Greg Constantine on shoeboxes and statelessness
August 17, 2010 § Leave a comment
“A community becomes confident when it is recognized by other communities.” –Nubian Elder
How does a photograph get from a shoebox under the bed to the walls of an exhibition space? It takes a certain kind of vision, some good proposal-writing skills, a team of Nubian youth, and a lot of determination.
Greg Constantine came to photography when he was 34. He spent the first part of his career in the music business. Then he packed up house, moved to Asia, and started making pictures. These days, he’s involved in a multifaceted, multi-year, international project on statelessness called Nowhere People, done in part through collaborating with UNHCR, and using film (as in celluloid, not movies). I first learned about him last year, when he submitted a photo essay to PhotoPhilanthropy, in collaboration with Medecins sans Frontieres.
His work documents the struggles of ethnic groups around the world who have been denied or stripped of citizenship.
One portfolio within this project focuses on the Nubians in Kenya. I knew nothing about the Nubian community, so Greg gave me a brief history lesson (you can read more on the project website) and then helped me understand the various components of his Nubian project.
Basically, the Nubian community was incorporated into the British Army in the 1880s and brought from Sudan to Kenya in the late at the turn of the century. They fought for the British in the King’s Africa Rifles during WWI and WWII and played an important role in the development of Kenya and East Africa. Since Kenya’s independence, the Nubian community in Kenya has historically been unrecognized as a tribe of Kenya. Even though they’ve lived in Kenya for over 100 years, it wasn’t until the 2009 census that ‘Nubian’ was acknowledged as a tribe living in Kenya.
Unable return to Sudan, the Nubian community was given 4,197 acres of land by the British in 1912 to settle on. They named the land Kibra, or ‘land of forest.’ After askaris were demobilized, they used this land to farm and earn a living from. But after independence, the Nubian claims to title deed have been denied by successive governments. As hundreds of thousands of rural migrants flooded into Nairobi to find work, Kibra has been the place they were encouraged to settle. The small Nubian village of Kibra (whose population was 3000 in 1950) turned into Kibera (which is now home to around 1 million people, according to the BBC in 2009).
In late 2008, the UNHCR provided Greg with funding to spend a month photographing and documenting the Nubian community who live in the Kibera slum.
“During that month,” he told me, “I would sit with families in their homes in Kibera for an hour or two, talking. And by the end of our conversation, they would have pulled out these amazing, old photographs from shoeboxes that they had never shown anybody outside of their own family. This documentation of the Nubian community was something that nobody had ever seen before. So the pieces of this project were already all there.
“The challenge for me was finding the funding to take all these pieces of the project and put them in one central location that could then be presented to the public in a variety of ways. And, importantly, I also wanted to be able to juxtapose these really old photographs that depicted the community’s situation in the past with my own documentation of the community now.
“Once I got the OSI grant in the beginning of the year, I worked with a team of six Nubian youth in Kibera who went from Nubian household to Nubian household, asking people to loan us these old photographs. I had been hoping to find about 100 photographs. But during the one month of the project, they found about 250 photographs that date back as far as 1912.”
Then the photographs were taken to a lab in Nairobi and scanned at high resolution and put onto a DVD, which the team sent to Greg at home in Southeast Asia. “They were incredible,” he said. “I went through and edited and touched up the images a little bit—minor dust spots and things like that. And I made a selection from those images to reprint and include in this exhibition.”
In addition to the traditional exhibition he’s having at a gallery in Nairobi, which will travel to London next, Greg wanted to be able to deliver the project locally to the Nubian community in Kibera. (As well as the non-Nubian communities in Kibera.)
“Part of the motivation for doing the project was to elevate the awareness of the Nubian community amidst the broader society. Most people here in Kenya have no knowledge of the Nubians, and their contributions to Kenyan society, and the development of East Africa.”
Through utilizing these old photographs that families loaned the team, the project has incorporated the Nubians into the storytelling process in an innovative way. The project is designed to help them actively dismantle some of the stereotypes about them.
Greg also approached LiveBooks, in the US, and they agreed to donate a pre-designed website to the project, so that other people can see all the photographs, (since the exhibition included only 1/5th of the archival images). Those images have also been placed onto PhotoShelter, so that the Nubian community can access them and use them.
“I really embrace multimedia and online and new technologies,” says Greg, “But I also find that there are so many multimedia projects which consist of the photographer talking about their work. And I really wanted the Nubians to tell their story, and not for me to tell the Nubians’ story for them. And so the multimedia project we did only has Nubians talking, and it incorporates a lot of the photographs.”
He also printed a condensed version of the gallery exhibition onto huge sheets of white vinyl, which were displayed last week at the Kibra Secondary School in the Kibera slum.
Greg said that the Kibera exhibition, and the community engagement that went along with it, has been the most rewarding part of the project for him.
“It exceeded all expectations,” he told me. “We estimate that in the 2 1/2 days, some 2,300 people visited the installation. People couldn’t stop touching the photographs and pointing out relatives and ancestors in the photos that are no longer with us today. Parents were able to show their children who their great grandparents where and so forth. I think the youth walked away with a renewed sense of pride in their community and also a renewed sense of motivation and responsibility to take what past generations have done for the community and move it forward to the next.
“It was an incredibly rewarding and amazing opportunity and one that I’m determined to duplicate for other stateless groups in my Nowhere People project.”
Meanwhile, the political struggle continues. The Nubians are still denied title rights to land and are still not fully recognized as citizens of Kenya.