Visual Arts

The Photographers’ Portfolio Meeting visits Lagos

For young photographers making their way through the world professionally, being able to think critically and appreciate the work of others is as important as any craft-based considerations.

This idea repeatedly bubbled to the surface during a recent edition of the Photographers’ Portfolio Meeting, a get-together of international curators and emerging photographers, in partnership with the Goethe-Institut. This year held in Lagos and coinciding with the fourth edition of LagosPhoto, this annual portfolio meeting is a hands-on mentorship programme that equips invited photographers with critical tools necessary to think and speak about photography – not only their own, but also that of their peers.

During this year’s portfolio meeting sessions, the sixth since 2008, invited curators Chris Dercon, Akinbode Akinbiyi, Frederique Chapuis, Katrin Peters-Klaphake and Simon Njami repeatedly asked the ten selected participants a mix of straightforward and probing questions. On occasion, what might read here like a simple question (“Do you know the work of Rineke Dijkstra?”, “Have you looked at Viviane Sassen’s photographs?”, or “Are you aware of that essay by Chris Killip?”) turned out to be the most perplexing for the photographers from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria and South Africa. No, they often responded.

For Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, this lack of awareness underscored a key point, one that he hoped all the young photographers would take to heart: “Photography is just like music and literature, you have to be in the know,” he emphasised. This need to know – to be fully immersed in the history of photography, in other words – was constantly reiterated during the course of the rigorous four-day programme, which included sessions devoted to publishing, presentations of new work and one-on-one private discussions with curators.

Shortly after a presentation by participating Malian photographer Harandane Dicko – he showed a work-in-progress essay of black-and-white cityscapes photographed from the back of a motorcycle – Akinbiyi, a Berlin-based Nigerian photographer, invoked the name of Danny Lyon. Because of the dual usage of English and French in the portfolio meetings, there was a brief pause to clarify the pronouncement of the photographer’s surname. “Ah, Lee-yon!” exclaimed Dercon, a Belgian-born art historian who previously served as director of Haus der Kunst in Munich. Pronunciation resolved, Akinbiyi, whose exhibition Alice Adama in Wonderland is currently on show at the Goethe-Institut Gallery in Johannesburg until the end of January 2014, continued.

He mentioned Lyon, an American photographer who between 1963 and 1967 photographed motorcycle gangs, for no other reason than to flag the way in which photographs quote other photographs. For a young photographer entering the professional world of exhibitions and editorial, ignorance of this simple and unavoidable trait in photography could be fatal, especially in a pressured situation with a curator or editor where there is little of the collegiality of the portfolio meeting. “Photography,” remarked Akinbiyi in his measured and soothing speaking voice to the photographers, “is not painting; it is also not literature – it is photography.” There was, he implied, a need to respect its traditions.

On a continent known for its many remarkable self-taught photographers, the Photographers’ Portfolio Meeting serves an invaluable function – even if some of the young photographers might disagree in the heat of the moment, when their work is being criticised. Equal parts boot camp and cram school, with networking offered as an added bonus, the idea behind this annual event goes back to Maputo. In September 2008, Peter Anders, then head of cultural programmes for sub-Saharan Africa at the Goethe-Institut, together with Njami, a seasoned curator and art critic with a fiercely independent point of view, hosted a portfolio review aimed at early and mid-career photographers.

The success of this initial meeting prompted the Goethe to commit budget and organisational capacity to hosting the event on an annual basis. To date, portfolio meetings have been held in the Malian capital of Bamako (in 2009 and again in 2011, during the run of the landmark Rencontres de Bamako festival of pan-African photography), as well as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (during the 2010 edition of Addis Foto Fest) and in the southern DRC city of Lubumbashi (in 2012).

Homework is central to the portfolio meeting and its functioning. Photographers who hadn’t done the necessary preparation for Lagos, such as offering a thought-out rationale for the design of their small catalogue, were quickly exposed. The questions that followed the various presentations were also vigorous, sometimes prompting a change in body posture, from relaxed to folded arms and dropped head, by the photographer holding the floor. “In order to answer a question properly you need to hear the question,” offered Njami, who deployed his brooding intelligence with professorial skill throughout.

