Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
When I learned that my father was diagnosed with a progressive lung disease in 2019, at the start of a pandemic that would disproportionately target Black lungs and in the midst of a growing political movement imbued by a collective and formidable suffering, I was overcome by grief. In the crevices of my bones and down to the ligaments of my feet, I experienced a heartache unlike anything I had ever experienced. The magnified blight and certainty of premature Black death resolves to create a world in which we are inundated with a perpetual, collective state of mourning.
It was during this time that I stumbled upon a bruised, old photo album neatly tucked away in the basement closet. Turning the pages, I confronted a series of studio portraits of a twenty-something-year-old man. My father was staring back at me. Over the course of his young adult life, he had taken a series of portraits in professional photography studios across Sudan and saved the photos, gently pressed, in an album that would keep them safe for the next 45 years. I gazed at the young man before me and tried to understand him. What were his dreams and aspirations? What were his visions for the future? How wonderful, I thought, to experience the visual manifestation of self in this way, and I soon began to understand them as more than visual.
Portraits of my father
I remembered a lesson from my former college professor Tina Campt, whose important book Listening to Images implored readers to listen rather than merely view an image. By attuning the ear to the sonic frequencies of an image, Campt had explained, one begins to develop a deeper understanding of an individual’s interior register.
And so, I began to listen.
The period between 1950-1970 is often described as the golden age of Sudanese photography. Studio portraits became a quotidian practice, a way of life that provided Sudanese youth the opportunity to capture their self image, culture, and lifestyle. Artists such as Fouad Hamza Tibin, who opened the “Studio Mwahib” in 1973, aimed to capture the reverbs of freedom. Sudan gained independence from British colonial rule in 1955 and Sudanese youth were determined to claim the endless possibilities of a new world order.
There has been a recent emergence throughout the digital sphere devoted to archiving these self-portraits, archives that include the work of studio photographers such as Tibin alongside Amin al Rashid and Mali’s Malick Sidibé. Throughout the diaspora, studio portraits became sites for regeneration as well as tools for preservation. Today, these photos from nearly half a century ago are reminders of the possibility of self amidst precarity.
“It was quite different at my studio,” Sidibé explained in an interview with the Dutch photography magazine LensCulture. “It was like a place of make-believe.”
Malick Sidibé, a Malian photographer, ran a formal portrait studio in Bamako that chronicled the lives and aspirations of a generation of young Malian men and women throughout the 1960s. Sidibé often encouraged his sitters to bring along beloved personal objects, whether that be a motorcycle they had recently purchased or a James Brown record. In turn, his studio transformed into a liminal space, serving as a site of exploration for its young inhabitants. In a recent essay on SUNU Journal, a digital platform dedicated to archiving such images, Dalia Elhassan writes, “through Sidibé’s lens, every photo developed tells a story of its subject that is tied to the historical action, location, and space of the time. Each photo, upon any glance, has the ability to speak to its viewer.”
Sidibé, who died in 2016, had an impact on the cultural heritage of the world. In 2007, he became the first photographer and the first African to be awarded the Golden Lion lifetime achievement award at the Venice Biennale. “It’s a world, someone’s face,” Sidibé explained. “When I capture it, I see the future of the world.”
Portraits like that of Tibin and Sidibé transcend time, and their emergence in a digital sphere underscores this. Within a world that continues to propagate disparate and undue realities onto Black figures, self-portraits regain a possibility for self-expression and actualization that consciously subverts the collective gaze. Black futurity, in this way, becomes a powerful and alternative interlocutor to prescriptive ideas of the future. This is especially pertinent in an increasingly hyper-surveilled state where futurity is synonymous with digital technologies. A 2016 investigation by Axios revealed that Baltimore police had secretly surveilled city residents and were using facial recognition technologies to monitor and arrest protestors during the 2018 Freddie Grey riots. Here we see how the camera and the lens can be weaponized onto subjects. It is here that we also understand the profound importance of subjects turning the camera purposefully and forcefully onto themselves.
Sidibé’s work provides refuge for the overly surveilled, for the precarious and the dispossessed. The self-portrait therein becomes a glimpse to an alternative world order, one that is imbued with dreams for freedom, for fashionable sensibilities, and for the soul of a James Brown record to serve as a reminder of home and joy and all that is kind in this world.
As Campt reminds us, “What shifts when we think of self-fashioning as not necessarily an inextricable expression of agential intention or autonomy? What if we understood it as a tense response [as an attempt] to exploit extremely limited possibilities for self-expression and futurity?” I return to those images of my father from so long ago. I look at his face and the faces of his loved ones. I listen to his aspirations, his ideas of self and his hopes and dreams. And like Sidibé, I see the future of a world in his face.