the fleeting glimpse
On abstraction and unknowing in Tanzania
Ka-dunk. The rhythmic bounce of the padded seats and powerful shock absorbers are momentarily disrupted by a notch in the asphalt beneath us. This registers as a small jolt in the consciousness of its passengers, but the Land Cruiser roars on undeterred. It’s sturdy engineering is so inoculated against such interruptions, that for the most part (and on good roads) the environment outside is largely reduced to a slide show for its passengers.
We’re in Tanzania on assignment and it’s the end of a long day in the field. A good day. A day of shaking hands, exchanging smiles and formalities.
A day of being welcomed to the region, welcomed to the community, welcomed to the village, welcomed to the work… welcome to my home, this is my son, this is my grandaughter, these are my worries, this is what I have achieved, I am proud, these are my challenges, have some tea, join me, have a rest in the shade, away from the bright sun, let us talk a while.
There have been many days like this. Days of laughter and perhaps tears. Days where we will be shown things up close and told about things past and present. We will dare to think about the future. Shake hands. An embrace. We are often thanked, which feels strange because overwhelmingly we are grateful for the gift of someone else’s experience and story.
And our minds and eyes are inevitably filled with more than we can process in the moment. We make notes. And of course, we take pictures. Lots of pictures.
Then we climb back up into the vehicle that has been waiting under the tree. Before long we are back on the road, extracting ourselves from this deep plunge into a life, into lives, stories and the full richness of a place and head back to the capital.
Much of our work is like this. The careful process of entering, with permission, into an environment rich with life, and transforming it into a clear narrative – something with quick potency.
But travelling back to Dodoma that day, feeling somewhat dazed after the day’s work, the scenes speeding past the window began to call out to me and I couldn’t resist picking my camera up again.
Yet rather than seeking to make an image with a clear message, this time abstraction beckoned…
My eyes adjust to the moving scene. We speed through expanses of dusty bush, past hulking isolated trees, small settlements strung out along the road. Then those drift away, leaving the occasional hut, devoid of neighbours. Next up, a roadside market, the products eye-catchingly displayed like pieces of art. I slow my shutter, add some filters and begin to shoot, adding my own movements in response to the dance of the vehicle and scene.
Freed of the need to create a descriptive set of images, I set about making pictures that acknowledged my unknowing. We’d spent some days in the area, but who were the people living here? What was their life like amidst the sparse solitude of this place? I would never know, and yet the place impressed upon me to weave a representation of my partial-view into the image itself.
Ghosts of places emerged into each frame. Places I’d likely never know anything about. The thin silk of somewhere caught in the wind, somewhere seen fleetingly. Caught briefly, and then gone.
A bloated baobab tearing out of its ordinary material form into the air around it. Spreading, smearing, coming undone.
A lonely hut. A telegraph pole beside it: a sign of connection? Or a reminder of exclusion from a community and infrastructure, of being forgotten?
Each frame, caught from the speeding road – itself a position of privilege – was an abstraction of a feeling that I had: a connection to a place, but a disconnection from really knowing it. An acknowledgement of the many fleeting glimpses we make in a life, the impressions of places we pass through, places we don’t linger in long enough for them to solidify into familiarity.
Daubs of colour, streaks of shape, amorphous swirls of light and shade. Ways of rendering the hidden-in-plain-sight into the unfamiliar-before-my-eyes.
Needless to say, we love documentary photography: the ‘decisive’ moment, the depth and power of a face, gracefully portrayed on a page or a screen. But sometimes, the sheer familiarity of this kind of photography stops us from ‘seeing’ it with fresh eyes. A superabundance of images and our excellence at pattern matching, means we too easily file it away with other ‘narratives we’re familiar with’.
Photography certainly has its limits and flaws, but the medium too has surprising space for stretch. Which is why non-literal photography can be a useful way to bypass those immediate responses and call the viewer to a deeper reading of the image. Perhaps one which calls into question the way we ‘see’ things, as well as what’s available for the seeing.
Photos and text by Tom Price, Ecce Opus 2019.