On Being Gay In Sierra Leone

An impressive exhibition in Hull entitled The House of Kings and Queens by Lee Price*.  The exhibition documented life in what was effectively a safe house for gay and trans people in Freetown, Sierra Leone (a city with which Hull is twinned).  Although female gay sex is not illegal in the country and the law against male gay sex is seldom enforced, homophobia is widespread for cultural and religious reasons.  Life for those who are openly homosexual or non-mainstream is tough and the focus of the exhibition was the half-life to which the openly LGBTQ are condemned there.  The text accompanying the photographs spoke of the cloud of secrecy in which gay Sierra Leoneans have to live and sought to portray the sense of liberation which they feel in the house.  I felt that the photographs showed more of the secrecy and less of the liberation.  Many of them showed figures glimpsed through doorways or looking out of windows and throughout there was a suggestion of longing, of inside and outside, and of estrangement.  There was a sadness and a darkness which was emphasised by the deeper tones and slight underexposure of the printing.  Many of the subjects were shown involved in minor tasks, or standing/sitting/lying listlessly, which added to the sense of waste or disengagement.  Some photographs depict and some suggest. Many of the photos in this exhibition seemed to me to straddle difficult ground by doing both – like a sentence which seems clear on first reading but which carries undertones that may surface long after you have read it.  Although ostensibly about the plight of gay people they could be read more generally as speaking of the mental and physical isolation which seems to be such a defining characteristic of modern times.  

(*I haven't been able to trace a website for Lee but if you google his name and the exhibition title you can find out about him and how he came to make the series.)


Dougie Wallace featured in one episode of the occasional TV series “What Does The Artist Do All Day” recently.  It was mostly about his latest work snapping the rich shoppers around Harrods.  The idea is to publicise the stranglehold that the rich now have on London but I wonder if many of his subjects might not be flattered by the attention.  He has a strong nerve:  his method is to get right up close then use a double flash unit with the camera a couple of feet or less from the subject.  This creates a photo where none might have been.  First there is often a recoil with a shocked expression and second the close-up flash often creates the Ugly Effect, like Martin Parr or Bruce Gilden.  Several times in the programme DW is reassured by acquaintances that this is the truth, he is simply photographing what is there; but like all photography it is a constructed truth.  He used much the same technique when photographing stag and hen parties round Blackpool with much the same result.  Yet, curiously, his photos of Indian taxi-drivers have a more benign look and the subjects seem more dignified.  This is photography used very purposefully.  The simple, cartoon-like quality of these images has great impact, but very little respect.  You wouldn’t describe them as nuanced but I don’t think they are meant to be.


I’ve just finished looking through ‘Ernst Haas - Colour Correction’ a collection of the photographer’s work first published in 2011 and which I mentioned in an earlier piece below.  There are apparently 200,000 slides in the Haas archive so we can expect perhaps further volumes if this one is a success (and it was reprinted in 2016).

I found leafing through the book to be a sensuous experience.  Colour has that effect on me rather more than black and white.  Several of the images sent me into reverie.  The others were mostly interesting in a technical sense: speculating about how he achieved the effects that he did and thinking about why some had more impact than others.

The text going with the images took a familiar route through historical context – who knew whom and who influenced whom and who ignored whom.  The suggestion is that after his first MoMA show (proposed and curated by Edward Steichen) he was dropped by John Szarkowski.   Woven into this account is an aesthetic assessment, technical detail, wider context and quotations: you get a pinball effect as the subject skitters from one of these to the next. Finding the language in which to talk about a series of photos is a constant challenge even to those who do it professionally.


Tame Wildlife?

There is a certain kind of photograph where you feel, having looked at it closely, that you know the photographer a little.  I have visited several WPOTY exhibitions now and the photographs leave me with exactly the opposite feeling.  The photographers have obviously put a lot into them: time, effort,  equipment, travel, patience, persistence and ingenuity.  But there is nothing personal about the result.  With a small number of exceptions, they are technically superb yet clinical to the point of monotone.

I wonder why the text panels always tell you exactly what kit was used for each shot (including strobes, drones, speedlights and more this year – including a powered paraglider).  I wonder about the environmental impact of flying half way across the world to take these photos, as some photographers do.  I wonder why all but a handful of the photographers are from developed countries.  I wonder about the exhibition’s ambient music and the little dramatised texts that go with each shot. I think about colonial-era photography and the way that another kind of wild was pinned down by that.

The visitors’ book is a litany of superlatives.  This is a truly popular exhibition but to me it is not so much a celebration of nature as of technology.


I've just been looking at 'Color Correction' - a volume of the non-commercial colour photography of Ernst Haas.  He says somewhere: "For me, photography became a language with which I have learnt to write both prose and poetry."

That is a very interesting idea - that photography can be divided into the equivalent of verse and prose.  Perhaps he meant that his commercial work was the prose side, some kind of linear process which marched relentlessly to a predictable conclusion. The poetry would then be something more abstract and affective:  images which made their way by association or allusion.  It is these latter which make up the volume I have been looking at.

Maybe there is something in the distinction.  On the other hand, prose can be just as allusive as poetry and rum-ti-tum poetry can be just as predictable as some prose.  All photographs both depict and allude and that is less true of words which tend to direct one's thoughts rather more firmly.    In the end EH's distinction can go only so far.  The potency of the photograph will always set it apart from words.


I just caught the tail end of the Peter Mitchell show at Impressions Gallery - Planet Yorkshire - before Christmas.  PM himself was there so I had a chat with him.  He's a very pleasant chap.  He told me that his house is jammed full of all his work from previous exhibitions. He is still photographing now, totally analogue, using medium format. I find his approach very appealing: a kind of vocation without ambition.   He's had the same printer for forty years.  The prints are pretty huge and often darkish so that you are squinting a bit.  He's going for an overall look.

Given the range of his work over the years an exhibition  giving a flavour of it all is bound to be a bit episodic, as this was, but the lost world of the seventies does look like another planet now and these photos seem not just to portray it but also to embody it.  Lovely show and great to get to chat to him.