Dan Nelken’s current photo show HeadStrong: The Women Of Rural Uganda wastes little time with pleasantries. Coming off the stairs at Springfield’s Emerald Art Center into the second level foyer, the first photograph hits the viewer like a ton of bricks. Or perhaps “jerrycan of gravel” is a more suitable metaphor. The picture shows 19-year-old Innocent (a pseudonym?). She poses proudly for Nelken with a toddler strapped to her back, holding a sledgehammer across her shoulder, its rounded tip resting just above her child’s forehead. At her feet splay large pieces of quarry rock. Her daily job is to smash them into gravel, for which she will earn $.32 per jerrycan.
In this one photo, Nelken takes on portraiture, family dynamics, economic inequity, and global labor issues. And that’s just the start. Moving down the hall to the left are dozens of other Ugandan women caught in a similar predicament. There are twenty-five photographs in all, spaced tightly for maximum impact. The situations, ages, and stories of these women vary, but the general thrust is clear. Theirs is a world of long days, brutal labor, and limited prospects. Assuming that most gallery visitors enjoy more comfortable circumstances, Nelken’s world will be a visceral jolt as they confront this blunt reality. Some distant lives are spent crushing rock by hand while other lives pass in relative ease: That these disparate fates are determined at birth by blind luck is a gut punch.
Nelken is a skilled portraitist. He employs no fancy tricks, just figures posed against a static backdrop. His subjects may not smile but they express an inner resolve of positive spirit. Most women are cropped waist up, allowing their colorful fashions, work tools, and quarry rock to combine into compositional possibilities. In one photograph he has zoomed in to isolate a woman’s hand and hammer, both appearing worn and overworked. Many of the women balance items on their heads, a feat as acrobatically impressive as it is photogenic. Akidi Christine, 48, carries a bundle of logs there. Alice Iacan, 40, supports a short stack of massive stones. For Beatrice, it’s burlap sacks of used clothing.
Nelken’s pictures are arresting on their own, but their captions are just as interesting. Some are brief descriptions listing name, age, and occupation. But many tell longer stories of work history, family anecdotes, and reflections on life. They were recorded and translated by Ugandan writer Beatrice Lamwaka.
If the stories can be reduced to any common thread, it is the old economic treatise: Labor creates all wealth. Time and time again the captions add up to a simple financial equation. “I earn 5,000 shillings per day,” says Jovia Aber, “and I use that money to pay for my school fees.” Jennifer Abur: “I sell a jerrycan of rocks at 1,000 shillings. Sometimes I am able to make about 20,000 shillings a day, but sometimes the trucks don’t come, and that means there will be no money for food or school fees.” Apiyo Kevin: “Selling Sweet Potato Vines For 2,000 UGX Per Bundle For 7 Years” Jackine: “Selling Charcoal For Three Years.” Obol Kevin: “On a good day, I sell shoes worth 200,000 shillings, and on a bad day, 100,000 shillings.”
For a white American man to photograph inside Uganda is already a fraught enterprise. And to focus on laborers near the bottom of society is a discomfiting twist. Even under the most benign circumstances photography carries strains of power and subjugation, and Nelken’s project shown during Black History Month is almost custom-designed to amplify such concerns. Photographers have been down this road before, from Sebastião Salgado’s Workers to Pieter Hugo’s The Hyena And Other Men to David Goldblatt’s The Transported and On The Mines, among others. In the context of all these predecessors, a good mental exercise is to consider a Ugandan photographer who visits America to photograph the nation’s dishwashers or fruit pickers. If such photographs exist I have not yet seen them. And if they somehow came into being they would be safely diluted in a sea of other American imagery, with no onus to represent the country.
Nelken’s pictures face a different prospect. For most visitors to the show, these may be the only images of Uganda they encounter all winter. For better or for worse they may solidify into a lasting impression of the country. And of course Nelken’s project is Uganda, but just a tiny slice of it. This is a long-suffering nation which has been colonized, IdiAminized, militarized, and treated internationally like a jerrycan of gravel. January elections portended more of the same. If Westerners feel a patronizing impulse, Nelken’s photos offer little to counter it.
