The Space Between Images and Words
Photographer Glenna Gordon started out as a reporter. She knows some stories rely on visuals, others on writing. Photos tell great stories, but not all stories: when do they deliver and when should photos take a back-seat? Gordon’s latest project is about writers in Nigeria; a book about books. She’s exploring the bristling space between pictures and texts.
Documentary photographer Glenna Gordon first visited Nigeria in 2011 when the African Artist Foundation exhibited her photographs from Sierra Leone at The Lagos Photo Festival. In the country for only three days, it was enough to sense her need to return and make images. Since 2012, Gordon has made Nigeria her second home. After beginning her career based in East Africa, it was huge switch to move across a continent and establish her work and life in West Africa, and Nigeria in particular. Gordon is perhaps most well-known for her images of the belongings of 300 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in Chibok, northern Nigeria in April 2014. Her work, however, spans a much more wide appreciation of human activity, spirit and connection.
For Blink, Laurence Cornet speaks to Gordon about living and working in Nigeria, how her projects help her delicately explore core issues of race, gender and religion, and her recent acclaimed photobook, Diagram Of The Heart.
Laurence: Can you describe your projects in Nigeria?
Glenna: When I first went to Nigeria, I was doing a combination of assignment work and a project called Nigeria Ever After for which I basically crashed dozens of Nigerian weddings. I realized that I could use marriages to tell different stories. Weddings allowed me to talk about gender, class and religion in a way that was not overt but provided an important entry point. As I covered various ceremonies, I found out about a mass wedding in the North. After reading the novel, Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home, I made plans to cover the mass wedding and also start a new project on Nigerian romance novelists.
While I was spending time in the North, the schoolgirls abduction story broke and I wanted to cover it. I had taken many photos of the notebooks that women novelists had written their stories in and it occurred to me that I could find the schoolgirls’ notebooks.
A lot of editors were asking me for photos of the protests in solidarity of the Bring Back Our Girls movement, but I knew going in that direction would have distracted me from what I wanted to do. So, I turned down those jobs and used the protests as an opportunity to meet people from Chibok, the town where the girls were kidnapped. At one protest, I met a man who helped me collect the majority of the items belonging to the girls that I photographed in a studio in Abuja, the capital.
Laurence: You like to tell stories by using artifacts rather than facts. As you write in the introduction of your book, you try to step back from traditional photojournalism. Can you tell me about your approach to documentary work?
Glenna: When I first started working on Diagram Of The Heart, I did very formal portraits of the novelists and photos of the production of books. It was a very straight-forward approach. I knew I wanted to do more but I didn’t really know what. When I was back home in New York, I showed my work to friends and other photographers and the most common suggestion was to reenact the scenes from the books. I never felt drawn to do that approach.
Instead, I tried to think about how to look for abstract moments, images that were a little bit quieter and told a nuanced story about a place. I kept doing the things I had always done — going to weddings, hanging out with ladies, stopping by and greeting people, and I just kept taking pictures. It took me awhile to make sense of the pictures, to make them hold together and point to something — something that I hoped couldn’t quite be articulated in words.
Laurence: Do you think your approach is also a way to go against the typically codified iconography of Africa?
Glenna: Yes, it’s really easy to go as a photographer and take images that confirm our preconceived narratives about Africa — whether it’s famine and refugees or mobile phones and a new elite.
Generally speaking, I think there’s the Africa Rising narrative, and then the Africa Failing narrative, and now there’s also the Everyday Africa narrative. Each of these has truth and value in our media ecosystem but my priority is to find specific stories — a specific set of people in a specific place at a specific time.
Laurence: How do you find a balance between what you believe, what you want to develop, and the stories you have to shoot to finance such projects?
Glenna: It’s definitely not an easy balance. When I was working on the novelist project, I applied for a lot of grants and never got any of them. I’m grateful for the support of Open Society Foundations for putting the shows together and bringing attention to the work.
To work on this project, I took every assignment that I could find in Northern Nigeria — news assignments, NGO assignments — so I could go back. I was lucky to meet a woman who let me stay at her place for as long as I needed to work on this project. She was a Taiwanese woman who another journalist found on couchsurfing.com. She put me up again and again
I knew this is something I wanted to do. The first time I was in Kano, I pitched a slideshow of pictures and a publication wanted to take it and pay me $200, no expenses. I knew this was bigger than that, and I’m glad I waited.
