Researchers from Durham’s Geography Department have been collaborating with film company Soul Rebel Films to produce a documentary of life on the Bangladeshi Island of Sandwip with the arrival of solar powered electricity and lighting entitled ‘Off the Grid’ (dir Meghna Gupta)
The small, impoverished community on the island is sustained by remittances from those who have migrated to cities and to work on ships across the globe. Now with this money some residents are installing solar power to bring light after dark. The film shows what happens when electricity moves from being generated by expensive diesel generators to renewable solar power. The film tells the story of the effects of this on especially the women and the connection through to opening new experiences by powering other digital media. It also tells the limits of the new lighting in addressing the structural marginalisation of the community and women within it. Illustrating how darkness closes around them in the Bay of Bengal with only four hours stored electricity, the film is beautifully shot and accompanied by the haunting vocals of Sohini Alam.
Based around fieldwork by Durham researcher Raihana Ferdous the film offers an insight into the potent appeal of electricity for lighting in remote and poor places. It also shows how solar power seems to offer a clean and green solution to meeting that demand – and yet then has limits in what it can deliver. She and the director of the film discuss its making here:
With this special issue of Third Text, ‘Islands, Images, Imaginaries’, we seek new ways of seeing and imagining spaces, particularly the complex places of islands. Whereas several other studies in this vein have usefully probed different insular image-making processes to intervene within existing area studies or shift the understanding of national or imperial imaginations, this collection attempts to think through a more global arc in order to examine processes that unexpectedly cross boundaries. Our focus highlights the longue durée of colonialism, particularly the ways in which advanced capitalism has amplified the dispossession of insular subjects in the wake of shifting forms of imperial tourism and militarism. We investigate how fantasy, politics and economics work together to produce islands and the stakes of such imbricated discourses.
Sean Metzger, Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián and Michaeline Crichlow, ‘Introduction: Islands, Images, Imaginaries’, Third Text 28.4-5, pp 334-5.
The curator, Zoe Cormack, explains what lies behind the exhibition.
‘Photography was secondary to the research, and snaps were taken simply when it was convenient’ wrote the anthropologist Ian Cunnison in the introductory note to his collection of 621 photographs of fieldwork from Sudan, now housed in the Sudan Archive in Palace Green Library.
The creator’s idea that his ‘snaps’ were of secondary importance might seem like an odd place to begin a description of an exhibition of the photographs. But there is every reason to see beyond this modest turn of phrase. This exhibition, which highlights a small part of Ian Cunnison’s photography from Sudan, shows what we can learn from his unique and fascinating visual enterprise.
Ian Cunnison (1923-2013) is an important figure in British and Sudanese anthropology, in addition to his publications on Zambia and Sudan he was instrumental in establishing social anthropology departments in both Khartoum and Hull. His reticence over the value of his photography probably reflects the anthropological thinking of the time. He worked in the heyday of structuralism when anthropologists were more concerned with the deeper structures that underpinned the functioning of society – things that were not necessarily photographable (a point also made in Chris Morton’s study of Evans-Pritchard’s photography). His diffidence may also reflect a man who was modest about his abilities. But – modest or not – Cunnison was a skilled amateur photographer. The photographs currently on show demonstrate purposefully composed portraiture and a striking use of light and framing.
Cunnison was studying the political culture of Misseriya pastoralists. Shifting Sands focuses on mobility and community within a single nomadic camp. The photographs illustrate different stages of the annual migration, as the camp moves from the edges of the desert, to the lush pastures of Abyei: an areas which is now disputed, on the border between Sudan and South Sudan and claimed by both countries. The selection on display includes photographs illustrating human relationships in the camp – in the context of the wider social and inter-ethnic networks with neighbouring communities – especially the Ngok Dinka in Abyei. Sudan was often thought of as a starkly culturally divided county, marked by conflict and slavery. This is partly true, but in these border communities it has never been the whole story. There is also a long history of complex interrelationships and mixed ancestry. Even slavery could be transformed into the bonds of kinship. Cunnison’s photographs destabilize a narrative of division.
His photography is remarkable for the personal stories it tells. This is almost a family photograph album (captured by a professional anthropologist), enlivened by the biographical information about the subjects of the photographs included in Cunnison’s ethnography. We don’t only look at these individuals; we know the songs they sung, the friends they had, their struggles and small disappointments. These are refreshingly ‘unexoticised’ pictures of daily life, indicating a familiarity between photographer and subject that make them quintessentially the product of a close ethnographic relationship. This relationship was poignantly marked when I learned from people who had known Ian Cunnison in Sudan that he and one of his closest friends in the camp, Sheybun, had (quite by coincidence) died on the same day. There are three photographs of Sheybun in this exhibition.
