Interview #391: Daniel Ali
Clear and honest portraiture by photographer Daniel Ali.
q: Give a short introduction about yourself:
a: I was born in London, raised in the South East of England. I completed my MA in 2010, moved to live in Australia for a little while, did a bit of traveling around South East Asia and then returned to London to concentrate on photography. I currently have a few different occupations, such as film and digital projectionist for The Ritzy cinema in Brixton, freelance photographer and video camera operator and I even had a stint as a tour manager for an up and coming artist. I have a very mixed cultural background within my family which has encouraged me to travel and investigate people and places that you don’t just come across day to day. My photography is simply a visual representation of the people and the places I discover whilst trying to appease my own curiosities and interests.
q: What does photography mean to you?
a: Photography in my opinion is a means in which to share a visual experience that hopefully either forms a narrative or discussion around those images. Whether my photographs end up on my blog acting as a diary or in a gallery where the viewer is expected to gaze upon the work interpreting their own conclusions, photography is undoubtedly a subjective medium. I believe a photograph can mean anything to anyone at any given moment. My beliefs are that a photograph encapsulates a brief moment in time that lacks a beginning and an ending which in itself empowers the photograph to be used as a tool that leaves the creators hands with meaning and intent, but relies on the viewer to bring about a new life with their own readings and interpretation.
q: In your series “The Modernity of Witchcraft”, you went to Uganda to shoot portraits of the witch doctors. What were they like?
a: Well firstly all of the individuals I worked with have little to no knowledge or understanding of the English language, so I relied on my main contact and his associates to interpret the conversation, my intentions and directions I may have given. All of the subjects were generally friendly, welcoming and very cooperative and in fact that took me by surprise. Before meeting with any of the doctors I wasn’t sure whether to expect elaborate tribal body painting, garments or masks. In actual fact, they looked and behaved like everyone else around and in the slums of Uganda. This is one of the reasons the project is called what it is; these people and their patients have entirely embraced modern life having left the tribes from Eastern Uganda, whilst still holding on to these ancient beliefs and practices.
q: Alternative medicine such as Aryurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine are gaining more scientific credibility. I’m curious about the healing methods practiced by the witch doctors, what was it like and how effective did you think it was?
a: With each of the doctors there were very clear ways of connecting with the spirits, this would either be through fire, smoke and/or by smoking a pipe which would either contain dried raw tobacco leaf or other herbs and plants. Whatever the issue was with the patient the spirits must be contacted and engaged with in order to seek the correct treatment. In Uganda it’s not as simple as calling these people witch doctors, yes their beliefs all resonate from similar spiritual beliefs but each one has their own practice and means of making money. One of my subjects, Lukaata Edward, I would refer to as more of a herbalist. He had a shop front where different plants, herbs and paraphernalia could be bought. In contrast, Mr Mukose and Mr Tenwa operated from offices, or if you like surgeries, in slums that were more central in Kampala and then return to the slums on the outskirts of the city where they live. These doctors were purely practitioners who informed me that they treat vasts amount of people for a range of issues and these were dealt with by contacting the spirits and treated with potions and/or actions with an example being animal sacrifice.
In Uganda the government medical offices are collaborating with some of these individuals but more so with the herbalists as there are statistics that show herbal medicine in a lot of cases does in fact help towards a persons well-being, whether they are suffering from a physical or mental issue. In my opinion, the government recognises the fact that even in the city of Kampala tribal beliefs and social order are still very much in line with tribal practices, therefore people have far more faith in the local herbalists and witch doctors within their community compared to Western medical treatments. By working with these traditional healers, modern medicine can be introduced and encouraged with out so much skepticism. However this gap of knowledge is still strikingly vast and the people of Kampala struggle to realise the benefits of modern medicine when they still fully believe in the spirits. This whole re-education is increasingly muddled by tribal witch doctors now entering and practising black magic in local churches. In order to keep their position as a local healer they have learnt and are learning to align themselves with beliefs brought in since colonial times, missionaries and Christian based NGOs.
q: Apparently they can cure homosexuality too? How does that reflect on their local community and it’s views?
a: They can also apparently cure aids, sterility, depression and psychosis. All these beliefs in witch craft and spirits being able to cure diseases and illness’, and to suggest that something such as homosexuality can be cured rather then it being understood as a natural way of life clearly reflects a community that needs educating. Not only is it their roots in tribal lands but also the influence of certain denominations of Christianity that spread ridiculous thinking and not to mention years of living under a corrupt government. It is a sign that these people are misguided and although it seems wrong to force any country and state into modernisation, there must be responsibility taken to modernise peoples beliefs and ideals towards others. I truly believe Ugandans are kept in the dark politically, after all knowledge is power. A government would much rather the people were busy fighting among themselves whilst enforcing misguided laws rather then challenging and questioning the people in charge and the way they conduct the country’s business.
q: Photography equipment?
a: This project was shot using my 5x4 field camera, a Plaubel Makina W67 rangefinder along with a studio flash and various modifiers.
q: Any artist or photographers that inspire you right now?
a: Spencer Murphy, a photographer who won The Taylor Wessing Award 2013, is a favourite of mine at the moment. I love the style, tone and expression he conveys through his photography. Otherwise a longtime inspiration has to be Thomas Struth, again he has a great distinctive style but the main thing I love about his works are his later pieces which photograph large scenes with people in them. The subjects are actually staged even though they look incredibly natural, I’m very much interested in blurring the lines between reality/documenting and staging.