While in the show I overheard a visitor whisper to her friend, “Don’t you just want to sponsor one?” a cringeworthy reaction, but not wholly surprising.
Nelken is not blind to these issues. “I am aware that I am the white, urban male elephant in the room,” he writes on Lensculture. “Photographing women in rural Uganda, I am as much a source of interest for them as they are for me. And yet, while I accept my outsider status, my intention is to attempt to redress the historical imbalance imposed on these women in earlier times.” His heart is in the right place, as is his lens position. He has made several visits to the country, and partnered with Lamwaka—“an essential East African female viewpoint”— to address potential blind spots. But there is probably no way for a project like this to escape the whiff of paternalism.
Across the Willamette River in Eugene is an exhibition which takes an alternate view of hard labor. “You have to work to get good photos,” proclaims the brief bio of Edward Pabor, February’s featured artist at PhotoZone Gallery. “They don’t just come to you. You have to plan on walking in the dark to be some place at dawn. You have to wait for snow and walk by yourself through the cold; your footprints being the only footprints out there.”
Pabor’s description makes photography sound about as enjoyable as crushing rocks by hand. While there is some truth to his method —photographs often require physical exertion—I can say from first hand experience that it is not always the case. Sometimes photographs do just come to you, even when you are not up at dawn. The occasional manna from heaven is one of photography’s great pleasures.
But let’s set that aside for a moment to focus on the pictures at hand. Pabor offers a small selection from a trip to Patagonia and Antarctica in December 2019. There is a wider collection of this material on his website, but to fit the limited space at PhotoZone, he has chosen six monochrome photos. Pabor has years of experience printing film in a darkroom, but for this show he presents inkjets from slightly blurred scans.
For photographs that required hours of labor to attain, their general impression is remarkably relaxed. One shows a beautiful mountain lake hemmed in by the sharp peaks of Torres del Paine in Chile. In another is a broad pastoral sweep near the village of El Chalten, Argentina. A picture of two elephant seals nuzzling on a sandy beach abuts a photograph of a somber church in Antarctica. These scenes perform photography’s simplest and most popular charge very well: they take viewers to a distant place for a little while. Pabor’s pictures are a vehicle to some archetypical paradise which has left the petty world of humans behind, replaced by open vistas and soaring cliffs.
Especially during a travel-restricted pandemic, such images play an invaluable role. They do a fine job as a gateway to fantasy, but I can’t help being pulled back to reality by Pabor’s commentary: “You have to work to get good photos.” Looking at his photographs I am reminded of the old carpenter’s trick of hiding rough cuts behind a finished facade. Nowhere in these pictures is any sign of labor, sweat, or daily tasks. No humans are present in this world at all beyond remnants of old or distant buildings.
I don’t believe the Pabor show was coordinated with Nelken’s. But the two exhibitions have unwittingly staked out contrasting world views. In Springfield, Nelken probes manual labor at ground level while in Eugene, Pabor ascends the heights, attempting to leave daily toils below.
Perhaps it is the critic’s overreach to conflate the differences between the shows with the identities of the places they’re exhibited, but the thought is tempting. Located on opposite banks of the Willamette, Springfield and Eugene enjoy a shared history as hardscrabble lumber towns—both are cored with the millrace scars to prove it. But Springfield wears its past proudly on its sleeve while in Eugene the past is obscured by the ivory tower. Labor has been the source of wealth in both places, but the current shows by Nelken and Pabor offer differing visions of industry and work. Each show is enjoyable on its own, but their combination poses intriguing questions about work, leisure, and geographic distinction.
Dan Nelken, Headstrong: The Women of Rural Uganda is at Emerald Art Center in Springfield, 500 Main St from February 3-27. Open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 am-4 pm. The artist will have a Zoom talk on February 14th at 1 pm. (https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82419478400)
Edward Pabor, Patagonia and Antartica is at PhotoZone in New Zone Gallery in Eugene, 22 West 7th Ave, from February 4 – March 7. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 12-6 pm.