“Researching the history of Ugandan photojournalism”, a guest post by Anna Kućma
The Uganda Press Photo Award is a photography competition and initiative for Ugandan photographers and photojournalists, which brings their work and profession to the public’s attention and also creates training and networking opportunities. Its second edition had its final event – the prize giving and the winning photographs exhibition opening- in October this year at Makerere Art Gallery in Kampala.
Great photojournalism isn’t just about jobs and prizes though- it is also a visual record of history’s passage. While preparing the program for this year’s edition and developing the curatorial idea behind the exhibition I became immersed in the history of photojournalism in Uganda, and three months before the exhibition opening I decided that the show would include a historical section as a tribute to the photographers who risked their lives daily during times of great uncertainty. The pictures they took over the years are almost invisible as many archives were destroyed or lost, few written documents survive and the names and images are fading from memory as time passes.
Many Ugandan photographers confess to not knowing very much about the industry’s history in their own country. This may be because most images, particularly from the pre-NRM period (National Resistance Movement, the ruling party in Uganda since 1986), were stored in the archive of the Ministry of Information’s photographic unit, which was destroyed in the beginning of 1990s. The Vision Group bought some of the negatives and photographs, but most of them are forever gone. Moreover for many news stories the undeveloped films or unprinted negatives were smuggled out of the country and published abroad. Furthermore in domestic publications, as well as internationally, photographers were also seldom credited.
The first person I met during my brief research was Henry Bongyereirwe, a photographer and a lecturer of photojournalism in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University. In his collection Henry had ten medium format negatives that he saved from the Ministry of Information’s Photography Unit archive before its destruction. Among the negatives was a portrait is of Basil Bataringaya, Minister of Internal Affairs, who was killed by Idi Amin’s regime. The rest of the negatives come from the same time period and show Idi Amin inspecting military barracks and meeting soldiers. It’s a glimpse into the press’s function as mouthpiece and makeup artist to the regime, painting pictures of smiling faces and military strength during a time when the choice between truth and survival was very stark. Not surprisingly the author of the photographs is unknown. For presentation the negatives were scanned, enlarged, inverted and displayed as a sticker mounted on a large lightbox. The backlight allowed me to preserve the original look and feel of the medium format negatives whilst enabling people to see the details and faces hidden in the scratched, damaged surfaces.
Henry directed me toward Joseph Ouma, who learned photography in Uganda before undertaking professional training in Germany at the Bonn Press House between 1971 and 1972. Upon his return to Uganda in 1972, he started to work in the photographic section of the Ministry of Information, and was the chief photographer and head of the photographic unit from 1995 until 2000. Mr. Ouma was a great source of historic background on how life was as a working photographer in the 1970s and 1980s. In an interview he recalled bygone days before the coming of Amin when Kampala was well stocked with photographic equipment, and the photography supply company Agfa funded the scholarship that he received to study in Germany. He still has two of his original cameras that he was using while working and he kindly agreed to allow them to form part of the exhibition, alongside a third camera belonging to Henry Bongyereirwe.
The three cameras were displayed side by side on pedestals, giving them the appearance of sculptures rather than tools. The Yashica B, which takes 120 roll film, was Mr. Ouma’s first camera and he used it while learning photography. However 120 film was very expensive in the 1970s and so he decided to buy a half frame camera, a silver Olympus Pen, which was less expensive and served him as a training camera. From a 36-exposure roll of 35mm film he was able to get 72 pictures, cutting his costs dramatically whilst still allowing him to produce good-quality imagery.
Alongside these two cameras was a nicotine-stained Bakelite Argus 75 owned by Henry Bongyereirwe’s father, with smooth lines and curves setting it apart from the much boxier Yashica. Ouma’s prized press passes, collected while covering stories throughout East Africa, were also displayed alongside the cameras and this section seemed to elicit the strongest response from audiences. Many people took photographs through the viewfinders of the TLRs with their phones, a curious overlap of time periods that produced images that were shared repeatedly across social media.
Elly Rwakoma is a retired photojournalist who was introduced to me by Andrea Stultiens of History in Progress Uganda. HIP, an initiative started by Andrea and Rumanzi Canon, is doing a great job of digitizing and sharing historic photographs by Ugandans and of Uganda from various different private and public collections. I was grateful to Andrea for the introduction, as Elly turned out to be a fascinating person to meet with his extensive archive, amazing photographic achievements and fascinating stories.
Mr Rwakoma was born in 1937 near Bushenyi in Western Uganda. He is a self-taught photographer, and his first camera was a Kodak II given to him by his brother who worked for British American Tobacco. During a career spanning 1964 – 1985 Elly was the presidential photographer for Milton Obote and Idi Amin, and it was with Idi that he had an unfortunate episode and was forced into exile in 1978. (See a video available here for more details. The video was also a part of the exhibition.)
He worked at the YMCA in Jinja as a social worker and ran his own photo studio first in Jinja and later in Bushenyi. During his eventful career he had many experiences, including a near miss in which a bullet intended for him passed through the cloth of his trousers, missing his leg and leaving him unhurt. He is now retired and lives on his farm in Bushenyi.
The historical section of the exhibition’s narrative was brief, and centered only on those three photographers, their memories, and objects that belong to them. But the result seemed to connect with its audience in a way that suggests that young Ugandan photographers have an appetite for learning more about the past. Apart from endless mobile phone photos, visitors also took time to examine the images of photographers working in darkrooms, and of presidents long since dead. The country suffers from a lack of publicly accessible, cost-free historical displays and it seems that this is not for lack of audience.
And it’s no surprise that the audience is there- images shape what we know and remember and our understanding of the past, and the personal as well as the wider, collective understanding of history. Much of the surviving photographic history of Ugandan comes from colonial photographers, and even those images are not usually available to the public in ways that allow them to take time to examine them. I hope that the research into history of photojournalism in Uganda will continue and that we will discover many more fascinating photographers, their photographs and stories, but most importantly I hope those images can be preserved and displayed in ways that allow people to access them.
Anna Kućma is an independent Polish curator and arts professional based in Kampala and working on variety of different projects across East Africa.
Uganda Press Photo Award : www.uppa.fcau.org
History in Progress Uganda : http://www.hipuganda.org/