Eyes (On the Photography of Amaal Said)

R.A. Villanueva

How to frame for you the work of Amaal Said, a London-rooted, Danish-born artist whose photography and writing irradiate landscapes with color and light? How to capture for you all the ways that she (and, by extension, her Barbican Young Poets and Burn After Reading compatriots) disrupt convention, re-see and revise what we so often look past? 

 

Rambling through earlier versions of this small, contextual note, I thought to describe Amaal as a “photographer poet,” but then doubled-back to venture ordering it as “poet photographer” instead. And then, perhaps trying to conceive of a kenning-like alternative, I grafted-in a hyphen; I tried nesting-in coordinating conjunctions. 

Aye, there's the rub—in the nomenclature, as ever. 

When I asked Amaal directly how she introduces or identifies herself, she acknowledged: “I've never thought about it in detail before. Poet always comes before photographer in my head. I introduce it by saying, ‘I'm a poet and photographer.’” 

I trust that no matter how I flail to place her, or stall in my lackluster distillations, the force and lyricism of Amaal’s work resides in the natural beauty of the work itself. To channel John Berger: “Whatever normative categories are employed, such beauty is always experienced as a form of revelation. It is felt to speak.” 

In this sense, her portraits remind me of Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Thomas Sayers Ellis, two American poet-and-photographer’s with whom Amaal shares an incredible talent for pausing, renewing, and activating the eye, the face, the heart. 

 

What follows is a suite of Amaal’s images and a new essay, “The photographs slip away.” Braided together, illuminated by a characteristic grace, each grows from her summer’s travels through Kenya with and without her camera, surrounded by her family’s voices. 

Take time to watch her hold close to the world—as fragile and luminous as it is.


The photographs slip away

Amaal Said

I’m asked, ‘how was Kenya?’ often and I never know how to explain it. I’ll start with my body. I came back heavier. 

We went to as many houses as we could to greet family members. I was in complete awe. All the photographs of the family that I’d kept close to me were coming alive. The aunts and uncles I had never spoken to on the phone, only knew by a face in a photograph, were embracing and kissing me on both cheeks. I couldn’t believe it. I promised to bring back photographs of as many family members as I could. I took the camera out in each house we visited, asked some to sit still for a little longer. 

 

When I lost most of the family portraits I took, I spent more than a week in denial. Most were nowhere to be found. And then I thought I must have imagined taking the photographs. I stared at the ones I had taken of the beaches in Mombasa. But what I mostly remember is the screaming that took place in the highest floor of a block of flats in Eastleigh, Nairobi. Dad is screaming, ‘you’re throwing your life away’ and ‘what would your father think if he was alive?’ at my younger cousin. We were sitting tight in a small living room with the sheikh giving a sermon through the TV. We were pretending we couldn’t hear a thing. 

I remember walking through narrow back roads to sit in a room packed with people. The Quran was being read over a loudspeaker. It kept getting louder. The girl next to me was taken over by a jinn, it took two men to hold her down. And we sat in the sheikh’s office later in the week. There were fake pink flowers in every corner and Arabic calligraphy in a frame on each wall. I was afraid he would look over my parents to find me looking down, afraid he would say, ‘the girl has been taken by evil. Everything bad lives inside her.’ 

We were in Mombasa for two weeks and I met my grandfather for the very first time. The picture is among the ones that have disappeared. But I tell myself that all I have to do is keep repeating the details of the picture as I remember. It’ll always exist this way, even if only in my head. I am sitting in a chair by my grandfather. We are facing a small TV monitor. I am sweating badly. You can’t tell this from looking at the picture but there are tears in my eyes. He is holding my hand. A poem about the loss of a wife plays from his radio. He says, ‘it’s about leaving before the other person leaves you.’ I left my grandfather’s room each day with the knowledge that I wouldn’t see him alive again. 

There were so many obstacles each day. We were on the border of Kenya and Tanzania when the security agency stopped to ask, ‘who are you working for?’ Everyone was frightened. There could be another attack at any time and I was reminded each time I tried to photograph something. A family member would say, ‘put your camera away before the police arrest you.’ All I can remember from the ten-hour road journey we took to Namanga was my uncle in the front seat repeating, ‘you’ll get us locked up’. My dad finally said, ‘I don’t remember you being this scared of the country.’ And my uncle replied, ‘you left. Things changed.’ 

So many days ended thinking of photographs I didn’t take. There was a woman standing at a fruit stall with bananas hanging on either side, perfect symmetry. A woman was wearing overalls and holding a shovel; she was standing beside a sign that read, ‘men at work.’ We were in a car and it wasn’t safe enough to walk by foot. I saw so much beauty and grew angry at how I wouldn’t have something to remember it by when I left. And it made me a little ashamed, relying on images this way, not being able to appreciate the moment. 

The photographs that I failed to take and the ones I’ve lost all haunt me. And I was teary-eyed when I read an interview Pedro Costa gave about his films. He said, ‘unfortunately I cannot give anything to the people I film. But I hope that my friends will end up with a good image of themselves, so I listen to their stories, and I try to work with their memories and bring them to the screen.’ 

I remembered what I wanted to say to each person I left behind: ‘I’ll come back to get you. I’ll take the picture. I’ll show everyone that you exist.’


 

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