A Stranger’s Pose
Emmanuel Iduma’s A Stranger’s Pose is a discontinuous journey that zigzags across parts of north Africa. As a traveler who often lacks the local language, Iduma and the people he meets are constantly forced to assess each other with little or no language. The camera that he carries can be perceived as a threat or an invitation. Finding a common language—even if it is simply gestural— is the first priority.
The book consists of seventy-seven short pieces that include brief stories, conversations, dreams, reflections, poems, and photographs that are credited to Iduma and a dozen or so others. The book covers a swath of the continent that spans from Casablanca and Rabat in the North to Dakar in the West and Addis Ababa in the east. The seeming lack of structure, be it geographic or temporal, struck me as one of the book’s strengths, because it instantly converts the reader into a traveler, waking up in a new place daily, coming across strangers in a strange land every few pages. As Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide to Getting Lost constantly reminds us, travel is a kind of dream state in which we are unmoored from almost everything familiar.
A Stranger’s Pose is occasionally haunted by the submerged history slavery. But more frequently, it briefly crosses paths with a few of the millions of African refugees and would-be asylum seekers. In Kidira, Senegal, for example, Iduma is casually talking with a man who is headed toward Europe to seek asylum when the police approach and ask for their papers. Iduma has a passport but the other man has no papers and is taken away. “Now,” Iduma suddenly sees “it is clear that our relationship was not among equals.” He ponders going to the police station to try to help the man but realizes he hadn’t even asked his name yet.
The book is the result of numerous trips, some made alone and some with a “rotating group of photographers, visual artists, and writers” called the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers’ Organization. And thus the book vacillates between the collective experiences of the group and the more personal, sometimes riskier experiences that Iduma has when he travels alone, negotiating such things as road blocks, corrupt police, and drug dealers. All of this—the group travel, the continual movement, the uncertain strangers—forces Iduma to stay focused on the surface. He describes people’s poses, the look in their eyes, what their hands do. He has the photographer’s conviction in the visual, but often I wanted him to linger, to write more, to look deeper. But that’s another book. In this one, Iduma is content to mostly look for the decisive moment and move on.
Along the way, Iduma writes about other photographers (notably Malick Sidibé) and a number of his fellow African writers. He tells one story about a very peculiar photograph that was related to him by a Yoruba octogenarian. She had been one of three triplets, the other two being boys who had been tragically killed. Her parents, believing that a photograph would substitute for a traditional effigy of the deceased, commissioned a photographer to “make a portrait” of the triplets. The girl posed as herself, then dressed in her brother’s clothes. Two versions of the male portrait stood in for the dead brothers in the portrait of the triplets.
I was really surprised and pleased to see this particular story appear in Iduma’s book, because a copy of this photograph is in the Stephen Sprague Archive at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, where I was Curator and then Director for nearly twenty-five years. I helped acquire the Sprague Archive, which included the materials he collected for his MIT Press book Yoruba Photography: How the Yoruba See Themselves. Sprague was a professor of photography and film at Purdue University when he died way too young at the age of thirty-seven.