Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 14, 2018
Ana Palacios Albino Trans Graham Thomson Barcelona: Tenov Books, 2017. 108 pp.; 82 color ills. Hardcover €25.00 (9788494423413)

The cover of the coffee table book Albino shows a Tanzanian girl with albinism photographed mid-twirl, the blue, white, and yellow stripes of her skirt spun out into a full bell around her. The picture, by Spanish photojournalist Ana Palacios, is called Kelen’s Dance, and Kelen spins in the center of a grayish-brown interior, a phalanx of concrete walls receding behind her, green sandals a blur of movement on a lumpy dirt floor, the ceiling a sturdy brown grid. Her face is turned, slightly smiling, her whole body caught in the joy of movement.

Upon opening the book, readers discover that this building is part of Kabanga, a collective home for children with albinism who live in Moshi, Tanzania, a city of 180,000 nestled on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The book is activist photojournalism, meant to publicize the plight of people with albinism (PWA) in this community and to encourage awareness through eye-catching photographs and brief, well-written factual essays about nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with the dermatology hospital in Moshi to help people suffering from this genetic condition. The hope is to destigmatize albinism and to contribute knowledge and finances to people with albinism in Tanzania and more broadly across Africa, where people with albinism tend to be higher percentages of national populations and where subtropical ultraviolet rays and social discrimination might mean early death rates and often miserable life circumstances.

Albino, published in Barcelona, Spain, consists mostly of photographs, in the author’s words, of “everyday life in the Kabanga shelter.” These pictures made colorful by the Kabanga inhabitants’ clothing are bookended by text: a preface by Isabel Muñoz, an informative introductory essay titled “Mendel’s Russian Roulette” by Palacios (the scientist Gregor Mendel discovered how genes are inherited), and an essay by curator Alicia Ventura titled “Art and Commitment.” The last essay engages Palacios’s aesthetics and touches on the question of photojournalism in relation to victimization, which has been an issue of debate for several decades, most notably questioned by artists like Martha Rosler and famously discussed by Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others (2004). Ventura explains that Palacios chose to focus on children in order to appeal to viewers’ sensitivities.

At the end of Albino—after one has engaged visually with the youth of the Kabanga Center and appreciated their surroundings and daily activities—four brief essays summarize health issues and promotional activities by Spanish directors of NGOs active in treating albinism in Moshi. These essays explain that while European media has focused on the atrocities committed against people with albinism in a sensationalist fashion, the real killer of people suffering from albinism is the sun: most die by age thirty of skin cancer, which is almost 100 percent preventable and curable in Europe. The essays discuss prevention of sunburn, surgery for skin cancer, and the importance of health education. Yet, they also mention the real fear faced by children with albinism living outside of Kabanga, which is why the shelter is popular; a boy refuses to walk to school during the rainy season when the corn is high, so as to be safe from limb poachers, as albinos are mutilated because it is believed their body parts contain magical powers.

Palacios explains, “In Kabanga, around a hundred PWAs live alongside people with visual and auditory functional diversity and psychological problems. Genetic chance has made them exceptional beings and has brought them together here in order to survive.” The author donated her share of the royalties from the sale of the book to the NGO África Directo for the development of the Kilisun project.

The book’s photographs share a theme created through the settings of the interior and exterior space of Kabanga. People—mostly children with albinism—are shown doing tasks, resting, reading, or playing. Usually the children look happy, and their clothes and attitudes shine brightly against the somber palette of their home. Older children hang clothes on a line or water crops, their bodies safely covered from the sun with hats and long sleeves. Several deliberate attempts at metaphor include a photo of a brown-skinned girl holding a white bead and a light-skinned girl holding a dark bead. The center also welcomes children who have physical disabilities and an apodal (without feet or having undeveloped feet) brown-skinned girl is shown playing with another girl with albinism, who is jumping.

