Ndino Ona Nzvimbo Yavo (I See Your Places)
Published by DAKAM for the CONTEMPHOTO'15 International Photography and Visual Culture Conference.
See the photography series here
Through the use of photography I have begun to explore who I am by documenting the otherness I experience in foreign places, thus exposing my otherness in my ‘home’. Uncovering what defines me and where my identity resides. I have solidified myself in my persona, and initiated the excavation of selfhood. Where we are from defines us, however the realization and revelation of this defining force is contingent on the unfamiliar. The foreign enlightens the familiar and challenges the unconscious social and cultural reflexes that have become a habitual feature in our daily lives.
I have travelled many places in my twenty-two eventful years of life, both foreign and domestic. In each geographic location I photograph the colors, landmarks, shapes and vistas that have captured my attention and etched into the journals of my heart. I combine photographs from each day into a single composition. Using photoshop I layer the images and add adjustment layers, coalescing the photographs and maintaining a common visual aesthetic throughout the series.
I have witnessed diverse cultures and social structures, been subject to questionable governmental systems and baffled by language barriers. I proudly identify as Zimbabwean, although I am a citizen of Great Britain and a temporary resident of the USA. By technical categorization, I do not belong anywhere; I have no legal rights in any of the countries I identify with. Wherever I go I am a tourist, a wondering romanticized homeless man, a man without country. There is a claim that we can be and are defined by citizenship, by nationality and those who identify us as fellow countrymen. No country claims me; I am not truly any nationality. Regardless of that fact being one of substantiated truth, I classify myself as Zimbabwean.
We characterize ourselves and are characterized by others, based on the associations bound to the geography we permanently witness. Arabs are generalized as Muslim, Europeans as Catholic, Americans as overweight, Asians as short, and Islanders as easy-going. These societal molds begin to subconsciously encourage conformation to the definition, and provoke actions in unhindered accordance to the implied social laws. Through travel I have seen that other people live by other implied laws, which has exposed the mindless tendencies of my own life. To an undetermined extent we are who we are because of osmosis, we simply absorb the average of those around us.
Every country, society and community has a unique visual culture, from architecture and color to shape and form. I unwittingly photograph what appeals to me around the world, usually what I consider as desirable and pleasing. Isolating each day into a single composition, these memories and experiences are shaping and reforming my identity, my ideologies, values and conceptions of foreign societies in relation to my own beliefs. As a moral fiber I am an amalgamation of many effects, no single entity is abundantly defining, rather each is a grain of sand on a metaphorical beach. We are blind to the details of life that delineate our existence but see only the whole; my compositions reflect this idea in the abstraction of cities and landscapes. Our individual beliefs, convictions and identifiers are merely a pixel in the screen. My ostensible discovery of self is in direct correlation to observing other people. In the course of assigning others their identities and judging cultures and individuals with the rubric of my own background, I have discovered myself.
Having travelled much and grown up in a strong God fearing family, I observed and experienced the immense power of religion. I have seen tumultuous lives reformed, nations band together and wars declared over the beliefs taught and propagated by the institution of religion. I began to wonder if a person could truly be defined by their religious affiliation, if its power was so totalitarian, that it could utterly distinguish a person’s identity. I have decided it cannot. The institution of religion is just that, an institution. In every nation, city and rural growth point I have visited, I have seen exalted religious establishments of every variety. Sanctuaries, monuments, statues and plaques; all dedicated to the materialization of beliefs. All devoid of the thousands of people that claim it to be theirs. Unless it is a Sunday, you see only tourists ogling at the grandeur and splendor that adorn the pendentives and transepts of their sanctified structures. Religion is for Sundays, relationship is for identity. The claim that I make, to be a member of the Kingdom of God, in not based on dogma, or a set of traditions I follow or the political wing of the clergy I chose to contribute my offerings to. It is based on my mission towards Christ-likeness; on the interactions I have with my God. Yes, the people that occupy the pew on either side of me are important, they are the support of the greater body of Christ, the pillars and gatekeepers. They offer fraternity and solace and fortitude, but my identification is with Christ-likeness, and the journey towards it, not with the auxiliary members and architectural structures that claim me as kin. The idea of religion holds power in its numbers, but does not ascribe lasting identity. The members lacking personal relationship with their convictions fall away when they step off the glistening marble floors of a Basilica.
Depending on how you choose to look at the glass, I am either a man without country or a citizen of the universe. Having no rightful claim to any nation, can my citizenship define me? I am a bushman by association. Living in Zimbabwe, the ‘African wilderness’, gives me a romanticized persona to foreigners. My loud confidence seamlessly integrates me into American culture, while my poised disposition and sarcastic wit make me truly British. The anthology of implied laws I must follow as a Zimbabwean British American are so convoluted. In order to maintain my tri-national status I must be a social chameleon, adapting and re-socializing each time I cross a border. However, I have absolutely zero inclination towards being of three national identities. I am Zimbabwean. After living in America for a number of years, the population expects you to be ‘American-ized’. In the USA I am asked where my American accent is and why I still spell colour with a ‘u’, in Zimbabwe I surprise people with my lack of American jargon. Surely after being fully immersed and saturated with American customs I would be more American, not true. I am Zimbabwean, regardless of my postal address and time zone; I am the man I have always been. My Zimbabwean identity is not given to me by having legal rights, or governmental approval; it is by my acceptance and ownership of it.
