Knowing as Artists

Photographer: Francis Nii Obodai Provencal, copyright
Project Name: Big Dreams, Life Build on Gold

Trust doesn’t come easily in the gold mines. To have people allow me into their fragile and desperate lives demands a reconsideration of the photographer’s role.

So often I have been asked why I want to photograph them and what will I do with the pictures. They often assume  that I am taking their images for  profit, to grow rich. To ease things and to give back in a way that allows our often brief encounters to resonate into the future, I have started using a Polaroid Land 320 Automatic camera loaded with Fuji FP 100c, in  addition to my usual Leica M6. With Ghana’s power supply becoming more unstable  everyday, instant film is re-emerging; I don’t have to worry about film stock.

I began to use this camera to make portraits of the people that Yiting Sun, my journalist collaborator, and I wanted to talk to. It helps break the ice when they find out that I can give them a photograph that will be theirs to keep. Individuals who were first aggressive to my presence would begin to demand that I also photograph them. The ice is broken.

The exchange is often a novelty to them. From their point of view, photographers come and take their pictures and drive off into the sunset to profit from the reproduction of their lives. In these situations, people feel very vulnerable and can be very defensive about their images being made. I don’t blame them. I understand.

As I work I stop to change cameras and share with them the process of making their instant portrait. In the days of street passport photography in Ghana it was called “gyinyahodze,” or “stand and collect.” They get the original positive print, and I get the negative.

This exchange is not a one-sided emotional experience, it also leaves me feeling as if I am not justing taking from them but also giving back. The sense of gratitude flows both ways.