However, certain visual tropes still seem to appear when Westerners photograph Africans. For example, the first photograph, framing the book’s contents, shows a woman with albinism standing with her back to the viewer (6). She wears a lacy blue sweater and her ginger hair is plaited in interconnected braids crisscrossing above her head. The peach-colored skin of her bare neck is creased. Over her shoulder we view a stunning landscape: a long barn with rusted doors, distanced from the other side of train tracks overgrown by tall grass. Mount Kilimanjaro arises from a bluish haze, its peak clearing clouds touched with late sun. The next page and photograph utilize a similar color palette but show giraffes’ necks rising among spiky branches of leafless tress whose bends reiterate the shape of the woman’s braids, foregrounded against a blue sky, with a similar pinkish haze near the horizon. Here a subtle, problematic parallel is made between the woman with braids and the nature scene that follows.

The photographs illustrating the essays at the end of the book have captions, and diligent searching reveals the name of the woman with braids: Grace Manyika. She is a laboratory assistant in the Kilisun production laboratory of the Kilimanjaro Sunscreen Production Unit, which opened in 2013. We see her wearing scrubs and checking the yellow-banded jars of precious and expensive sunscreen, which Kilisun distributes for free (97). I wanted to know her name from the beginning: I wanted to know what she thinks about this shelter, her work, and her life in Kabanga.

Another example of dubious image choice shows a cropped close-up of a light-skinned baby with blond fuzz nursing a brown-skinned breast (34). While Western photographers feel it is acceptable to show close-up images of African women nursing babies, a similar photograph in an American context would cause an uproar. The contrast made here through skin color seems superficial, although the point is to show that children with albinism are like other children. But the shot feels gratuitous; especially because it fills the whole page, so close up we can see pores in the breast skin of this anonymous woman. Why? Even National Geographic recently issued an apology for their racist presentations of people from other cultures. Another of Palacios’s photos, a cropped and close-up image of brown fingers plaiting golden-white hair, serves the same function—in showing the seeming paradox of “white” “black” people—and has a more interesting visual composition.

Ventura’s essay, titled “Art and Commitment,” explains that Palacios’s work, “refuses to fit people into predetermined categories: the victim, the sick, the poor. Very much to the contrary, in a series like Albino, Palacios uses all the resources of photographic language to generate a series of complex, subtle, polysemic images, in which the description of often terrible situations is not incompatible with the capturing of magical moments. Her images appeal to our response as viewers, fleeing from Manichaean dualism” (18).

The book accompanies a traveling exhibition of Palacios’s photographs, although it lacks a checklist of artworks. Indeed, for this reviewer, that is the problem: sixty-six pages of photographs are presented without captions or titles. The images must speak for themselves, along with the factual but generalized information in the essays. Thus, the very people who are not supposed to be represented as victims—as poor, as sick—have no voice. They don’t even seem to have names. No one is interviewed, and we are not given information about people’s lives in the shelter other than what we can see. Given the lack of text, the polysemic nature of Palacios’s images is reduced; it seems odd that decades of relevant criticism toward documentary photojournalism go unnoticed here. Curiously, a 2016 Daily Mail story on the Kabanga Center illustrated with photographs by Palacios includes several people’s names, so it seems in the book they were withheld, unconsciously or deliberately.

The last photograph shows a boy with albinism peering through a chain-link fence, making a clear point about how people with albinism are excluded from normal life. The good intentions of the author and her collaborators are clear, and the valuable work that AIPC (Asociacion para la Integracion y Progreso de las Culturas) Pandora, Kilisun, the RDTC (Rapid Diagnosis and Treatment Center) at Moshi Hospital, and África Directo are doing cannot be overstated. The extreme difficulty of life with albinism in Tanzania is vividly expressed; many of the photographs are beautiful and moving. While overall one must appreciate the good work this book will do in the world, one can still wish for more sensitivity to photographic tropes reiterating what is now close to two centuries of Westerners taking problematic photographs of people in Africa. That being said, surely many will find this book revelatory in exposing a little-known difficulty of life in Tanzania, mostly not through Afro-pessimistic imagery, but through the playful and spirited behaviors of children being children.

Allison Moore
Assistant Professor, School of Art and Art History, University of South Florida