By Sean Patrick Hill
One of photography’s ablest functions is to show us lives outside our own. Though the National Geographic photographers have long searched the world for landscapes and lives to document, increasingly the artist and his camera have roamed beyond our borders, as well.
In June of this year, Louisville photographer Fred DiGiovanni traveled to Oyugis, Kenya, to document such lives. And though at least some of the images he brought back are likely familiar to us — the Maasai warriors, for example — he also offers us images we would not expect, people and plateaus we are truly unfamiliar with.
His exhibit, “Heartfelt Kenya,” opens Friday, Oct. 5, at First Light Gallery.
John Willingham, the founder and president of Hearts for Kenya, based in Louisville, invited DiGiovanni to visit Amani, the organization’s compound in Kenya that includes a school and conference center.
The mission of Hearts for Kenya is to not only combat poverty, hunger and disease in agrarian communities, but to enable the local citizens of Kenya’s Nyanza province to carry on projects like building, nutrition and education autonomously.
Though Willingham asked the photographer to document Amani’s compound, the rest of the time DiGiovanni explored on his own, shooting 6-by-7 black-and-white film on his medium-format Pentax.
The photos, all traditional darkroom prints, toned with selenium and printed to 11-by-14 size, offer a monumental look at the lives of contemporary Kenya — at least, one corner of the country.
One of the hallmark images, “William and His Daughter Millicent,” is an unflinching portrait — neither the photographer nor his subjects avert their gaze, and therefore, neither will the viewer. What the photograph asks us to consider is the nature of dignity, and it demands we abandon any concept of poverty and of what we suppose the human condition to be in Africa.
The central figure is William, who, using an antique coal box iron (an example of which, dating from the late 1700s to early 1800s, will be on display as part of the show), ironed all day long in a button-down shirt, jacket and tie. At night, he worked as a security guard in the compound, carrying a machete — a weapon that appears in another photograph, as well.
William is the subject of many shots in the show, including one of his hands resting on the new iron that was brought to him from America.
William’s daughter, one of eight children, gazes at us rather fiercely, dressed in the simple garb of a student. The photo as a whole depicts its narrative in the details — the dusty, gravelly ground, the fabric draped over the ironing table, and the rough logs that hold the roof all testify to life in Kenya in the aftermath of colonialism.
The photographs of Maasai warriors in their elaborate jewelry and clothing offer a counterpoint to the roughly dressed cooks and drivers, also native Kenyans, that DiGiovanni photographed in the compound and its environs.
In the juxtaposition of such characters, we are asked to consider — and ultimately to question — our presuppositions about what we imagine Africa to be.
These are the small lives, much as our own are, made large by photography. Indeed, the selenium-toned prints embellish the silver in the paper, making each character shine.
DiGiovanni, as he readily admits, is not ordinarily a photographer of people. In fact, these are his first portraits since 1971, he says. And though the show is replete with the human image, men and women both, the remainder of the show explores one of the photographer’s passions, the landscape.
Here we see vistas as large as the Rift Valley, as intimate as a wind-smoothed rock formation and, even closer, of a blooming cactus. Included in landscapes is another traditional photographer’s task, the architectural shot. The “Seed Farm Building” and the “Maize Storage Bin” not only document the compound, but they bring us in contact with the places where these lives are lived, and how such lives are undertaken.
And like any good photograph, the viewer must simultaneously strive to understand the lives of those distant from us — their jobs, their villages and the landscape where they struggle and build community equally — and must also translate this information and compare it against where we are: In what ways are our lives similar? What are our struggles in light of the struggles of those on another continent?
In this, of course, “Heartfelt Kenya” at once focuses intensely on a people and also unifies them into the larger fabric of human beings.
We are asked here, too, to appreciate the need that these photographs record, and so it is that a percentage of sales will be donated to Hearts for Kenya. Ultimately, the photographs ask compassion of us, which is perhaps the most enduring task of art.
“Heartfelt Kenya” opens at First Light Gallery on Friday, Oct. 5 with an artist’s talk and reception from 5 to 9 p.m. The exhibit continues through Dec. 1. First Light is located at 1009 E. Main St.