These photographs are a site of cultural encounter and exchange. This is not only a story about members of the camp, it is about the process of acquiring anthropological understanding too. Our reinterpretation of them today shows this is an ongoing process as they generate (and we participate in) new understandings of meaning and new forms of knowledge. This is a visual contribution to the history and ethnography of border communities in Sudan and South Sudan.
Photographs take on different cultural and historical significance over time. This is powerfully the case with Ian Cunnison’s photography (and his wider corpus of work on the Misseriya). Since these photographs were taken the political situation in Abyei has violently transformed. Civil wars in Sudan and unresolved border issues have devastated local relationships in Abyei. The Misseriya migration and their rights in Abyei go to the heart of the contested claims and political deadlock.
The current disruption makes these images of Abyei more entrancing. These pictures depict scenes that it is impossible to imagine today’s political climate. They show how tantalizingly possible a more peaceful relationship between the Dinka and the Misseriya in Abyei was in the 1950s; that intermarriage, political negotiation and peaceful sharing of land was possible, even after years of slavery; and that war in Abyei is not inevitable – its history is not only one of violence.
Tim Mitchell’s Fish Out of Water series which was recently exhibited at the National Glass Centre Sunderland comes from a 2 year collaboration with academics in the Durham Geography department. It is a study in obduracy, perdurance and disappearance. Ships, objects, places and people are all cast in the light of what is transient and what is enduring. It is a light that reveals much that is often hidden, unnoted yet essential.
Although, the ostensible subject of the series is the naval ship the Grey Rover, it is in some ways the most attenuated presence in the pictures. In the time lapse sequence, we see her arriving at the dock painted in what the navy call ‘No See Grey,’ becoming visible in her destruction and then disappearing. Indeed, such a muted presence seems fitting for this unassuming workhorse of the military. Built at Swan Hunters on Tyneside and launched in 1969, it served as the fuelling tanker for more glamorous ships for 37 years. It is a reminder that so much of the military is about support and providing infrastructure for others. In this the Grey Rover is no less anonymous and no less essential than the 27,000 or so merchant ships and their sailors that plough ceaselessly across the oceans to sustain our societies – bringing the oil, the grain, the chemicals, the materials and the products that are the stuff of modern life.
For a maritime nation, that depends on goods brought and sent by sea for almost every part of our lives and economy, such a muted presence is emblematic of how the ocean has receded from society’s view. These images render it visible once more but at the moment of passing and decay. The dock is a piece of decaying Victoriana, once intended to launch and maintain ships, now used to end their lives. The workers who stare so resolutely back into the lens are what remains of the shipbuilding workforces and communities, so diminished and still exhibiting both a pride in physically handling the material of our economy yet also the costs of such hard labour. And yet these are not the epic celebrations of industrial modernism, like early twentieth century pictures of vast machines, towering buildings and infrastructure being assembled. The work done here is not sacralised by creating something. Instead, it is about destruction and disappearance.
Yet the ship is loathe to disappear. The pictures render the ship visible through its very substance that enabled it to endure the ocean’s might – the metal plate, the pipes and the rivets. Hard metal and hard work are coupled with dirt and disorder to show a messy end as eventually it succumbs and is pulled apart. Its interior workings made visible, in the ripped open cabin, the pile of scrap material or the boiler cast down on the ground. Instead of the ordered symmetry of the ship, there is the tangled, twisted and torn fabric that made the vessel. It is ship shape no more. The raw metal of the interior refuses the melancholy pleasures of nostalgia. For four decades these spaces rang with bustle, hopes and fears of ordinary lives of a community encased in steel and cut off from the land. The closed in view points of the pictures stage a vision of that confinement – of life surrounded by steel. In the unsentimental world of material recovery there is little room to hear to the echoes of the crew’s laughter, their fears or their comradeship. Instead of the bittersweet language of reminiscence for lost community, the pictures speak to the ongoing life of the metal of the ship. Instead of the haunting silence of abandoned ruins, here is noisy destruction, detritus on its way to being salvaged. The centre piece then is the timelapse of the ship disappearing before our eyes, through fire , wind and rain it is rent apart.
These pictures offer a voice for the places and people who earn hard and precarious living from destroying things so that materials may live on. This is the dirty work and dirty world that we call recycling. It is the end of the ship but a new beginning for the masses of scrap. And yet the true subject in these pictures seems not to be the people who made, sailed in or even broke up the ship, nor the place of her destruction, but the metal itself. This metal shown in all its lumpy, obdurate and intractable forms that is being prized apart and sent onto new lives to be remade. The ship is dead, long live the steel.