Photographer Boniface Mwangi wanted to protest against corruption in his home country of Kenya. So he made a plan: He and some friends would stand up and heckle during a public mass meeting. But when the moment came, he stood alone. What happened next, he says, showed him who he truly was. As he says, “There are two most powerful days in your life. The day you are born, and the day you discover why.” Warning: this talk contains graphic images.
Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier’s new book The Notion of Family is a powerful visual chronicle of historic steel town, Braddock, Pennsylvania. It’s also an intimate portrait of the artist’s own family, Braddock natives who witnessed its boom, decline and — in recent years — its rebranding as an icon of Rust Belt renewal and destination for the so-called creative class. Frazier, who’s a TED Fellow, talked to Karen Eng about the origins of this ambitious project.
Tell us about the people in The Notion of Family.
The book features my grandmother, mother, and me, and looks through the three of our lives as people who grew up in three different social and economic periods in Braddock. Each one of us represents a different time period. My grandmother grew up in the 1930s when it was prosperous and had everything going for it; my mother grew up in the 1960s when there was the white flight, desegregation; and I grew up there in the 1980s, once the factories were dismantled and the town itself was left kind of abandoned, economically.
Grandma Ruby and Me 2005, from “The Notion of Family” (Aperture 2014).
You said in your talk that by the 1970s most of the steel mills were gone — but there is one mill left, the Edgar Thomson Steel Works.
Yes, it’s a historic steel mill; it was the first in the region and the last one still in operation. Braddock is not post-industrial the way people like to talk about in the mainstream media. The narrative there is that it’s a new frontier — that “urban pioneers” should come forth and reclaim the land and open up restaurants and art studios. But in reality, people have been there for generations, and are still trying to exist within a framework of industry and environmental degradation. No one trying to redevelop the land wants to talk about the EPA levels there, or the fact that it’s a Superfund site, or a brownfield. So the environment’s eroding — and so are our bodies, from our terminal illnesses.
Has your own family suffered from illness?
Many people in the community have died from different types of cancer. My grandmother died from diabetes and pancreatic cancer. My mother suffers from an unknown neurological disorder. I myself have lupus — I’ve been battling it most of my life. A lot of the portraits in the book show this: they are taken after surgery, before surgery, during lupus attacks. The steel industry is still there polluting the town. Meanwhile, community hospitals in working class communities that are predominantly made up of elderly people, single parent households, and African-American communities are being dismantled.
And you don’t see the media telling this story?
My work isn’t just counter-narrative. There are parallel realities in this town. I see my work as telling a longer, sustained story covering material that the mainstream press doesn’t have time for. They come in and out, they tell the quickest highlighted story they can, and they go.
It’s creative class versus working class. I come from both, as an artist who comes from an impoverished working class background. So in a way, I stand in that gap as a witness to both. My hope is that the same resources that are available to the privileged creative class will become available to the working class. They should not be pitted against each other.
“For the past 12 years, my mother and I have made collaborative portraits together, disrupting the idea that the privileged photographer comes from the outside,” says LaToya Ruby Frazier. Mom Relaxing My Hair 2005, from “The Notion of Family” (Aperture 2014).
How did this project originate?
In 1999, during my first undergraduate photo class at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, we were given an assignment based on philosopher Roland Barthes’ idea that in a photograph, there’s a “punctum” and a “studium.” A punctum is the thing in the photograph that pricks you, that wounds you, that gives you some emotional charge. And the studium is the subject. The assignment was to bring in a photograph that had both.
One of the examples that was passed around in the classroom was Dorothea Lange’s iconic image Migrant Mother. Everyone kept calling it “Dorothea Lange’s photograph.” The image was passed to me — and I realized I didn’t know that woman’s name. So I brought that up. “Who’s the woman in the photograph?” None of us knew. In that moment it just hit me. This is an iconic image, but we don’t know the woman’s name in the photograph, we only talk about the photographer and the government. How do you bring agency and power to the subject that everyone else is benefiting from? As it happens, her name was Florence Owens Thompson, she died destitute, and her children never received royalties from those images.
