Chapter 2: Jelisa Peterson
Jelisa Peterson was born in Ogden, Utah in 1969. Her interest in photography began at age seven when she received her first camera. Her passion for photography was ignited when she worked as a volunteer intern for a women's organization in Zimbabwe from 1993 through 1994. Degrees in Anthropology and Women's Studies inform her work in terms of subject, themes and understanding.
Jelisa's images concentrate on people with a particular focus on women and children. She has lived and worked in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa and has traveled extensively in Eastern and Southern Africa.
Jelisa lives in Austin, Texas. She will be returning to Africa to create new images in 2017
When did you realize that you can use photography to bring people together?
While I was working for the women's group, Jekesa Pfungwa in Zimbabwe as a intern in 1993, I began to seriously pursue photography. I wanted to document everything I was seeing and experiencing in part to share with my friends and family at the conclusion of my internship. As Jekesa Pfungwa’s information officer, I began to make use of my photography to support the vital work we were doing.
There was a severe drought that year in Zimbabwe and part of my responsibilities were writing grant proposals to European donor agencies to get funding for our programs for the women. I quickly realized how essential the images could prove in illustrating the dire situation that Zimbabweans were experiencing. It is one thing to write about the terrible situations caused by the drought but it is quite another to be able to see the dry earth, thin bodies and sick children for oneself. The grants were more successful when I began to include these devastating images. It became real for people who were faraway.
You have travelled to and captured photographs in almost 20 countries, what patterns have you noticed through the lens of your camera?
One thing that I have noticed while taking photographs in many different African settings is how difficult it can be to get candid images of adults. People tend to quickly pose themselves when they notice the lens coming their way. Maintaining dignity is important and for some people this means appearing serious and not smiling.
Familiarity and trust can break down these barriers but this takes time and good interaction which makes a lot of sense. Spending a lot of time in one area and repeated visits gives me the best opportunities for more natural portraits. Keeping my word when I say I will bring back photos to the community is much appreciated and creates trust. Another thing that helps build trust is allowing myself to be photographed. I enjoy this very much.
You’ve done a lot of work across Africa, and Mozambique in particular. Can you tell us more about some of your experiences?
I have been able to make several close friendships over the years while working in Mozambique. The closest friend I've made while working on a photography project is Sam. I learned many years later that Sam wasn’t his real name but one he gave himself to sell jewelry and guide tourists visiting Ilha de Mozambique (Island of Mozambique). The first time I visited the island was in 2003. Sam was about 13 years old. He spoke a bit of English and I spoke only a few words in Portuguese. Despite this challenge, he was keen to sell his jewelry and make money giving me a tour.
Sam was was the first “guide” I was able to hire to work with me. I had never had enough money on my other trips to spend a few extra dollars per day for an assistant. I probably paid him two or three dollars a day plus sodas and snacks. It was a decent amount of money for a kid there in those days. We figured out how to work together. Sam carried my small backpack and camera bag and walked with me. I taught him how to hold a camera and how to load and unload film. I was there for a few weeks. I got the best shots I had to date.
I next visited with my mom in 2005. Sam’s English had improved as well as his status as a tour guide. There were many boys interested in earning money but Sam was stood out from the others with his winning personality, smile and skills. He was eager to work, some of the money he earned went toward his school fees. This time I taught Sam how to change a lense and carry and shoot from a second camera. Always perceptive and good with people, he was invaluable to me and we became even better friends.
Sam didn't have a phone and there was no internet on the island yet. I assumed I'd be visiting again relatively soon. So I wasn't worried about being able to keep in touch. But things didn't go as I planned. I thought of Sam many times over the years and hoped he was well. But I had no way of contacting him.
In June of 2013, I managed to make it back to Ilha de Mozambique. Sam wasn't around when I arrived but I was asking everyone I met if they knew Sam and if he was still there. No one knew anyone named Sam even when I showed them photos. I was quite worried that I might not see him again. I went to sleep feeling very depressed.
