain-esque night out in Nairobi might be a hard find but it is not non-existent if you are keen to search.


Tillmans affirms, Only when you are aware of how tragic life can be, can you also enjoy the depth of a party through the night. The global video channel Nowness describes him as one of the foremost artists working today to explore what it means to be human with his work extending to his definite love for people and community. When discussing his approach to making portraits, the curator N’Goné Fall aptly describes the photograph Anders pulling splinter from his foot, 2004 as a magical moment. There is a connection, a level of trust and intimacy that allows Tillmans to capture such a tender moment. It is a breaking down of the resistance in another human being to create magic.


I will conclude by echoing Ulises Carrins rich manifest, The New Art of Making Books:


[14]New Arts language is radically different from daily language. It neglects intentions and utility, and returns to itself, it investigates itself, looking for forms, for series of forms that give birth to, couple with, unfold into, space-time sequences.


Tillmans’ oeuvre presents the studio as a place for curiosity, oddities, experiments, failure and play. It is therefore imperative that we as artists give our work the status of a sacred deer and approach the making of it as one does in a lab or space station, where ideas are explored, tested, launched, projected or dispersed into the universe. That might perhaps answer our question, What else can a photograph be?




[1] Wolfgang Tillmans Interview with Bob Nickas for Interview magazine, published September 7, 2011

[2]Undefined Constructions, 2012, James Muriuki in the exhibition, Making Africa, a continent of contemporary design. Vitra Design Museum & Guggenheim Bilbao

[3] Kikuyu-Gothic. A term referring to residential houses in Nairobi that follow a similar plan in design and dcor. They feature a variety of faux-interiors & furnishings bordering on kitsch whose purpose is purely for aesthetics rather than functional. They are representative of the drab trappings of middle-class life

[4] VALUE, 2015 Tahir Karmali.. Solo exhibition, Kuona Trust, Nairobi

[5] Naijographia, A play on travelling time & place, 2017. Jepkorir Rose, Bethuel Muthee & Mbuthia Maina. Goethe Institut-Nairobi

[6] Uko Wapi? means where are you? translated from Kiswahili

[7] In the myth, as made famous by Euripides and Racine, the sacred deer is killed by Agamemnon, causing offence to the goddess Artemis and necessitating the sacrifice of the kings daughter Iphigenia

[8] Wolfgang Tillmans and His (Almost) All Consuming Eye, July 24, 2015, American Suburb X

[9] Unearthed Photographs from National Geographics Archive. By Allison Meier, Hyperallergic, August 11 2014

[10] SpaceX oddity: how Elon Musk sent a car towards Mars. By Bonnie Mulkin, The Guardian, February 7 2018

[11] Wolfgang Tillmans In conversation with Allie Biswas. The Brooklyn Rail, July 11 2016

[12] Blonde is the second studio album by American singer Frank Ocean. It was released on August 20, 2016

[13] In Search of,2015, Musa Nxumalo. Solo exhibition, Goethe Institut, Johannesburg

[14] The New Art of Making Books, Ulises Carrin, 1975


*This essay was published on the occasion of the travelling exhibition, FRAGILE by Wolfgang Tillmans, 2018. It appears in the Nairobi edition catalogue*