Tender Light

The bond between photography and narrative

Emmanuel Iduma

Malick Sidibé Lancina Sanogo, l'ami de Mody vu de dos, 2002, gelatin silver print, 50 x 60 cm. Credit: © Malick Sidibe. Courtesy MAGNIN-A Gallery, Paris

One evening, a mild-mannered pastor returns home from a photography exhibition. He is unsure of what to say to his wife. He goes into their bedroom and finds her asleep. So he decides to take a walk, as far as he can manage in the course of a half hour, at which point he imagines his wife might wake, anxious about his absence. He tries to think of nothing, to empty his mind of what he has seen and where he has been, but this proves impossible.

He keeps straight on the road abutting his house. He is grateful for the fragmented chattering of strangers. I’m playing mind games, he thinks, and heads back after covering a mere dozen yards. The pastor is unsure of how to say to his wife: When I saw the photograph, I stopped believing in God.

eight years ago in New York, during my first year of studying for a graduate degree in art criticism, I wrote the preceding passage as the opening to a short story. My idea had been to tell a story in which a photograph served as the immediate catalyst of an irrevers­ible change in my protagonist’s life, a kind of parable on the power of images. Although I managed to complete it, I set the story aside.

I had grown up in half a dozen Nigerian cities as the son of an itinerant Presbyterian clergyman and then completed an under­graduate degree in law—a course of study I’d pursued mainly out of curiosity and perhaps a desire to seem respectable, but without any real intention of making a living as a lawyer. After university, I published the novel-in-stories I’d written in the final year of my undergraduate degree. I also embarked on two road trips with pho­tographers—from Lagos to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then from Lagos to Libreville, Gabon—arranged by Invisible Borders, the Nigerian-based arts organization for which I had agreed to blog about the minutiae of our journeys. My record of our time on the road began to veer into reflections on the photographs I saw being taken and recollections of the encounters that had precipitated them. In the process, I found myself drawn to the narrative poten­tial of photography: the hidden linkages I sensed between stories and snapshots. A few months later, after I had settled into my aca­demic life in New York, I became even more obsessed by the idea.

The program I enrolled in at the School of Visual Arts in New York entailed an eclectic reading list and immersed me in an array of schools of thought—deconstructionism, poststructuralism, phenomenology—none of which had been familiar to me as an undergraduate studying the Nigerian legal system. I found myself desperate to counterbalance all that theory with narrative. In ret­rospect, I think this came from an anxiety over how to categorize myself, over the fact that I’d spent my adolescence and early twen­ties imagining myself as a novelist, yet had somehow ended up with a degree that wouldn’t guarantee a realization of my ambitions.

I wanted to grow my faith in the beauty photography could deliver, and I hoped to do so through daily contemplative practice.

When I began writing the story about the pastor, I thought, per­haps naively, that a story could simply be a vehicle for an idea. The idea in this instance was that a photograph could unsettle a viewer to such a degree that they would be led to question everything they’d known, particularly in relation to Christianity. I thought of anecdotes I’d heard of people who wept in front of paintings, or the despair that had led Kevin Carter—the South African photogra­pher who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a starving child in Sudan—to commit suicide. I wanted to know the extent to which photography could trouble the waters of lifelong conviction.

He reenters the bedroom and sees that his wife is awake. “Are you okay?” she asks, and he hates that she can see through him like that. His mouth is full with the words, yet he is barely able to utter them; language seems too narrow for his state of mind.

He sees himself as he was in the National Museum. The gallery was spare, and each picture had stood on a makeshift column by itself. He recalls approaching the photograph and the exact rush of devastation he’d felt when he came to it. But his memory has erased the order of thoughts that had led him to doubt, and, ultimately, to refusal.

“What did you say?”

He speaks a little louder while his eyes follow a track of light across the room. He is ashamed to feel certain of what but not why. And even though he’s turned away, he can hear her rise. Perhaps she intends to ask him to say the words a third time while looking her in the eye.

after the fictional pastor finally manages to inform his wife about his sudden crisis of faith, he writes a letter of resignation to the board of his church. In both cases, he cannot clearly artic­ulate how looking at a photograph has led him to arrive at such an instantaneous, momentous decision. Reading the story many times over, I, too, found myself unable to account for the pastor’s transformation. What was the connection between a photograph and a crisis of belief? And how had it forced a man to turn away from his God?

When I returned to the story a few months after completing it, I thought it lacked exactitude. I felt that in order to describe the moment of deconversion with greater clarity, I needed to identify the specific photograph the pastor saw. Later in the story, the pas­tor describes the subject in the photograph as “having such eyes.” But because I had no specific image in mind, I was merely making up what I felt a photograph with such transformative power should look like: a portrait in which the subject’s eyes fixed an unsettling gaze on the viewer. Perhaps it would even be a photograph of suf­fering, like Carter’s: of a child’s body with features so dehumanized they sparked a new and seismic emotion in the pastor and caused him to doubt the existence of a benevolent God. But neither image seemed fitting or powerful enough to account for an instantaneous change to a pastor’s lifelong convictions. I abandoned the story.

one day, back in lagos eight years later, I recalled a portrait by the photographer Malick Sidibé, known for his studio por­traits of young, zestful countrypeople in Mali’s immediate post-independence years.