I am undeniably situated in a specific social categorization based on my National identification as a Zimbabwean. The details vary from country to country but fundamentally the culture of Africa is of one general temperament. Tradition holds strong, spirituality is revered and honor expected. It is a culture of pride and power, passivity and entitlement. A wonderful and frustrating attribute of culture is that is has both positive and negative connotations. Americans are obnoxious, the Swiss are neutral and indecisive, and Africans passive. To say ‘Africans’ is bold, because that is inclusive of an entire continent not just one nation, but I maintain the claim. Africa has long been referred to as ‘The Dark Continent’, ravaged by disease and poverty, overtaken by hardship and suffering. Many nations send missionaries, humanitarians and doctors to Africa, because she truly needs them. Africa’s geniuses leave for a bigger dream, and those left behind sit on their hands while being spoon fed by foreign entities. It is easier to say we need help than it is to be the solution. I unflinchingly claim the friendliness and wildness associated with being African, but reject the association with passivity and entitlement. I am in continuous battle to prove that I am not a part of that stereotype, to achieve and affect, to be the change I hope to see. As much as my National identification has defined me, it has defined who I am not, or rather who I hope to never become.
““You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”” Jim Rohn (Widener, C. n.d.). My father always told me that I could be anything I want, that I must follow my dream and do what I want, and then figure out how to make money doing what I love. My mother supports me in every endeavor, even the ones we all know will probably fail. My friends have consistently maintained a healthy balance between positive and negative peer pressure. Who I am today is because of who they have been to me over the years. My close relationships with my parents, sisters and friends define my identity. What I believe of myself, the things I value and the convictions I defend are byproducts of the interactions I have with those close to me. Our collective dreams of being reformers, and shapers in society have spurred us into action; my habits and quirks were cultivated by those that are my average—my family and close friends. Through observation, imitation and repetition I have received a very significant portion of my me-ness.
I moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 2012 and abruptly integrated into the culture. I arrived and instantaneously lived in the city as though I were native, completely skipping the tourist phase of transition. Three years later I realized I had deprived myself of insurmountable occasion for personal growth, my right to exploration and stimuli for inquisitiveness. I made the intentional effort to be a tourist, I rode the bus downtown and explored the city as if for the first time, pausing at every monument and excitedly scurrying down alleyways and through cafes. On my way home I stood at a bus stop across the street from a church with a red door. At that moment, I had an epiphany that gave peaceful resolve to my entire endeavor, to this exploration of selfhood.
I have driven past this church with the red door countless times, never stopping to look and ponder. That door is a placeholder for my entire artistic process and conceptual development. I have left my home in Zimbabwe and begun to see myself through other cultures, other adventures and ideologies. Beliefs I have had my whole life, yet been unaware of, biases I maintained but never consciously noted have been revealed by what this red door signifies. In romanticized literature and idealistic movies a red door is always mysterious and enticing, it is never dull on the other side, it reveals both truth and illusion to those who are bold enough to march through it. There are layers of meaning between the grains of cheap pine and crimson brush strokes. Formerly, I had lived my life on the inside of the red door; I opened my eyes only to what was familiar and seemingly normal. Now I am seeing the red side of the door for the first time, viewing from the outside, where one is able to wonder and be mystified by the obscure oddity. My identity, my persona, personality and character are all exemplified through the adventure on the inside of the red door. Only from stepping away and seeing life from the perspectives of other doors, have I reached a knowing of how incredibly unique the effects are on the inside of my own red door.
I could write for hundreds of pages explaining each detail of my compositions, telling the stories of what has shaped me. This series has been a retrospective observation of events. I have never been searching for my identity; I have always held it with confidence and surety. I am curious to how I became this way, not in debate or question of the result that is my life, but in pursuit of the recipe. Ira Glass stated, “”Great stories happen to those who can tell them”” (hollywoodreporter.com, 2012). I am telling my story through photographs; how the viewer interprets the visual culture I perpetuate is up to them. My discovery thus far is that identity can be and is shaped by almost every aspect of every society, our personhood is impressionable to a detrimental extent, and we ultimately decide what shapes and moves us, There are moments that we have control over, where we choose what experiences we endure, and others where our right to choose is robbed from us and we are forced to live a moment at the mercy of fate and circumstance. One thing we do have control over, without exception, is what we decide to do with those experience and how much they can govern our lives. In comparison to nationality, gender, race, socio-economic status and religion; there is no greater defining force in the matter of identity than our own convictions and beliefs. We are inundated with foreign opinions of what others consider our identity should be, but nothing holds greater power than what I say my identity is, I decide who I am.
Widener, C. (n.d.). Jim Rohn's 8 Best Success Lessons.
hollywoodreporter.com, (2012). Ira Glass on 'This American Life,' Killing Big Bird and the Rules of Storytelling. [online] Available at: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/ira-glass-american-life-killing-393930 [Accessed 4 Apr. 2015].