Interview of Akosua Viktoria Adu-Sanyah, laureate of the Prix Photoforum 2020, on the occasion of the award’s exhibition at Photoforum Pasquart, in Switzerland.
Can you tell us briefly about the project currently on display at the Photoforum?
Inheritance — Poems of Non-Belonging is a continuing body of work about the complex process of identity-building as a biracial woman of colour who grew up in a predominantly white environment. Inheritance is heterogeneous in its materiality and covers a wide range of grey, white and black tones, speaking to different aspects on the broad spectrum between internal processes and external experiences. It includes photographic sculptures, portraiture, performative photography and video.
What does it mean for you to exhibit this project? What would you like to convey to the audience?
Exhibiting this work is undoubtedly a vulnerable place to be in. But that vulnerability is also freeing, and it requires me to take a stand for myself. So, it is a beautiful place to be in, essentially. There is no particular idea that I hope to convey to anyone, and no audience is the same. My work, in general, endeavours to trigger expansion of some sort by providing insight into something truthful, something that was made with sincerity. Nothing that involves someone else’s perception is in my control, and I don’t aim for that. But I would hope for this work to make people feel something and explore what it is they are feeling, and maybe even why they are feeling that way.
The subject comes from a personal place but touches on a broader issue about divisions. Could you discuss this a little further?
The work is autobiographically shaped, but the experiences that Inheritance comments on are painfully prevalent and relatable for millions of people. Racism is deeply rooted in numerous societies. No comfort can be found in talking about it, making it challenging for many people to properly engage with a body of work like this, even though these issues are not new.
The work could be understood as a self-portrait in an unconventional way, all the elements of your exhibition make up a part of who you are… Would you agree?
I struggle with the idea of defining Inheritance as one big self-portrait, although pieces like colors of woman I and périphérie I + II are part of it, and the pieces skins and stone used literal parts of my body. Let’s agree on the understanding that every portrait — whether traditional, commercial or experimental — can only be a fraction of a person and never serve as a representative. But the question is absolutely relevant here and had to be asked because the work is about identity, which, to me, is a fluid, confusing, and often even overrated concept of being human.
You have worked with a wide range of different techniques. Could you tell us a bit more about your personal process? Is the materiality of your photographs important to you?
Photography is a very physical medium for me. And even if it’s immaterial in many cases, a lack of material dimension undeniably reflects how much we have accepted the digital to become an extension of ourselves. But we’re not just data, and neither do we run on lithium; we still have blood and all that. It has been many years since I started working with photography, and I haven’t built a canvas or bought turpentine in over a decade, but I keep referring to my beginnings as a painter. I really enjoy exploration in general. I love working with paper and chemicals, and essential thought processes, even revelations and definitely ideas, often take place in the darkroom or in nature. I often say that the photographed comes from the world, making sense for the medium itself to be part of the world.
Inheritance will keep growing. But I am currently working on two personal projects that are more on the documentary side. RESILIENCE is about my father’s new life as a severely disabled and blind man and his quest to find natural substitutes for his heavy medication. We are travelling to Ghana soon for the second stage of the project. It will be the first time in his home country as a blind and disabled man, so this trip is significant.
Behold The Ocean is about the little-known side of what it means to be an environmental scientist: challenges, fears, and doubts — all the human things scientists are not supposed to be sharing with the public are the focus of this work. Climate change is the backdrop for it. Just this January, I came back from Patagonia, where I accompanied two young marine biologists on an expedition to the Strait of Magellan, where they conduct research on how the marine ecosystem is affected by climate change. I am now producing the book and the film for Behold The Ocean. These very different projects are both challenged and enriched at the same (me by the historic pandemic we are experiencing. So it’s even more important to me to make them move forward and find a place for each of them.
The exhibition Prix Photoforum 2021 is presented at Photoforum Pasquart, Switzerland, from 3 March to 4 April 2021.