That’s where it began. Considering the difficult reality my mother, my grandmother and I were living in, I thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be a great way to honor Florence Owens Thompson by thinking about what her portraits might have looked like had she photographed herself?” And so I ran with that idea.
I started as a teenager, and so of course I didn’t have all the knowledge I have now, but it was that concept that gave the work the visual aesthetic of the black-and-white gelatin silver print. It’s the reason why my work looks like social documentary.
Boniface Mwangi stands in front of one of the murals he helped create. The main character is “the Vulture” — a stand-in for Kenya’s corrupt politicians. Photo: Allan Gichingi
Award-winning photojournalist Boniface Mwangi captured the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya unflinchingly through the lens of his camera. But the horrors he witnessed propelled him into a new career as an activist and artist. Here, Mwangi talks to the TED Blog about the events that led him to stand up against injustice, literally, rather than simply document it.
Tell us about your experience on the front lines of the post-election violence in Kenya.
At the time, I was a photographer working for The Standard, one of the largest newspapers in Kenya. It was a routine election, though hotly contested. There were two contenders: Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki won — at least he claimed that he won — while Raila claimed that he was the rightful winner and that Kibaki had rigged the election. So the supporters of the two politicians erupted into fighting over the results. What followed was ugly, bloody, terrible violence. More than a thousand people were killed, and more than half a million displaced. My job was just to document this violence as a photographer.
Why do you think this particular event created such a violent response?
During the build-up of the election, there was a lot of terrible tribal rhetoric. The politicians were inciting people, slowly. Whatever the outcome was, the losing side would not be ready to accept the results. There were a lot of underlying, unresolved issues; a violent response was inevitable. It didn’t just happen. It was very deliberate.
Boniface Mwangi was assigned to photograph the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. His photos are unflinching, capturing violence from both civilians and soldiers. Photo: Boniface Mwangi
Did you see it coming?
No. No one saw it coming. You see, we’d had elections before in 1992 and 1997 where people died — maybe 10, 20, 50, 100 — but it was a scattered number and relatively few. The sheer brutality of 2007’s events — this level of orchestrated violence — had never been seen before in Kenya.
Did other Kenyans try to stop it?
The violence was in low-income neighborhoods, and most Kenyans did not know the extent of what was going on. If you are extremely poor, you only get your news on the radio. All those communities heard about were numbers of the dead and displaced, and they couldn’t relate. If you’re middle class, you might get the paper or watch TV, but graphic pictures were not shown because TV content is classified for family audiences. Most Kenyans did not see what really happened.
What were the police doing while this was happening?
By and large, the monstrosity of the violence overwhelmed them. Unfortunately, the police were perpetrators as well. I took pictures of women who had been raped by the policemen who were meant to protect them. I saw innocent kids being killed by police. During the violence, I only broke down once — when a girl was killed. She was about 12 years old, and she looked like my younger sister. That made me wail like a baby.
How do you take pictures in the face of such violence? Are you concerned about your personal safety?
When I’m taking pictures, I’m not thinking about the person. I’m thinking about lighting, framing, composition. There is so much adrenaline in your body that you’re not thinking about death. You’re not careless — you’re careful while you’re doing your work — but at the same time you realize that you have to do a job. If you’re a news photographer, or any photographer, and you get a chance to cover hard news like war, it’s stimulating and also humbling. It’s every news photographer’s dream to cover war. So at that particular time, I wasn’t really thinking about safety.
In some parts of the world, half of the women lack basic reading and writing skills. The reasons vary, but in many cases, literacy isn’t valued by fathers, husbands, even mothers. Kuwaiti-born photographer and TED Fellow Laura Boushnak traveled to countries including Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia to document some of the women — schoolgirls, political activists, 60-year-old moms — who are fighting cultural odds for the sake of education. Listen to Boushnak’s talk, then see a gallery of her images on the TED Ideas Blog >>>
Earlier this year, when photojournalist Anastasia Taylor-Lind found herself at the epicenter of Ukraine’s Independence Square protests, she decided to record not the unfolding events but the people living them. She set up a makeshift studio and began making portraits in the midst of fire. The result is a set of haunting and intimate photos that tell a human story of the men who fight wars and the women who mourn those lost. In this talk, given at TEDGlobal 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she shows us the faces of revolution.