Although rigorous and demanding, participating photographers had the benefit of receiving qualified commentary, something far more engaged than a Facebook thumbs-up. On the need to distinguish callow appreciation and criticism, Dercon, quoting the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, remarked: “Criticism is love, self-criticism is sex.” It was one of many pithy and entertaining bon mots offered by Dercon, a passionate collector of textiles.

“It is very important to learn to be disobedient,” he instructed the assembled photographers. Responding to a body of work at one point, he improvised on a quote by musician Frank Zappa: “Abstract photography is not dead, it just smells funny.” In contrast to Dercon’s sometimes gonzo, albeit pin-sharp provocations, Njami, who in 1989 published the novel African Gigolo, invested his statements with literary pungency. “Explore the obscure object of your desire,” Njami half whispered during one exchange.

Although the portfolio meeting isn’t a formalised institution, participation in this critical platform is a marker of prestige. And although past participants don’t speak of themselves as alumni, it is viable to speak of them as such. Six past alumni exhibited their work together on a group exhibition that formed part of the main programme of LagosPhoto. Organised by South African Monique Pelser and DRC national Sammy Baloji, the exhibition Témoin (French for “witness”) included some of Zimbabwean Calvin Dondo’s large body of portraits documenting white European families with adopted black children. “I believed our work as artists is to open doors, shed light and give new possibilities to, first, our immediate environment, and then, the world at large,” Dondo has written of his aim as a photographer.

Where Dondo, like fellow exhibitor and portfolio meeting alumni Sabelo Mlangeni from South Africa, is concerned with the soft infrastructure of cities – people – Ethiopian photographer Michael Tsegaye, like Nigerian Abraham Oghobase, is compelled by the changes that modernity has brought about in cities and rural places. A skilled black-and-white photographer, Tsegaye’s contributions to Témoin included a composite study of a building site in Addis Ababa. The exhibition's curators also included examples of their own work: Pelser showed her typological studies of ephemera related to her deceased father’s occupation as a policeman during apartheid, and Baloji presented a series of landscape studies featuring montages of found ethnographic portraits.

“My photographic work is between documentary and fiction,” says Baloji. His statement is useful in summarising the contributions to the larger LagosPhoto event. Broadly themed around the idea of urbanity, these contributions ranged from the playful (and sometimes out-and-out whimsical) to the plainly journalistic, with established masters like Cameroon’s Samuel Fosso and Akintunde Akinleye, the first Nigerian photographer to win a World Press Photo award, showing alongside newbies.

Three South African photographers, Alexia Webster, Dillon Marsh and Graeme Williams, were amongst the five photographers shortlisted (out of 360 entries from 57 countries) for this year’s POPCAP ’13 prize for contemporary African photography. Their work was printed onto canvas and displayed on large outdoor structures placed adjacent the main exhibition area.

In a city that places a great deal of emphasis on ceremony, the organisers of LagosPhoto hosted two openings. On the first evening, Seun Kuti, the youngest son of deceased music legend Fela Kuti, performed with many of the original members of his father’s band, Egypt 80. For a good deal of time the rhythm stop-started, a trait seemingly in sync with Lagos’s erratic power supply and congested freeways, but then finally gained momentum. People communed, feet tapping, heads bobbing, bodies writhing. It was anything but the city described in Akinleye’s contribution to LagosPhoto, Quiet Lagos (2013), a series of images in which not a single Lagosian appears in the black-and-white urban cityscapes. Here, as in the markets, food halls and nearby conferencing room that for four days hosted 15 photography-invested visitors from other cities, it was all about a very real and passionate human agitation.

Author: Sean O’Toole
is an arts journalist, critic and author based in Cape Town. He is the co-editor of Cityscapes, a publication by the African Center for Cities at the University of Cape Town.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut South Africa, Internet Editor
December 2013

Related links

Goethe on Main

Multidisciplinary art space in Johannesburg’s inner city. Visit one of the current exhibitions.


Events at the Goethe-Instituts Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi and Accra


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