Trans-Africanism is a term coined by the photographer Emeka Okereke (pictured) to describe the philosophical underpinnings of his work. In an interview with Emmanuel Iduma, he explained some of the ideas behind his photos. Here are excerpts.
Emmanuel Iduma: Can you give a sense of what you mean by “TransAfrican” in relation to your work?
Emeka Okereke: The term alludes to the idea of exchange within the context of Africa. But for me it is also a state of flux in the route of that exchange, more like an alternate current, going back and forth. Also, it is the character of 21st-century Africa, which is a rapid development of people, of economy, of ideas. I like to call myself a 21st-century artist who is energetic, proactive, and progressive.
NA: Is there a sense in which you could become one – and I use that word very loosely, depending on your elaboration – with the people you photograph?
EO: I don’t think I’m interested in being one with them. I am not sure I’ll achieve that. That’s not the point. It’s a misplaced priority. I want to be in a place where I think my work will create new knowledge about people, and approach humanity. What I can’t easily get is a sense of empathy, that sense of being in the world with other people, giving by your presence.
NA: In terms of these photographs, which are connected to specific cities on the continent, what prompts you when going out to take pictures?
EO: For a photographer, composition is the first thing. This is one of the components with which you build a language, your voice. Composition is not only what someone sees in a frame, it’s also where you choose to stand. Roland Barthes says a photographer’s second sight is his presence. Beyond that, everything is important. Everything I see is an extension of where I’m standing. Every object in a space is an articulation of human interaction. And a human being in the frame becomes a part of that. When I go out to take photographs in a public space, I’m always thinking about the person there in relation to the space.
NA: I know that the interaction between a photographer and the photographed happens in a splitsecond, in the click of the camera’s lens. I’m interested to hear about your mode of working within frenzied spaces, like the market or the street in N’Djamena, where there’s a lot of activity and flux.
EO: I think an image begins to happen immediately you make the decision to be in a place. This is so for a photographer, unlike a writer. A writer can take a place mentally, before doing the work. That’s not possible for a documentary photographer. A documentary photographer must account for his presence. So, images can come at the expense of being arrested. You can’t separate it from the work itself, for the photographer. For another medium, I think there’s a bit of wiggle room.
NA: What are some of the considerations that help you avoid, for want of a better phrase, visual cliché?
EO: An older photographer once advised me to make photos every day, but most importantly, to look at my work. I said: “Looking at my work is not interesting.” He didn’t go further to tell me exactly why. Later, when I started doing that, I realised that what you do is have conversations with yourself. When you do that often, with honesty, you will know when you are repeating yourself. Basically you are interested in transcending yourself and tapping into that place where new inspiration and new ideas and creation come from.
NA: How has collaboration with others sharpened your gaze, or helped you clarify your vision?
EO: Most of the impulses we have in the African continent, the way we live our lives, are a function of our interaction with people. differences to play out. Regarding my involvement with other artists, you cannot talk about work in isolation. It’s impossible. As you mentioned, it’s a question of where other lives enter ours, and vice versa. Many times, I created work based on conversations I had had. I can’t remember any image in this series without [thinking of ] someone else. Oftentimes the photographs are precipitates of something we’re discussing. I realised a little while ago that it has become part of my process. These conversations allow me to enter a space where I begin to see an image I want to make of someone or of a situation. Going forward, I’ll be in the habit of leaving my camera alone and listening to conversations.