Ugandan photographer Sarah Waiswa documents a woman’s defiance in the face of discrimination in her award-winning series "Stranger in a Familiar Land.”
photography sarah waiswa
In the series Stranger in a Familiar Land, Florence Kisombe, a young woman with albinism and an activist fighting to change its misperceptions, poses in the Kibera slum (the biggest in Nairobi, and in Africa at large). The images portray the stigma and scorn directed towards the albino population in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Florence's resilience in the face of it. As photographer Sarah Waiswa puts it, the series illustrates "the challenges emanating from both the sun and society." Florence's pale skin — and her purple braids and long mint dress — are visibly side-eyed, and worse, by passers-by in Waiswa's photographs. Across Kenya's southern border, in Tanzania, the circumstances are even more brutal: albinos are believed to possess magical powers and killed for their body parts.
The isolation of albino identity in such conditions is clear in Waiswa's images. Florence's playful accessories — oversized glasses, long feather earrings — show her to be defiant and nonconformist, but they don't entirely mask her feelings of rejection. An extract from Sarah's diary accompanies one of her images, expressing thoughts she felt connected with Florence's own sense of isolation: "Today I feel ugly. Yesterday was worse. I look at photos of myself and wish I would be someone else. I wish I could be beautiful, desirable… At times, I can't breathe."
Born in Uganda, Waiswa now lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. After earning a double degree in sociology and psychology, today photography is her chosen medium for exploring what she calls a "New African Identity." It's an identity, she explains, that comes from within the continent, and from a generation that is less inhibited by the expectations and traditions of the past. Earlier this year, Stranger in a Familiar Land won her the Discovery Award at the Rencontres d'Arles photography festival in France.
What does the phrase "New African Identity" mean to you, exactly?
When I was growing up, there was a mould of what a "good African child" was like. That meant there was little room for self-expression, whether it was through fashion, your choice of career, your sexual identity, etc. What I have seen over recent years is young people who are not afraid to express themselves. They are following their dreams, and are no longer making choices based on social expectations.
How do you hope to shift the narrative or depiction of Africa?
For too long, Africa has been portrayed through a foreign lens, and it's important for me that, as young photographers, we get the opportunity to show what we see, to share what is important to us. Africa has serious issues, but there are also a lot of great things happening here. While in Arles [where my exhibition is on view], we met an Italian photographer who was selling a photobook he made about Ethiopia, with portraits of children and others in remote areas carrying chickens — stereotypical images. When asked where the photos were taken, he said he didn't remember, and that it wasn't important. I am not saying this is how all Western photographers are, but his response reminded me of the continuous exploitation of Africa by the West.
Which photographers do you admire — African and otherwise?
The greats, of course: Malick Sidibé, Samuel Fosso, Aida Muluneh, Zanele Muholi, and so many others! But I sometimes come across the work of new photographers who leave me in awe — at Arles, street photographer Eamonn Doyle, from Ireland, blew me away!
What was your experience of albinism before this project? Where did the idea for Stranger in Familiar Land come from?
I came across an article in the paper about the atrocities that were happening to [albinos] in places like Tanzania, and I was stunned. I then approached the President of the Albinism Society of Kenya (ASK) about working together to raise awareness, and help disseminate more resources through social media.
How much was staged and how much was improvised during the shoot?
I didn't want to present albinism in a way that had been seen before. The project was shot in the Kibera slums: whatever was happening around and outside Florence was natural, such as the church procession. We worked as we went, responding to the jeers from the crowd, people's instinctive reaction to seeing her. People were yelling things, wanting to take pictures of her.
How did it feel to witness the jeering while you were working together?
It made the project that much more necessary. I got to see what life might be like for her on a daily basis.
Can you talk a bit more about Florence as a subject? What was your collaboration like?
We first met up to discuss the project and she told me about her life, her experiences, her goals. She was so strong and outgoing; she inspired me. I also like that she was so self-expressive. Her purple hair had nothing to do with the project; that is how she had chosen to wear it at that particular time. And it ended up expressing her own individual character so naturally.
This series is about communities' limitations in accepting "outsiders," such as albinos. How is this further complicated by the attitudes towards female identity in general?
Many of the subjects in my stories are women. I am particularly sensitive to the fact that women often have to deal with sexism and yet are also forced to deal with discrimination based on other statuses (albinism, in this case). Florence told me that it is much easier for men with albinism to date compared to women with albinism.
What are you working on currently?
"African Cityzens," which involves [photographer] Joel Lukhovi and I traveling on the road to different African cities, documenting daily urban life. And in the process, we look at identity, movement, space. We are conscious of the fact that Africans very rarely travel to other African countries, because it is expensive and there are various challenges with accessibility.
"Stranger in a Familiar Land" is on view at the Parc des Ateliers at the Rencontres d'Arles festival in Arles, France through September 25, 2016.
Text Sarah Moroz
Photography Sarah Waiswa