Laurence: What are the risks of working in Nigeria?
Glenna: Nigeria as a whole is one of the dicier places in sub-Saharan Africa to work. (Though with attacks on soft targets in “safe” countries, who really knows anymore…)
The risks differ depending on where you are. When I walk in the street in Lagos, a lot of people hassle me. Whereas in the North, people comparatively more respectful towards women.
However, kidnapping in Lagos is generally of a commercial kind, if you’re kidnapped in the North it’s political and ideological. I feel very lucky to have been able to work safely in the region for a couple of years but that doesn’t change the fact that something could happen tomorrow and no amount of preparation and precautions could prevent it.
Laurence: At the end of your book, you thanked Tim Hetherington. How did he help you?
Glenna: I met Tim in early 2009 when I moved to Liberia from Uganda. He had come back for an assignment and had copies of his book. I had never seen a photo-book like his before: it blew my mind.
Tim wasn’t just a photographer, he helped the UN after the war in Liberia to collect evidence and prosecute people. When he left Liberia, a lot of the jobs normally offered to him were given to me. This was in 2009, when the media was in really bad shape and there was little money for expenses. I was not only very lucky to get these gigs, but also fortunate to have Tim’s help as I developed my profession. He was an amazing example to follow in terms of expanding the limits of documentary photography and being truly intellectually rigorous in his approach and all that he did.
Laurence: What were other transforming points in your career?
Glenna: I was living in Liberia and getting a lot of work. I came back to New York for the first time in 2011 where I met photographers Alan Chin, and Jason Eskenazi, from Red Hook Editions. That meeting was important for me in terms of thinking about the photos that could work within a long term project and were not necessarily photos that I would choose for my assignments.
I remember Alan saying: “This is a great situation where you failed to make a great photo.” I also remember Jason asking me what poetry and music I liked. All of those questions really set the course for the next couple years of my work.
Winning a World Press last year also changed things, especially since the photos that won were not typical photojournalistic images. It’s always hard to say how much external validation like that matters. I certainly was working for many years without it, and I’d like continue to make work for many more years with or without more of it.
Laurence: Since you’re talking about influences, do you think that being a writer also influenced your work?
Glenna: Absolutely. To have started as a writer and to now be doing a photography project about writing had a huge influence on my work. It changed the way I conceptualize stories. And considering I just made a photo book about writers, I continue to think about the space between images and words.
Laurence: Where do you see opportunities for photographers to develop and distribute their stories?
Glenna: I continue to believe that when you do good work it finds an audience. There are a lot of conversations about ways to use social media to promote and distribute your work. But that conversation loses the first step in the process, which is, how do we improve our work?
I’m not sure an editor would ever have thought to assign me to crash dozens of Nigerian weddings, but I continue to be please by how many are excited about publishing this kind of work.
Laurence: What is your next move?
Glenna: I’m excited to start new projects in new parts of the world. It’s daunting because I know West Africa so well but I feel like it’s time for me to push myself to work in new places.
“If you aren’t failing, you aren’t really trying. So I have a certain expectation of failure in the immediate future and in a lot of ways, that is very liberating.”
I want to continue to raise the stakes in my work. Previously, I’ve done that by going to new places — harder and harder and more dangerous places, but next up after Northern Nigeria is places like Syria and Pakistan and I’m just not willing to take those risks. I’d like to take other risks, risks within my own work. I don’t know what that means, or what that looks like, but every time I’ve shifted from one phase of my work life to the next one, I haven’t known what it will look like. I’m certainly afraid that whatever I do next won’t be as good as what I’ve already done. But I also know that if you aren’t failing, you aren’t really trying. So I have a certain expectation of failure in the immediate future and in a lot of ways, that is very liberating.
Glenna Gordon is a Brooklyn based documentary photographer. Her first book Diagram Of The Heart was recently published by Red Hook Editions. Connect with Glenna on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Blink.
Laurence Cornet is a writer, a photography critic and a curator based in Brooklyn. Her clients include L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Magnum Foundation, Images magazine, Vice, MSNBC, Vogue and Camera.