I had returned from New York with an unusual educational background, or at least this was the unspoken feedback I got when I introduced myself in social settings. But I was grateful for my training in art criticism, which had instilled in me a new appreci­ation for the ways photographs could be taken, viewed, and writ­ten about. I spent my first year back in Nigeria assembling a list of works by African photographers that moved me: images that counterbalanced a sense of the mysterious with a tender depiction of human features. I included a few photographs by Sidibé—who had died a few years earlier, in 2016—in my list.

Early in the new millennium, in a late phase of his career, Sidibé had begun inviting family members, friends, and neighbors into his studio to pose for portraits with their backs to the camera. One of those photographs—part of a series collectively named Vues de Dos (or “back views”)—is titled “Lancina Sanogo l’ami de Mody vu de dos [Lancina Sanogo, the friend of Mody seen from the rear].” That is as far as Sidibé goes in depicting the man’s identity, resulting in a specific kind of anonymity, a mystery not of name but of face.

In his portrait, Lancina Sanogo, seen from the waist up, wears a wide-brimmed hat and what appears to be a khaki buttondown shirt and faces a blank background. The image draws the view­er’s attention to the man’s outline rather than his personality. It is concerned with composition, not documentation, and certainly not visibility. According to scholar Candace M. Keller, Sidibé’s Vues de Dos is a photographic take on what is known in Mande visual culture as dibí, defined in varying contexts as obscurity, restraint, opacity, or intrigue. In the photograph, what is seen is what is withheld from view.

It was while I compiled my list of “tender photographs,” as I thought of them, that I realized that Sidibé’s portrait of Lancina Sanogo was hypothetically the kind of image that might have prompted the fictional pastor’s loss of faith in the short story I had written several years earlier. Seeing this photo at an exhibition, per­haps the pastor considers it a portrait of an everyman, which meant he would have seen it as a kind of self-portrait. Since the photo depicts a man with his back turned, it might also have seemed to the pastor a symbol of the rejection of faith. Both possibilities arise from the assumption that the pastor saw the image as a literal evocation of the inner turmoil already underway within himself. It struck me, then, that what was missing from my story was the context that could help the reader understand how one encounter—seeing a photograph as bare in composition as Sidibé’s—might become the flashpoint of a series of related, tumultuous events in someone’s life. When I wrote the story, I hadn’t given much thought to the pastor’s past, nor had I fully contextualized him as a character. Perhaps the photo of Sanogo’s back equally evoked, for me, how little I knew of my protagonist.

Several months later, I bought a copy of In His Own Image, the English translation of Jérôme Ferrari’s 2018 À son image, a novel whose protagonist is a photographer. At the time, I was staying with my family in Norwich, England, and one afternoon went to the local Waterstones bookshop, where I first saw Ferrari’s book. Though I was not convinced that I needed it then, I recalled the novella days later and went to seek it out. It was no longer there, and neither could I recall its title or author. Disappointed yet unde­terred, I soon hunted it down in Book Hive, a smaller bookstore nearby.

“When she’s fourteen, her uncle, a priest, gives her a camera,” notes the jacket description about the main character, a photogra­pher named Antonia. As I flipped through the book—and reflected on my compulsion, over the foregoing days, to rediscover and pur­chase it—I recalled again my own unpublished short story from seven years before. Could this be another link in an intuitive chain connecting my obsessions with photography and writing?

So I thought I would read In His Own Image as a lesson in rec­onciling the practices of photography and religious faith through narrative storytelling. But I soon found myself swept up by the story itself. I read it in two charmed days. The novel announces Antonia’s death in the first chapter; the remaining eleven offer a series of flashbacks and overlapping backstories. In other words, the novel explores its ideas about photography and death through a sequence of combustible events and not, as in my story, through one mystifying instant. The narrative comprises a response to a photographic series rather than a single decontextualized photo.

There is also skepticism in Ferrari’s novel—not toward God but toward photography. Antonia has a crisis of faith in the capacity of photography to deliver truth or meaning. She begins her career as a journalist assigned to cover local events for a small newspaper in Corsica. Bored by that, she takes an unpaid leave to cover the Yugoslav wars in the mid-1990s. Yet that, too, fails to bring her a sense of accomplishment. Antonia chooses not to develop the rolls of film she brings back from the war: “She doesn’t believe in sin, nor does she believe in the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world. But at least, as long as it is in her power, she, Antonia V., will add nothing to what that world already is.” At the moment of her untimely death, she is a wedding photographer who constantly snaps pictures of newlyweds. Her life’s story has indeed reconciled photography and faith, if from a slightly atheistic perspective. In Ferrari’s characterization, there was simply no way Antonia would believe that a photograph had the transformative power I seemed to think it did.

around the time I finished reading the novel, I made the decision to consider myself a photographer in the same way I felt I was a writer. That is, to find through regimen a devotion akin to medi­tative prayer.

