Staging Reality, Documenting Fiction

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Lard Buurman Interview

Nigeria

You have been working with the theme of staged reality for over a decade, what was it about this method that initially appealed to you and do you still feel the same way about it now? 
 
It's not really staged the reality I show, It's controlled. I started with this method because I wanted to focus on the scene on the street, but also on the public space in which this scenes take place. I had to take more distance, a wider look, to create a monumental image from the location. By doing so, I lost the control over the scene, that normally is taken in a 'decisive'-moment by intuition. I started combining images in the early nineties. It became my method to combine a focus on space with a focus on scene.
 
The Africa Junctions project started in 2008 and has spanned many years, when you started this project was there a narrative you expected to see? How has your perspective changed as the project has progressed? 
 
I started Africa Junctions at first because I'd read about urbanization in Africa, around the continent. It was a shock for me to realize that that narrative was unknown to me so far. As if I had no image of the African city in my collective memory, besides an idea of Cape Town and the Lagos/Koolhaas documentary of Bregtje van der Haak I knew. Other documentaries addressed mainly the 'no-go'-ness of sprawl-areas and slums in cities around the continent and parts of Johannesburg. My question was is there a normal narrative about everyday life visible too? Could I go to a slum without judging that it was terrible to live there? Was it immoral to go there and make my ‘art’? Would I be robbed in 'Nairobbery', or by area-boys in Lagos? One thing I knew before hand: That would not be the narrative I would like to show, because that story has been told over and over again already. The narratives I found are numerous. I captured lots of them. During the project this continent surprised me a lot because in many ways it is much richer than I expected. Take for instance the mobile phone market that was such an unexpected booming market around Africa. There is no explanation how this could grow so fast, when we know that most countries lack a middle-class. In my book I don't show images that tell this story literally, but you often see people with more then one mobile phone. 
 
Your work has given you insight into many African cities, what are your thoughts on what makes each place unique? Your work highlights informal structure as a common theme across African cities, how do you feel that your work has sought to highlight difference? How has your work challenged the notion in the west about Africa as continent? 
 
I don't know what makes a place unique. It's a combination of lot's of things. History, culture, recourses, nature... I've never tried to prove that a city is different from another city. I think I look at overlapping themes. Differences then occur in so many details, that all over the differences are clear enough. I live in Amsterdam and I think it's very different from Utrecht, but it would be very hard to show you the real difference in images. Johannesburg is clearly very different from Cairo, or Lagos, but I think there's more that links them besides the fact that they be long to the same continent. The apartheid-system created cities that separated whites, blacks and colored in different areas. More and more this will be a link with cities in the western world. Informal structure is indeed a common theme in African cities. They exist because the right to space or economy is not defined, not like in European cities. I look at it as a fact, without judgement. I don't have an agenda for change. I don't look for solutions.
 
Following on our last question can you tell me which city you find to be the most visually striking? What do you find interesting about the contrast of cities, for example Lagos vs. Luanda or Lagos vs. Kinshasa?
 
Honestly I'm not looking for contrasts between cities and I do not emphasis them in my images. Lagos is buzzing. After a month in Lagos I get home exhausted. I'm not used to this buzz, to the constant sound of generators, the traffic-jams
on Third Mainland Bridge, the shouting of taxi-boys. I expected the same in Kinshasa, but Kinshasa is actually quiet green, surprisingly. It was less buzzing than Lagos, but on another level it was. It felt much poorer. The buzz of Kinshasa is about money, in Lagos of traffic. I don't think you will see this in my images. What you see is that I show more traffic related images in Lagos and more stree t-trade in Kinshasa.
 
Your images don’t feel as if they are strictly meant to be observed, rather they invite the viewer to interact with what they are seeing. The angle and style you use to create your images puts the viewer on the same plane as the subjects and in effect opens up the “stage” in which they are set. How do you see this at playin your work?
 
Precisely as you describe it! I think the narrative is in my images. As I edit in my images, the story can be found inside. In the whole series there's no lineair story. The book has three chapters, city of structures, city of stories, city of flux.

With this we (me and Roosje Klap, the graphic designer) grouped the main ideas behind my images in this project. In the image 'Rue Manzawo 246' you see an image of a tree, with around a lot of stories. Left is a hairdresser, in front apeanut-bar, a lady with a basket on her head sells manioc flour and on the right side there is an openair kitchen. Is the young girl a hairdresser, the other girl her client or her sister? In this place privat and public interweave. Besides it looks like a square of a small village, but it is in the middle of Kinshasa. I invite people to wonder through my images as I wonder through space when I walk around a city, with an open view, but aware that there is no objective perspective.