Early the next morning, I awoke to someone shouting my name. I came out of my room and there was Sam. News travels quickly in a place like that. I learned Sam’s real name is Anrane and that is why no one knew who I was asking about. We were so happy to see one another after all of those years. He told me he had a surprise for me but he couldn't show me for a few hours.
We talked and walked around and chatted with people for quite some time. Finally, we stopped at a house and Sam asked me to wait while he went inside. He came out with a pretty young girl. He told me he wanted to introduce his daughter Jelisa to me. It such a special moment to meet a namesake I didn't even know that I had. It has been amazing to get to know her and to be able to give her some things to make her life better.
What are some challenges that you’ve faced as a photographer?
The biggest challenges I have faced as a photographer are financial and security issues. To pursue the types of images I want to make, I have devoted any extra money that I could save toward travel, film and equipment. Despite traveling in the most organized and modest ways possible, it is still incredibly expensive. No news there.
As a woman, I have not been able to go to many places I would have liked to visit due to personal safety issues. Even if I am able to go the city, town or community I desire, I am still limited to daylight hours, “safer” areas and little interaction with men. Limited communication can makes things like directions, introductions, transportation and accommodation more challenging. Traveling independently does not fit into most locally prescribed gender roles and this can cause confusion and possible danger for me.
How have your life experiences influenced your work?
The life experience that has been greatest influence on my work is without a doubt my education. I was drawn toward social studies in general and Anthropology and Women’s Studies in particular during my university years. I would say that most of my photographs echo the lessons of my areas of study. I view much of life through these lenses.
Can you describe the creative process involved with the capturing of your photographs?
The intuitive, magical moments when I am able to create my images require a great deal of objective planning and execution to provide a foundation so I am able to work from intuition. This includes all of the prep and organization in getting myself to some remote and faraway communities. Being able to quickly find someone I feel I can trust, someone who is well thought of in the community and a person I feel I can work well with who will assist me has been a crucial part of my process for some time.
Working with my assistant, we start before the sun rises to walk, to greet people and create connections within the community. I really love working and playing with children and have an easy way with them. Being open, friendly and respectful helps in creating openings with adults. Taking part in activities as simple as sharing a meal, visiting a local leader or a place of worship can set the scene for developing friendship and trust. Asking questions and being open to new experiences is important. Talking about the places I have lived and visited in Africa creates connections.
My best work is created when I have a lot time to spend with people in their communities. All of these efforts lend themselves to creating a space where I can make compose authentic moments on film.
What do you hope that your work achieves?
I have several hopes for my work. I hope to challenge visual stereotypes of African people. To me this means creating images which show the beauty in everyday life. It means capturing many moments of happiness and joy. It means revealing a range of emotions in my images: peace, pride, satisfaction, tenderness. African life is not just about hunger, disease and war.
I hope to donate my original negatives and digital work of more than twenty years and growing to an organization who will well care for them so the images can provide an important visual, historical and cultural legacy for the people of Mozambique and used for their benefit.
What is the most important part of a photograph?
To me, the most important part of photograph is the truth it reveals. That truth could be its’ beauty, its’ vision of reality or its use of color. It could be the attention paid to technical excellence or its’ challenge of the traditional rules of photography.
The truth could be the progress of an individual photographer or the mastery of the art to another one.
How can youth use their art for empowerment?
I believe that youth can utilize their art for empowerment. One of the most important ways it can be used lies in the ability to express themselves and make a statement about who they are or what they believe in.
Whether they write, paint, or photograph or act, sing or play a musical instrument, youth can develop abilities and skills which give self-confidence and promote pride in themselves. These are the foundations of empowerment.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone struggling to express themselves, what would it be?
My one piece of advice to anyone struggling to express themselves would be to practice patience and perseverance with themselves. Self-expression can feel intimidating and difficult to begin. In my own life, I have seen that it takes time and diligence to achieve the advancements I was searching for in myself. It has taken me years to feel confident in expressing myself.
For some people, it may not take so long but don't give up if the process seems long and difficult.
Interview by Ahmed Badr, all photos courtesy of Jelisa Peterson.