For an in-depth conversation with Taylor-Lind about her experiences in Ukraine, visit the TED Blog >>>
Bosnian photojournalist Ziyah Gafić photographs the aftermath of conflict. (Watch his TED Talk, “Everyday objects, tragic histories.”) In his most recent book, Quest for Identity, he catalogs the belongings of Bosnia’s genocide victims, everyday objects like keys, books, combs and glasses that were exhumed from mass graves. The objects are still being used to identify the bodies from this two-decade-old conflict. Only 12 when the Bosnian War began, the Sarajevo native has spent the last 15 years turning his lens on conflicts around the world as a way of coming to terms with the tragedy of his homeland. Here, he tells the TED Blog about looking for patterns of violence, the relationship between detachment and empathy, and what it’s like to grow up with war.
Tell us about the overall focus of your work.
The stories I’m interested in are focused on countries that have followed a similar pattern of violence as my homeland, Bosnia. My book Troubled Islam: Short Stories from Troubled Societies covers my own journey starting with the aftermath of war in Bosnia, and then exploring the consequences of conflict in the northwestern province of Pakistan, Palestine and Israel to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Chechnya and Lebanon. “Aftermath” is a key word: the aftermaths of conflicts in these countries follow a similar sequence to that of Bosnia: ethnic violence, fraternal war, ethnic cleansing and, ultimately, genocide.
My idea was to compare countries that are thousands of miles away, on different continents, yet following the same vicious patterns. These countries have certain things in common. One is ethnic wars, though “ethnic” is probably not the most fortunate choice of word. All these countries have significant Muslim communities, or have majority-Muslim populations. In the post-9/11 world, these elements became very relevant.
How is Quest for Identity related to Troubled Islam?
I worked on Quest for Identity in parallel to Troubled Islam, but Quest is totally different from everything I do, because my usual approach to photography is very subjective. I wanted to do something on the other side of the spectrum, something extremely objective—something neutral, something accurate. By coincidence, while doing other stories, around 10 years ago I stumbled upon these objects that are being used as forensic evidence in the ongoing process of identifying over 30,000 missing Bosnians.
Jorge Mañes Rubio explains he makes his new souvenirs to create interesting interactions at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash
From China’s underwater cities to Amsterdam’s neglected neighborhoods to Italy’s looted ruins, Jorge Mañes Rubio seeks out forsaken places and makes art that memorializes, reimagines and reengages them with the world. His project “Normal Pool Level” — which emerged from his exploration of the cities, towns and villages submerged by China’s Three Gorges Dam Project — is on exhibition at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, England, until September 7. So it felt like the perfect time to ask Rubio more about this exhibit, as well as about the experiences that led him from a stable career in design to life as a perpetual tourist.
Let’s start with your current exhibition. How did you end up in China, looking for abandoned underwater cities?
My project in China was something very special to me, on so many levels. It all started when I moved to Chongqing for two months in 2013 as part of an artist-in-residence program. The city was quite tough, and pretty much nobody could speak English, so in the end I decided to travel along the Yangtze River, looking for the remains of the cities flooded by the Three Gorges Dam Project. Thousands of cities and villages have been submerged, and so far 4 million people have been forced to relocate—but very few people know this.
During my journey I came across cities that have no name, cities that don’t appear on any map. On one hand, I was really excited to be able to explore these places which very few people have seen. But on the other, I was appalled to see the conditions people were living in. We’re talking about entire cities that have been pretty much destroyed and left isolated, but where some people have refused to leave. I decided to create a series of souvenirs and symbols that would document and recognize these forgotten cities, and at the same time help me to express this inner conflict I went through during my journey.
What kind of objects did you create?
In the beginning, my intention was just to look for these cities, and to explore this area. But the more I saw, the more I understood that these places deserved recognition. I was struggling with the fact that I found some of these places extremely beautiful. It was a strange and tragic beauty, but a fascinating one nevertheless. I knew photographs were not enough to convey those feelings, so I started to gather materials and objects along the road, and later I modified them and transformed them into the symbols that compose the project.