How has your work been perceived and interpreted across cultures? Have you faced any criticism as a westerner who has perhaps failed to capture the nuance of everyday life, or do you find that people are generally welcoming and appreciative of your efforts to capture their existence?
 
On the spot people can be critical about my presence. They might think I come to capture there poorness. I respect that. If people
don't want me to shoot, I don't shoot. I want to show dignity, and I see that in the rituals of how people make their everyday lives. Sure you see poorness in my images when I'm in a slum, but I do not dramatize the situation. In discussions I often hear that I'm just another white guy telling what should be done. Well, I am white and I realize I'm privileged because of my background, but I have no clue about what should be done. I just think it is time to look at the African continent of today in a way that is not only showing the problems. Don't forget that a lot of Europeans still think that a tribe is a group of a few hundred people and that African culture is about dancing in a traditional tribal outfit. As if you would be considering me to live near a windmill and walk on wooden shoes. In June I've shown my work in Johannesburg and I was very glad that most people read my intention to show everyday live. A man from Alexandra (first township in Johannesburg) recognized it as the place where he was born, not as an image to address a problematic area. In Amsterdam a woman from São Paulo told me she recognized in my images her youth and told me I should go to São Paulo as well.
 
Looking at your work, transportation seems like an area of interest. As a fundamental part of urban life, is this a subject that you find yourself particularly drawn to?
 
Definitely in African cities! In the informal economies that is what you see all the time. But I shoot it because it is there, not because it is transportation. If there would only be leisure time in African cities I would show that.
 
What do you feel transport captures or says about people, cities or nations? Some say public transport is the key defining feature of cities, what are your thoughts on this point particularly as it relates to African
cities?
 
It shows that most people can't afford a car, I'm afraid. With 'I'm afraid' I mean that i'm afraid that if they could afford a car they all would use it. In Amsterdam we like to go by bike. I only use my car for bigger transport or to go outside the city. The Americans created a dream of transporting by cars in cities. I think cities are more interesting when people walk or bike. There's so much more interaction between people. A friend in Lagos saw my image of a guy in a nice suit and two phones in his hands, around Lekki and said: "Uhhh, poor guy!" I asked him why he thought so? " Well, that is his only suit and his only shirt. He will wash it every evening for the next day. He works at the counter of a bank." Again I asked him why he though so? “Because he wal
ks!"
 
Do you find this theme of transport powerful? The mashing together of total strangers all of whom have a common experience?
 
I don't see it as a theme on its own. It's logical to see traffic and transportation when you look at public space. My theme is public space and indeed I think the mashing together of total strangers is powerful. I started photographing with that paradox in mind. The city is both about the individual as about the mass. its about the individual because the social control is less then in a village, but on the other hand you're just one of many, many people.
 
Getting back to the theme of informal structure...how do you feel about leisure spaces in developing mega cities? 
Obviously these types of spaces are sorely lackingin many African cities, and it seems that you have tried to find alternative spaces, where people have forced recreational/leisure space out of the concrete jungle. Is this a theme that you are consciously trying to highlight?
 
As most things, also leisure spaces seem to be created mostly by people themselves. I'm not really trying to highlight them. In Lagos I know the Muri Okunola Park (see image 'Maroko Road, Victoria Island), in which we had the outside exhibition during LagosPhoto2010. A very nice park, but to my great surprise it is fenced. I understand the necessity within the Lagos context, but I think the ideal of a park in urban space is that it should be a public
space.
 
What do you feel are visual implications of this lack of public urban space?
 
I think there's a lot of public space in African cities and it is used by most of the people. The middle- and higher-class seem to be locked off from the use of public space. They mainly go through by car and think that most of the places are no-go. Walking through urban space also seems socially not done. The visual implication of this lack of use of public space by some groups in society is that I automatically only show the people from the streets.
 
You mention an interest in so called everyday life; can you talk about common trends and universality with respect to urban existence? Is there an essence that you have observed that cuts across culture and region...something profoundly human about urban life?
 
People want to make the best of everyday life and it is very interesting to look at how people do that and how you yourself are part of that. In all difficulties of urban life I often noticed that people are proud to deal with this life. Ask a person in Lagos if there are 20 million or 25 million people and he will tell you 25. People close to a mountain will tell you it's higher then what Wikipedia tells you. That's the pride of people about the place they belong to. The pride of everyday life.
 
If you were to return to all of these cities in 10 or 15 years to conduct the same project what would you expect to see?
What would you like to see?
 
It's not important what I would like to see, but I expect to see a lot the same, plus a lot of Dubai-like areas and a lot of which I wouldn't expect at this moment, because that is what time is about, it will always surprise us. The big challenge for African cities will be to try to close the gap between rich and poor. I hope that will be someday on the political agenda.