Redressing power imbalances with Sarah Waiswa

The documentary and portrait photographer discusses breaking gender bias, challenging narratives, reclaiming identities and why the voices of African women need to be heard.
A black and white portrait of a woman with braided hair surrounded by five balloons with faces drawn on them.

When it comes to choosing who and where to photograph and what to show, documentary and portrait photographer Sarah Waiswa says collaboration with her subjects is key. Personally, however, she admits, "I'm much more interested in women's stories, stories about women, issues about women." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/3.5 and ISO100. © Sarah Waiswa

Encouraging African women to further their photography careers has become important work for Canon Ambassador Sarah Waiswa. The documentary and portrait photographer was born in Uganda, grew up in Kenya, and then spent ten years in the USA, studying and working in America's corporate world, before returning in 2010 to Kenya, where she is now based.

With this unusually international perspective, she has a passion for exploring contemporary identity on the African continent. She acknowledges that part of this is "like self-discovery – using photography to tell other people's stories but then also to look inwards to understand your own story." However, she adds, "I studied sociology and psychology, and I'm deeply interested in people and their stories. I think my background informs the topics that I'm interested in working on, but I'm much more interested in collaboration – working with the people who I'm photographing and making sure that I'm not projecting myself on them, but that we are trying to create something together."

A black and white portrait of Sarah Waiswa, with wrap-around sunglasses and braided hair.

The reaction to the African Women in Photography network, which Sarah (pictured) co-founded, has been positive. "I think people are happy that there is a place where they can connect with other women photographers – a safe place to have discussions. Everybody's been pretty supportive." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/7.1 and ISO200. © Sarah Waiswa

A black and white multiple exposure of photographer Sarah Waiswa holding a Canon camera.

Photographers looking to join the African Women in Photography network can do so via social channels (@africanwomenphotograph) or the email address on the website, says Sarah. "In terms of membership, people can email their portfolios and say, 'Hey, I’d like to be a member.'" Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/1.8 and ISO500. © Sarah Waiswa

Breaking biases and fostering emerging talent

With collaboration and redressing power issues at the heart of her photographic work, Sarah co-founded the African Women in Photography network, which celebrates the work of women and non-binary photographers from Africa, championing the female perspectives that are underrepresented in the profession.

"I think photography has always been dominated by white males, and we obviously want to see many more stories from women, but of course from African women," Sarah explains. "Africa is a highly photographed continent, but you'll find that most of the photographers, especially in the past, were white and male.

"We want the opportunity to tell our own stories – saying that we are just as capable, that our stories are just as important. We do have a perspective and that needs to also be recognised."

The network has a practical side, too, as Sarah set it up hoping to offer others the support that she wished she'd had when starting out in the industry. "I come from a culture where, historically, the arts weren't really looked on as a career," she says. "When I decided to work on this project, I thought, 'What could have been easier for me as a woman who wanted to come into photography? What wasn't available for me?'

"What would have made my life easier is just someone to talk to and ask, 'How do you run a successful photography business?' Because at the end of the day, as much as you are a photographer, there are still practical things that you need to do to make it as a photographer."

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The network offers opportunities to learn through mentorship, provides links to funding options and, crucially, creates a space for much-needed conversation and support. "What the community is able to do is provide us with a platform to have discussions about challenges we face, to share information, to put resources together and try to make navigating the field a little bit easier than it would be if we didn't have the space," says Sarah.

A pale-skinned woman in a long dress, sitting on a cushion at the door of a shanty with colourfully painted corrugated iron panels, raises her arms as if against the sun.

An image from Sarah's Stranger in a Familiar Land series, showing model Florence Kisombe set against the backdrop of Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum. In parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, people with albinism are shunned because of lack of understanding about the condition, so they are "forced to face challenges emanating from both the sun and society" and feel "a sense of not belonging". Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/2.2 and ISO100. © Sarah Waiswa

A black and white image of two young girls in ballet skirts, raising their arms above their heads.

