Proverbs by Robert Ellis is an ongoing photographic work representing the contemporary landscape of Uganda while exploring its layers of memory. After recent exhibitions at Peckham 24 during Photo London and Belfast Exposed, the third solo showcase of the exhibition takes place at The Library Project in Dublin. We had the wonderful opportunity to talk with Mr Ellis about his work. Here is what he had shared with Babylon Radio.
Q: Hi, Robert! How are you? Tell us something more about your work, Proverbs? Is it the first exhibition which you have with focus outside of Ireland?
A: Yes, my earlier works focused more on communities within Ireland, and subject matters that were much closer to home. However even with those projects I found myself as an ‘outsider’ in a sense. One of my earlier series, “New Line” focused on a small alternative community in the West of Ireland. With that work I embraced my outsider perspective and made reference to it within the visual strategy of the work. Finding myself in Uganda was perhaps more of a culture shock and with that I found myself being more of an outsider. It affected the work I did there and I consider it different from anything I have ever done before – but I also see it as a development of the work I had been doing previously.
Q: So how was your time in Uganda?
A: Uganda was a great experience for me. I initially developed this new work while there on a teaching residency at Nagenda International Academy of Art & Design (NIAAD). The connection came about from Dr. Kizito Maria Kasule who set up NIAAD based on his experience of studying a MFA in Fine Art at the Burren College of Art where I am also a photography lecturer. NIAAD offers an alternative model to education in Uganda, with fees remaining less than government run institutions. They also offer a very high level of scholarships to vulnerable youth and marginalized women in society. While there for an entire semester, I got the opportunity to engage with the students and the local community. It was based on these connections that I first became interested in the idea of working with Lugandan Proverbs.
Q: What was the theme of your workshops there?
A: It began with introduction to black and white photography, as I set up a darkroom at the college. I collected 35mm cameras from friends here and brought them to donate to the college. Over subsequent visits I have ventured further into digital photography by bringing a digital scanner and digital cameras. All of this equipment was generously donated by friends and acquaintances.
Q: What kind of gear do you usually use in your work?
A: It really depends on the subject and the approach. For the New Line Series I was shooting film on a medium format camera. That was a much slower and methodical way of working. With ‘Proverbs’ I moved to digital as when I first began making the work, I was shooting everything and then began developing the concept while editing.
Q: Do you have a favorite lens which you use or it is again much depending on the working flow?
A: There is a particular lens that I used for the night time scenes in ‘Proverbs’. It’s a wide angle tilt shift lens which would traditionally be used for architectural photography to work with converging lines. Used in this context for the night time scenes it allowed me to be more playful with the composition, creating a stage of sorts.
Q: How did the people respond to you photographing them? Did you have to use a very special approach to convince them to stand in front of the camera?
R: Making portraits for this new work was a big decision for me. With earlier work, such as ‘New Line’ I purposely avoided taking photographs of people because of the ethical connotations of photographing people. It is something I have always struggled with. With ‘New Line’ in particular the visual strategy emerged out of conversations with the community and there was a reluctance to be photographed. With ‘Proverbs’ I felt it necessary to begin making portraits and to engage with the community in a different way. I made a conscious decision not to be formulaic in my approach. People appear in various ways within this work, some people are fleeting in the landscape while others are evidently closer and known to me. I wanted to represent how we engage with people and place.
Q: Did you get any refusals?
A: Not so much, anyone who is formally portrayed within this work is somebody who I have connected with and remain in touch with. They are photographed years apart in various styles to show this connection over time and their familiarity with me and vice versa.
I consider it a kind of study of people in their natural environment, and how time changes the landscape and the people. The contemplation of time and memory within the landscape.
Q: Did you have any influences when you start doing photography?
A: One of the main influences on my practice is Mark Neville. He is a photographer in the UK and is very socially engaged, working with communities and questioning the matters of representation, often allowing the subject matter to inform the visual strategy adopted. Paul Graham would be another influence, for very similar reasons.
Q: So how would you define the visual strategy in your works?
A: When looking into Uganda’s history I was surprised to find a lot of things in common with Ireland’s history, especially in terms of colonialism and how it affected peoples sense of self culture and identity. I was very influenced by the writing of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer on post colonialism and politics. In one of his books I came across the line “The African landscape is blanketed in a layer of European memory.” This was a starting point for developing the visual strategy with this work. Firstly I was fascinated with the idea of a landscape having a memory and wanted to explore this with the images I was creating. I also realised that I didn’t want to contribute to a ‘European’ sense of place. I began focusing on Lugandan Proverbs that I kept coming across. I could relate to them because of my own experience of the value of spoken word in traditional Irish culture. They were learned wisdoms, echoes of previous generations from a pre-colonial Uganda. I began to let the proverbs guide how the work was edited and put together. By partnering the proverbs themselves with the images I made there, I find it creates a contemplation of place and how we are connected to the landscape or place where we belong.
Q: Was there something which you wish that would have known before you started doing photography?
A: That is a hard question (he laughs). Well, not really. I kind of see photography as showing my experience of the world. My photography has changed over the years, and I find that I too have changed. My photography is always looking outward, but I consider it more of a personal reflection or questioning of my own place in the world. It is all a question of place and belonging.