I had always liked taking pictures but had never, until then, attempted to focus my enthusiasm. A couple of years back, my wife gave me a camera as a birthday gift. A Leica “bridge camera,” half­way between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR, it is bulky enough to give me a sense of professionalism when I carry it around. The gift—which could take photographs at a sufficient resolution—made me want to go beyond my dilettanteish interest. I wanted to grow my faith in the beauty photography could deliver, and I hoped to do so through daily contemplative practice.

Photography has become a more or less welcome interruption in my writing life, almost complemen­tary to it.

During my time in Norwich, I began to feel nostalgic about my study in my home in Lagos, a room on the second floor of a terraced building. The desk I usually worked at was black with a sheen like the glint of the moon. When searching for the next word to write, I’d often make a 180-degree turn to consider the clutter of buildings—the rows of roofs that made the sky a cramped surface—through the window behind me. The compound shared a fence with a tarpaulin-walled church, which often filled my view when I sat with my back to the desk. One day, after months of looking at it, I noticed that the church was being taken apart. Three men were standing on its roof, unscrewing bolts. I spent half an hour taking photographs of the paraphernalia of worship soon to be discarded. The sedate glamor of those once-precious items caught and held my eye for close to forty minutes. Thinking of it later, I realized that, just as in my abandoned story, the fact of my upbringing—as the son of a clergyman raised in manses—had made me attentive to evocations of faith.

I shouldn’t be taking photographs of the church, I thought; I should be writing. I felt like Annie Dillard, who, in her memoir The Writing Life, recalls sitting at her desk and making a pen drawing of her window and the landscape it framed. “I drew the window’s aluminum frame and steel hardware,” she writes. “I outlined the parking lot and its tall row of mercury-vapor lights; I drew the cars, and the graveled rooftop foreground.” Then, in her recount­ing, she shuts the blind and tapes her drawing to the closed slats: “If I wanted a sense of the world, I could look at the stylized outline drawing.”

Here, Dillard is urging herself to shift focus from an outer image and reckon instead with an inner one. In her view, time spent looking at the field outside the window—or the church below, in my case—will ultimately lead to unproductivity, a distraction from the writer’s primary vocation: the construction of narrative. I agree with her in theory. But, for me, photography has become a more or less welcome interruption in my writing life, almost complemen­tary to it.

And so, when I returned to Lagos, I photographed the objects on my desk every day for several weeks. I stood with my back to the window, the only source of light to the room. The photographs I took—zooming in on piles of books, my computer keyboard, a cluster of open notebooks—were low-contrast. Yet it was the tender light from outside that kept me interested in angling my lens in all possible directions, seeking the various configurations of the objects I was surrounded by, and devoted to, while writing. Unlike Antonia, I was glad to add these images of my workaday objects to the world. And their obscure framing recalls Sidibé’s concept of dibí: of things or bodies or ideas that cannot ever be known in full.

here’s how my short story ends: the photograph the pastor has seen goes missing from the exhibition venue, and he is arrested, wrongfully, for having stolen it. As soon as he’s out on bail, it occurs to him that his wife is the culprit; she had hoped to bring about his reconversion by showing him the photograph again.

My story was an exercise in testing whether or not an encounter with secular art could fracture Christian conviction or repair it, as the pastor’s wife had imagined. Wondering about this after I read Ferrari’s novel, I arrived at an answer more complex than a yes or no. I had found Antonia’s skepticism in In His Own Image liberat­ing: the sense that a photograph is contiguous with the worldview of the photographer who took it—the viewer is as responsive to what is outside the frame as to what is within it—is what makes Antonia ultimately abandon photojournalism. Yet this notion had also made me realize that I’d been mistaken to assume that the pastor’s deconversion would occur in an instant. The photograph could surely serve to trigger a chain of events for him, but the story I was trying to tell was of an encounter whose significance could only be worked out through a story with a much greater scope. There were far too many questions to constrain the pastor’s life to a few thousand words.

The lesson was ultimately one of method. The story’s problem was twofold; I had made the formal frame too narrow to hold the pastor’s life, just as I had naively expected a single photo to capture an experience best explored through narrative. The cliché is true: writing a novel is like running a marathon. Or to use a more fitting analogy: the photographer with a 35mm camera can shoot rolls of film for weeks or months with the same blind, headlong motion as a novelist, making pictures whose narrative heart cannot be uncov­ered in a mere instant.

Emmanuel Iduma is the author of I Am Still With You, a memoir on the Nigerian Civil War, and A Stranger’s Pose, a travelogue. Iduma was born and raised in Nigeria, and his nonfiction and criticism have received many honors, including the Windham-Campbell Prize in 2022.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022

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