Temples and shrines, fruit sellers and fisher folk, thronging cities and barren deserts—photographs taken in distant lands can be highly charged, both culturally and politically.
The history of photography is toxic with examples of westerners using the medium to stereotype or exoticize nonwestern subjects. Ethnographic, expeditionary, and travel photographs have all perpetuated inequitable power relations. In Asia and Africa, particularly, people and landscapes remain vulnerable to the camera’s still-colonizing gaze.
These dynamics are well understood and consciously resisted by two local photo artists whose metaphor-rich works are on display during the Capture Photography Festival. Josema Zamorano is exhibiting his recent series of experimental Japanese images at Back Gallery Project and Valerie Durant is showing her documentary photographs of Africa at Ukama Gallery. Both artists bring an impressive depth of knowledge and experience to the why, what, and how of their creative practices.
Zamorano, who was born in Tepic, Mexico, moved to Vancouver in 2006 to earn a Ph.D in interdisciplinary studies at the University of British Columbia. Before that, while based in Mexico City, he gave up his well-paid job in telecommunications to return to university to study literature and philosophy.
“Everybody surrounding me—my friends, my family—was saying, ‘You are so stupid! What are you doing?’ ” Zamorano recounts. Speaking with the Straight at Back Gallery Project, he adds that he has never regretted his choice.
While attending the National University of Mexico, he began taking street photographs, exploring the camera’s relationship to issues of identity. Since arriving in Vancouver, during and after his UBC studies (he now teaches part-time at Capilano University), he has been pushing the formal and technical capacities of his medium. “I’ve been going from doing straight street photography to a more experimental type of work,” he says.
Much of Zamorano’s experimental photography is linked to extended trips he has taken through Eastern Canada, China, Morocco, and most recently Japan.
“I try to start a trip by trying to clear out my mind,” he says, “without having a very clear idea of what I’m going to do.” During time spent in Morocco in 2014, for instance, he began to make gestures with his camera, using a very slow shutter speed. “I was painting with light, smudging light and colour in the street scenes in a way that things are semiabstract, sometimes recognizable, sometimes not.”
While travelling around Japan last year, Zamorano sought to reconcile his interest in urban subjects and European existentialism with Zen Buddhism. He encountered references to Sandokai, a poem by the eighth-century Chinese Zen master Shitou Xiqian, also known as Sekito Kisen, and was struck particularly by the line “Grasping at things is surely delusion.”
Rather than attempting to fix a scene in a single shot, he used multiple exposures, taken from different perspectives. The effect suggests a sense of flux and, as his exhibition statement explains, “the merging of the relative and the absolute”.
His Sandokai images range from busy intersections in Tokyo and night markets in Osaka to temples in Kyoto. Buildings shift and shimmer, trees hover in midair, people take on a wavering, multifaceted aspect, as in a cubist painting. “I tried to create a space to… open possibilities,” Zamorano says, “to reconsider reality.”
By contrast, Durant’s photographs appear more straightforwardly documentary. It’s their environmental and social-justice themes that distinguish and enrich them. Titled Interweave, her show examines how the overconsuming, gas-guzzling ways of developed nations are affecting indigenous populations—those who live off the land—half a world away.
“Extreme weather events and increased temperatures.…are having impacts on food and water security and human health, particularly in Africa,” she writes in her exhibition statement. “Those who contribute the least to climate change are emerging as the most affected.”
An interdisciplinary artist with a background in sculpture, design, and architectural planning, Durant got up close to her subjects during a five-year stint in South Africa from 2006 to 2011. While her husband worked for the United Nations on an HIV/AIDS program, she undertook a project for the British government on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in their foreign offices, and shot photographs for the One Africa campaign of the International Organization for Migration.
She also earned her master’s degree in community and regional planning at the University of Pretoria. “I did a specialization in the effects of climate change on human health,” she tells the Straight in her photo-filled Vancouver home.
During this period, Durant travelled extensively through Africa, meeting with and photographing farmers and fishers and road workers and shopkeepers. She also took shots of the places where they lived and worked, and the changing landscape around them. From a convenience store in Ethiopia to a market stall in Uganda, and from a sand dune in Namibia to a wildfire in South Africa, her colour photographs are vivid and challenging, but not without hope.
“I believe in the strength of people,” she says, “that, given the understanding, we can make social change.”
The Capture Photography Festival presents Josema Zamorano’s exhibition, Sandokai, at Back Gallery Project from Friday (April 1) to April 21, and Valerie Durant’s exhibition, Interweave, at Ukama Gallery from April 1 to 28.