Photography an international language?

NRC Olympiade v Orgaan 01

© photos: Wil van Iersel.

In spring 2004, writer Dick Wittenberg and I spent two weeks in the remote and tiny (250+ inhabitants) hamlet of Dickson in Malawi, East Africa. After our work (see here) had been published in the Dutch NRC Magazine and copies had been sent to all inhabitants of Dickson, we came back in autumn – for further work for a book and an exhibition.

One evening, while we were sitting in front our mud and thatch sleeping hut, villagers came up with one of the magazine copies. Apart from the 20 pages on Dickson, it also contained a five page reportage on the ‘World Transplant Games’ (Olympic games for people with an organ transplant) with photos by Wil van Iersel: among them one of an exhausted man and some of people with scars. Yet another one showed a swimming match: of the swimmer, we see only a bathing cap and an elbow above water. These images had stunned the Dicksonians.

You have to realize that Dickson has no tv; only one of the villagers had ever visited a city and none had ever been in a swimming pool or even seen one; and the only nearby brook, with 1 foot of water at the best of times, was not swimmable.
Obviously, they could not read the Dutch text. They pointed at the photos and asked us: “What is this?” And when we asked them: “What do you think this is”, the answer meant a sudden death of my illusions about photography as an international language.

The Dicksonians had had a long debate about these images, and they were quick sure they had finally figured it out: this was a story about a water monster (bathing cap and elbow) that had been attacking people (see the scars). And the swimming pool photo showed that there was going to be a happy ending: the monster had been been lured into a deep brook, and some of the people on the banks were about to kill it, with others looking on.

Jan Banning

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