The most representative are probably two plastic jerrycans that contain water from the Yangtze River. I collected this water at the exact point where the old city of Fengdu used to stand, now completely submerged under the water. Later on, I painted these jerrycans with traditional chinese motifs, as if they were precious Chinese vases. The result is an object whose identity is heavily questioned, which doesn’t seem to belong either to Eastern or Western culture, but that represents the clash between traditional Chinese culture and industrialization. There are more than 10 objects and installations in total, together with a series of photographs.
Fengdu Jerry Cans, from the Normal Pool Level series. Exhibition view at the 501 Contemporary Art Centre, Chongqing, China. Photo: Seethisway.
You call yourself a “perpetual tourist.” What does this mean, especially in the context of design?
Until fairly recently, I worked with design companies on everyday items like chairs, furniture or small products — homeware, vases, so on. But while I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London, I joined a program that was very experimental, pushing the boundaries of design. So my work became much more about the impact design can have in our current society, beyond manufacturing everyday items.
To put it concisely, I became interested in experience. Right now, with any product that you have or acquire, what you look forward to is the experiences the product might allow you to have. So I started thinking about tourism. In a way, industrial design is about creating a product, and replicating it millions of times. And tourism is the mass-production of experiences. You create one experience — say, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower — and then millions of people have, literally, that very same experience. I also find interesting the way people behave when they are tourists. Things look different, the food tastes different, and you dare to do things that otherwise you’d never do. You’re way more open to learning about new cultures, meeting new people. You become someone else. I thought, “What if I apply that kind of behavior to everyday experiences? Can I behave like a tourist every day?”
I did a few projects that explored these ideas. One was an illegal souvenir production project on top of the Eiffel Tower. Another one — my graduation project — was a portable souvenir factory. I rode my bike for three weeks along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and attached to the bike I had a portable rotational molding machine. In every village, I met different people, and I used my machine to manufacture my own souvenirs on the road — in contrast to the experience of buying, you know, fridge magnets.
After a childhood spent traveling the world with her rabbinical family, photographer Kitra Cahana found she couldn’t stop. With her camera as her vehicle, she began work as a documentary photographer, shooting for publications like The New York Times and National Geographic. When Cahana is not on assignment, she comes home to a life on the road — living among communities of nomads that wander the United States, documenting their reality. Cahana’s TED Talk, “A glimpse of life on the road,” offers a look into this world. But we wanted to hear more—about her own experiences, about what motivates people to take to the road, and about the history and evolution of American itinerant culture.
That’s always been a complicated question. I was born in the United States—my parents are both American, but they didn’t want to raise their children in the States, mainly for sociopolitical reasons. So we left shortly after I was born and moved frequently when I was a child. I grew up in different places across Canada and Sweden where my father held rabbinic positions. That’s what took us from place to place.
It was part of my parents’ ethos to prioritize experiences over materialism. From our infancy, they took us on adventures. When we moved to Sweden, we spent months making our way from North America to Europe via Asia. We were raised with this deep knowledge that the world was open and that the world was ours. It’s a beautiful thing to instill in a child — a sense of curiosity about the way other people live, to explore other value systems, to give a sense of otherness and sameness all at once. The idea was to be able to feel a sense of home anywhere, while simultaneously having a really strong core — a family core. In our family, that meant a spiritual and religious core as well.
Which came first, being a nomad, or photography? Or did both happen at the same time?
When I spoke in the talk about wanting to run away as a child, I think that emotion came from wanting to escape stagnation, never wanting to be still. Always wanting to see the next thing around the corner. When we moved to Canada when I was 12, I went from being in a Swedish Montessori school to the rigidity of Orthodox Jewish day schools. I did well, but I hated it. I didn’t want an outside voice to dictate my day to day. Every piece of me was just yearning to explode outwards and move again, to feel unencumbered by any authority but my own.
That’s why I gravitated towards photography, because it allowed me to always be on the move, to investigate other people’s ways of life and to pose deep questions of political and social import. It gave me a purpose to continue the adventuring I had been exposed to as a child, but it went far deeper than just having an adventure. It put me at the crux of really critical and telling moments in the lives of others.