Ballet is an expensive hobby in Kenya, out of the reach of many, and this image from Sarah's Ballet in Kibera series symbolises the possibility of the children in the slums transcending those social barriers. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/60 sec, f/2.8 and ISO800. © Sarah Waiswa.

Hear more about building photographic communities in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

Observing versus the observer

Redressing historical and contemporary power imbalances is a prevalent theme in Sarah's own work. Her Stranger in a Familiar Land project shone a light on the life of Florence Kisombe, a model with albinism, and others with the condition in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as society's response to it.

Another of Sarah's notable photographic series is Lips Touched with Blood, which places Sarah's contemporary portraits of African people alongside archive portraits, creating a display that reframes and questions narratives around colonialism, power and identity. Sarah's techniques include blacking-out subjects in the images, to take the power away from the photographer and show a reclamation of identity.

The project is a collaboration with the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives, which holds around half a million photographs from the countries of the former British Empire dating back to between 1860 and the 1970s, most of them taken by British travellers.

"As much as the image was important," Sarah adds, "when you look at those colonial images, what was also interesting for me was the captioning behind the images, which gave the context of the conditions at the time when those photographs were taken."

The photographer, Sarah continues, was often portrayed as an explorer, "and he's kind of on an expedition. The question is, did the people in the images have agency? Did they want to be photographed? Even in the descriptions, they really are just being described as though they are sights seen on a safari – 'Oh, here's a native,' or whatever. It's not really like this is a person, this is So-and-So, and this person has a family. It's just the explorer saying 'Look at all these great things I've seen.' It's not really about what's being seen, it's about the person doing the seeing.

"The camera itself as a tool hasn't really been one of balance," Sarah explains. "I think that there was always someone behind the camera, who kind of held all the power, right? Even now, if photographers go into a community, they have power. They are the ones dominating or directing the narrative in some way. I think that's still the case."

That's why Sarah emphasises the importance of a collaborative approach once again. "Of course, it helps to have Africans photographing Africans. It doesn't completely negate the power imbalance, but the gaze is definitely going to be different. I think it is important for local photographers to be able to tell stories in their local neighbourhoods.

"I think it really depends on the story – not just what I'm trying to communicate, but who those people are in the photo, and how we can tell the story, not just through my camera but with them being a part of putting this together."

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A black and white portrait of a man wearing a checked sarong and tribal-style jewellery.

"I get excited when we have photographers from different parts of the continent that are underrepresented – Central Africa, for example," Sarah says. "We have representation from most of the continent, but I'd like to see more countries that are typically not presented." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/7.1 and ISO200. © Sarah Waiswa

A young woman looks wistfully to the side, one hand on a wall. Two other people stand against another wall in the background.

Help is offered in numerous ways for emerging photographers in the network: "I held a workshop late last year, where we had [in-person tutorials] about storytelling and helping students to navigate that," says Sarah. "We're also open to helping with grant applications or [giving feedback] on images. We make ourselves available when possible to help and guide." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 50mm, 1/60 sec, f/2.8 and ISO800. © Sarah Waiswa

Changing the narrative

When it comes to changing the narrative, Sarah believes the image is just as powerful as the written word. "It's easier for me to connect with an image than it is for me to connect with text. Photos have a lot of immediate impact," she says. "Of course, pictures don't give the full story of what's happening, but they can touch you and make you think.

"The thing is, you can look at an image and I can look at an image and we both get something different. And that's going to be influenced by our backgrounds and so many other things. I think that is also the power of an image or the power of art, that it's subject to interpretation and starts a discussion."

Looking to the future, Sarah hopes the African Women in Photography community will continue to grow. "We're building and learning from each other. I'm hoping that young and emerging photographers will have an opportunity to use the community as a resource, that they will be able to further their careers, and that they will be able to share their talents with the world and continue to contribute to different issues.

"Our voices haven't been heard for a long time," Sarah concludes. "But this is the world's chance to see what life is like through an African woman's lens. It's a perspective that needs to be heard and seen."

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