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A photographer with a yearning to research the unknown
Words by Kerstin Fiedler
Phyllis Galembo is a photographer and professor of art at the University of Albany, State University of New York where she heads the printmaking department and teaches photography. She spends the rest of her time planning and carrying out her personal projects. She describes herself as project-oriented, but stresses that it is her passion for travelling and meeting people from different cultures that ultimately drives her. "What I want to do most of all is document how people can live a tolerable life under harsh conditions. As an artistic onlooker I am fascinated by all the beauty that survives in the very poorest slums on our planet."
Galembo makes no big deal of her achievements, and during the interview she takes out of her cloth bag a large and impressive-looking book as an example of one of her bigger projects. The book bears the title Divine Inspiration - from Benin to Bahia. In Divine Inspiration we get to follow Galembo to Benin City in Nigeria, and later to the Brazilian city of Salvador in Bahia. The year was 1985 and she was invited to Benin City, Nigeria to document photographically the ritual clothing of traditional priests and priestess. Galembo, who was working at the time on a project about theatrical dress and background sets, thought the assignment sounded fascinating, and agreed. The book is divided into two sections. The first contains extraordinary photographs of male and female priests and the relics they use in Benin voodoo, one of Nigeria's cultural and religious faiths. The second part deals with the Brazilian approach to the ancient African spiritual religion that came to the new world via the slave trade across the Atlantic in the seventeenth century.Over a period of nine years Galembo regularly returned to Nigeria. She attended religious rituals and was captivated by the clothes and ornaments that were used. "I have always been fascinated by how a piece of fabric can transform a common person into a magical being, whether it's in the theatre, in a holy place or on the street. Through visiting these rituals I gained a wonderful opportunity to research my own obsession for beautiful attire, in portrait form. Quite a few times I was literally told to put aside my Hasselblad and take part in the ceremony myself."
While in Nigeria, Galembo also developed a growing interest in "aso-eb ", a custom by which entire families dress themselves in identical clothes on public festivals to demonstrate their kinship. This project resulted in the photographic booklet Aso-eb - cloth of the family. In 1998 Galembo published the book Vodou - Visions and Voices of Haiti. In the foreword to the book she writes: 'I didn't set out to photograph voodoo. It was my yearning to cross cultural divides and gain access to the unknown that led me. In summer 1993 I set off for Port-au-Prince with great expectations - and not the slightest idea of what I would discover.' This seems to be the normal state of affairs for Galembo, and once again a project was born out of the interplay between her yearning, curiosity and chance.
In Vodou - Visions and Voices of Haiti the reader gets a thrilling insight into the real world of voodoo as it is practised on Haiti today, but the images are also the result of Galembo's own journey of discovery among its inhabitants. To support her colourful photographs of human and godlike faces and holy spaces, Galembo uses descriptive captions with a smattering of the local vocabulary. We get to meet, for example, Mihenle, an oungan (priest) who is possessed by Lwa (the spirit) Papa Legba, guardian of homes, gates and crossings. Another caption runs 'Manbo (the female priest) Nina Pierre-Louis wears Lwa Bosou's ritual dress'.
Galembo's images are deliberately arranged, rich in detail and vibrant with colour. She seldom crops them, and the square format gives her images great power. The people are portrayed in their traditional dress, in settings that are difficult to capture, surrounded by religious and spiritual objects. The subjects look calmly into the camera and it is clear that they are utterly serious about this task.
One asks oneself how Galembo, despite linguistic and cultural barriers, has succeeded so completely in reaching the essence of these people.Galembo is careful not to be regarded as a tourist who is simply chasing some exciting photographs. 'During the course of a project I make a serious effort to get close to the people I intend to photograph. I make sure I always have a local assistant on hand. He or she has to act as interpreter, arrange meetings and organise permits from the authorities, religious groups and the like. I also try to establish a good dialogue with the members and leaders of the religious groups. These contacts sometimes lead to friendships that last many years. As a friend and absorbed documentary photographer it is easy to get access to the very holiest of rooms.'
Right now Galembo is working on her latest project, a book about Halloween costumes. But she never stops thinking about where she will travel next. She has to find the finance for every assignment, and is grateful for the help she has received from funds such as the Fulbright Foundation, New York Council on the Arts and the University at Albany, for example. She also strongly recognises the help from people around the world who have opened their homes to her and made the realisation of her projects possible.
The Hasselblad Masters
Phyllis Galembo is one the Hasselblad Masters - 12 highly skilled photographers, carefully chosen by Hasselblad to feature in the Hasselblad Calendar 2001. Work of the other 11 will appear on this site in due course.