Found imagery isn’t traditionally the domain of the photojournalist. But when prize-winning Italian photographer Martina Bacigalupo was working on an assignment for Human Rights Watch in war-torn northern Uganda, she made an unusual – and entirely unlooked-for – discovery that made her think afresh about her approach to her chosen subject matter.
While waiting for some prints to be made in a small studio in Gulu, ‘I noticed an unusual object on the desk – an ordinary 10 x 15 cm photograph of someone posing for a studio portrait, but with the face strangely missing, leaving a square hole where the head had been,’ she recounts. ‘I asked what this was, and the woman at the counter said she had forgotten it there and proceeded to discard it. When I told her I would like to see her trash bin, people around us laughed, but a man [named Obal] who was part of that crowd, amused like the others and yet, I think, more curious, told me that if I was interested he would be happy to show me more.’
What she discovered was an extraordinary cache of headless portraits. ‘The portraits were well composed, with subjects seated on a chair or on a bench, with a blue, white, or red curtain behind them, in various poses and modes of dress. Obal, who was running the oldest photography studio in town with his father, told me the secret behind those pictures: he only had a machine that would make four ID photos at a time, and since most of his clients didn’t need four pictures, he therefore preferred to take an ordinary photograph and cut an ID photo out of it. This was common practice in most of the studios in Gulu. Captivated by the eerie result, I asked Obal if he wouldn’t mind putting aside all the leftovers he was going to produce that day. When I went back in the evening he gave me a little box.’
The contents of that box provided the seeds for Bacigalupo’s new book, Gulu Real Art Studio (Steidl), and an exhibition of the same name at the Walther Collection Project Space in New York. The images present a cross section of Gulu society – children, soldiers, farmers – at a moment of transition. The ravages of war are evident, not least in the fact that the portraits are mutilated leftovers, but they nonetheless manage to tell a bigger, more rounded story of lives lived.
‘I love these pictures because they’re not mine. I’m an editor basically,’ says Bacigalupo, who has been resident in the region for several years now. ‘You see journalists coming in and out, looking for tragic news. But by reporting events in Africa in that way, we are perpetrating a way of looking at it as a continent of misery. This project has been a way of talking about things – including the war in northern Uganda – in a more everyday way. The child who is sleeping on the lap of his mother while the picture is taken – it’s something we can all relate to. It’s lighter. The pictures are funny at times.’
‘During the editing process I went over hundreds of leftovers, where small details – a hidden sign, a comic posture, a bitter aspect – were revealing different stories,’ writes Bacigalupo in the introduction to the Steidl book. ‘I remember the clumsy pose of the man wearing a too-large jacket – a jacket lent by the studio to those sitters who didn’t have one (I would find a whole series afterward): he was holding the jacket closed with his hands while still wearing his muddy boots… I was always struck by the ravishing traditional robes of the Acholi women, who would wear their best clothes even though their dresses would not show in the final print. I knew these photographs carried burdensome stories, and yet those details were portraying something else, something about the daily life we all share, besides time and space, with its common worries and hopes.’
The images transcend the merely documentary too, taking on a more surreal or symbolic aspect. ‘There’s a descriptive part in the portraits, which ties them into journalism, but then there’s the hole, which calls the viewer in and makes them fill in what’s missing,’ says Bacigalupo. ‘That’s an essential quality in all photography.’
She adds: ‘Photojournalists are looking for a new way of talking about Africa especially, but the global south in general.’ The images in Gulu Real Art Studio – surreal survivors of a society undergoing swift and sometimes violent change – offer one such new way of talking.
Gulu Real Art Studio is at the Walther Collection Project Space, 508–526 West 26th Street, Suite 718, until 8 February 2014 and is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday from 12pm to 6pm