I left home as soon as I finished high school at 16; my photojournalism career started shortly after. I’ve been more or less nomadic since, in many different incarnations of the nomadic life. I’ve lived in a more sedentary fashion in certain places — especially while doing my undergrad in philosophy and my masters in visual anthropology — more transient in others. The lengths of my stays are usually dictated by the projects I’m working on, by the worlds I’m moving in and out of. So it’s always completely different. No world is like the next. Altogether, it’s been about nine years of being in motion. It’s just slowly become my way of life.
Young nomads congregate at the “Dirty Kids Corner” at the National Rainbow Gathering in the Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. July 2009. Photo: Kitra Cahana
This is an abandoned tobacco factory just outside Salerno, in the south of Italy, where several villages were destroyed after a devastating series of earthquakes and landslides in the 1980s. With his project Buono Fortuna (“good luck” in Italian), artist and TED Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio hopes to reopen the abandoned spaces in these villages to the public, replacing stolen icons and looted artwork with new fictional symbols, inspired by Southern Italian folklore. To a full gallery of Jorge’s Buono Fortuna photos, visit the TED Ideas Blog. And to read about Jorge’s work creating a micronation in a neglected Amsterdam neighborhood, visit the TED Blog.
As TED Fellows arrive from all over the world today to Ed Ou’s hometown of Vancouver for TED2014, Ou himself is far away in Ukraine, where he has been since February, documenting the civil unrest and growing political tension as a freelance photographer represented by Getty. Today he writes in to give us an inside view at his experience on the field, sending us a cache of his work to date, including links to video segments produced for the New York Times and to his own Instagram feed.
A man accused of being a pro-government provocateur is pulled from the crowd as former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko addresses anti-government protesters on Independence Square on February 22, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. The leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution against current embattled President Viktor Yanukovych traveled to Kiev to address the crowd immediately after being released from prison on what many claim were politically motivated charges. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
The body of a man killed during clashes between anti-government protesters and the police are carried down Independence Square in a procession in Kiev, Ukraine on Feb. 21, 2014. After a week that saw new levels of violence, with dozens killed, opposition and government representatives reached an agreement intended to resolve the crisis. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
Anti-government protesters have a makeshift meeting in a bus stop atop Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2014. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
Anti-government protesters stand near barricades and tents during a sit-in of Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2014. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
Women distribute flowers to anti-government protesters guarding the barricades in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine on Feb. 23, 2014. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
An anti-government protester smokes a cigarette near Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine on Feb. 23, 2014. After a chaotic and violent week, Viktor Yanukovych has been ousted as President as the Ukrainian parliament moves forward with scheduling new elections and establishing a caretaker government. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
How does the situation feel from where you are?
The situation here is very fluid, and the political stakes are very high. But at the end of the day, the most interesting thing for me is seeing how ordinary people come to terms with extraordinary things happening around them. Many feel empowered, like they now finally have a voice. Others feels like they are at the mercy of politicians in Moscow or Kiev who may or may not represent them. Regardless, everyone has a say in the direction that Crimea — and Ukraine — will go.
Tell us about the videos you’ve produced for the New York Times.
The second video looks at Crimean Tatars. They are a Muslim minority group who have Turkic roots, and make up 12% of the population here. They have historical reasons to fear Russia. In the 1940s, Stalin deported most of their population to Central Asia on the pretext that they collaborated with the Nazis. Many died along the way — and only in the last few decades did most return. Many are unsure what will happen if Crimea secedes to Russia.
The Instagram feed is like a personal diary. It’s my own space where I get to be my own editor and show my own take on what you see in the news. Interestingly, I think the people who are looking at my images on Instagram may be a completely different demographic of people who read newspapers, magazines, and so on. So I find that Instagramming photos of international news events — whether it be conflict, political unrest, or social issues — can reach people who would otherwise not seek this kind of information out. I’ve had high school students email me asking me to explain the conflict in Gaza that I covered because they followed me on Instagram and saw a photo I posted. I was happy to oblige. Journalism is all about reaching the widest and most diverse audience, and if I can use this medium to inform someone who would otherwise not read a newspaper, then I’m all for it.