On Photography and the Now: A Conversation With Tahir Carl Karmali

ROSIE OLANG: Hi Tahir, thanks for making time to do this today. Tell us a bit about yourself, about your art practice, and let’s proceed from there . . .

TAHIR KARMALI: My name is Tahir Carl Karmali. I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. Proud Kenyan, proud Nairobian. Is Nairobian a word? I identify very much with the city of Nairobi. I am a photographer and mixed media artist. I like to say I am a mixed media artist because it justifies my photographic practice and this allows me to look at my photographs as media.

I say this because with my photographs themselves, there is always an element of staging, of adding or removing, some interaction between the portrait and the object, which comes from my mixed media practice. Other than just taking photographs of people, what can I add in terms of physical medium?

 There is also always some level of installation when it comes to my practice. Draping down or covering an entire room in plastic, building impromptu scaffolds, or dressing everyone the same, having some kind of object within the photographs that sometimes unifies them. That’s not mixed media per see but my affinity for objects and material has led me down the path of these staged portraits.

R.O.: Let’s talk about your project: Displaced. What was the conceptual process behind it? What are some of your technical and stylistic choices?

T.K.: Displaced is, first, a thesis project and has an academic angle, and is a comment about photography; how I think and look at photography. I did a Masters in digital photography and luckily, when it came to creating a thesis, my school was very liberal about the angle chosen. So I chose to concentrate on the environmental portrait, using it to hide and show and displace people within their environment with plastic. And plastic is this translucent material that aids in blurring out the background yet allows others to come into focus, allowing for certain objects to be seen through. What it also does is  mystify the structure that the people are in because you don’t really have an idea of place, for example, how deep is the space behind them?, or where in the room? Within all of the photographs it has a very unified composition.

Now for the whole concept, I didn’t wake up that day and say, “Oh plastic can add a certain level of blurring and depth and texture and plastic can work as a secondary lens and background distortion.” No, it doesn’t work like that. It happened on a very human and conceptual level. With most of my projects, it begins with who I am and where I am now and how I feel now.

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“I definitely feel like I am in-between”  

Image by  Tahir Karmali 

R.O: Who I am and where I am now? Tell me more

T.K.:  ‘Jua Kali’ was very much about where I was at that point in my life, Kuona Trust and people working with these mixed media. ‘Value’ was at a point when I was asking a lot of questions about things centered in and around masculinity and the sexualization of men’s bodies. And so all of these personal projects are all to do with myself and how I feel within that space. I then extend this, look for other people within similar situations, or people who I think can fit this portrait and I make the portrait work around them.

“Displaced” is how I felt living in New York City as a grad student, and participating in the fine art world through an African discourse of photography, and being part of this scene which I wasn’t really attached to because of my physical location and displacement. Who I was in New York City didn’t reflect who I was within my own country, so  “Displaced” came about. During this time, a lot of people were settled in Daadab, and I was interested in refugee narrative, and also internally displaced people within the country following the 2007 post-election violence.

R.O.: So several layers to the idea of displacement?

T.K.:Oh yeah, I mean, I didn’t come up with this independently, This idea that people within my own country are suffering from internal displacement which is seen metaphorically within the work: Displaced. These people are inside their own homes and I had displaced them within this interior spaces so they are internally displaced, a kind of play on words.

Also the material, plastic, came from the refugee camps and how people use plastic to create improvised shelter so that’s a nod to the material. So, Displaced has its level of depth when it comes to Kenyan politics and what’s happening within Kenya and its economics. I was interested in drawing connections to people who become expatriates in New York to work and live. That was another economic angle that I was interested in. And I interviewed all of these people.

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“I’m not sure if I’d raise my children here – I’m still too attached to home.”

Image by  Tahir Karmali 

R.O.: Can we talk a bit about that, the interview process, the casting, who did you involve for Displaced?

T.K.: First, I wanted to have a good cross-section of the globe. I got someone from Chile who’s originally from Korea, someone Japanese, someone from the Middle East, someone European, African, Australian, Indian. Trying to hit all of these places in terms of how you see the world. Also to have all this diversity when you look at these people’s faces.

Even so, one of the things that I don’t do in the project is reveal where everybody is from. There is nothing that says, “This is…from…and does this.” I leave that blank because there is something quite ethnographic about going around collecting different races of people who live in New York. I didn’t want people to be focused on the people’s race and where exactly they are located. Which is a criticism I got, and completely dismissed. Because when I stepped in to defend my thesis one of the reviewers leaned across to talk to one of the other reviewers who is Indian, and later on during my thesis defense, it come out that what he leaned across to tell the other reviewer is, “I think he is Indian or partially Indian.” I wondered if he does the same thing when he sees other white people: “Is he from wherever, is she from wherever.”

So leaving this out is very deliberate because otherwise I am just collecting photographs of different people’s races. There are some cultural references behind the plastic that may allude to where the person is from. There doesn’t have to be something definitive because it’s not what its about, its about being displaced.

R.O.: The project, however, does have a narrative aspect to it with brief statements from the people interviewed.

T.K.: Yes. I recorded the conversations and I selected quotes that I felt lent themselves towards displacement. A lot of them are openings to conversations, openings to what is happening, and never anything final and definitive. Nothing about them is final and definitive. My life as an expatriate is not final and definitive. I know people who have said, “Oh, I’m only going to be here for just another year, and 7 years down the line they are still here.”

I also wanted there to be some reference to the city in the lettering, in the words and not in the images. You don’t see NYC in the images and yet this project is very much due to the relationship that people have to the city, and the city as a tertiary character to their narrative. A lot them did say things that were similar. I could have picked out one quote that each said that were almost exactly the same.

What is also interesting is that often people look at this in a fairly cursory way,  but when you look at the pieces, there are a lot of hidden identities that you can really pull out when you look behind the veil of plastic. The success of the project with the individual is about how much they care to look. When I show this work, another reading is this idea of plastic and pop culture, because in pop-culture, a room covered in plastic has something to do with murder. So it’s interesting how you read it very differently and the influence of pop culture in how people look at art. But again, you realize you can’t make projects that make everyone happy.

R.O.: I have a question about the intentionality of words used. You use the word expatriate, and most times when this word is used is with the meaning of the west moving to the developing world. If it is vice versa, you are an immigrant, in official documents they would state you as a resident alien. Resident alien is a removed word.

T.K.: Yes, it’s not that different from Kenya. If you are working in Kenya for an NGO or even those investing in businesses in Kenya in more exploitative ways you will get an alien card, but colloquially be referred to as an expatriate. What’s interesting is that anyone from Europe moving here is not seen as an immigrant; it’s those from other countries, anything other than white, who are considered immigrants and less an expatriate. I don’t know what they are trying to achieve by making a point out of it.

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“I moved here for him, I want to go home but I’m not sure what he’d do.”

Image by  Tahir Karmali 

R.O.: I want to talk about your work more broadly, looking at some of your previous projects but still focused on portraiture, looking at targeted identities, Value was about male sex workers in Nairobi, because it is not the dominant narrative people shy from talking about it, Jua Kali, a dominant industry yet often reduced to something less meaningful, and now Displaced, what are the common threads?

T.K.: First, I will say I really enjoy taking pictures of people (laughing). I  think that really helps. I also really like the still life. I like to match people with objects, and it falls under my photographic practice. And what happens then is this dialogue between a person and the objects they are surrounded with.  With Valuethe people and objects change, but the shirts are the same, the background is the same and the lighting is the same, and the meaning of the object to the person is the same, it’s their most valued possession.

R.O.: I find it interesting how you talk about the interaction between people and objects.

T.K.: Objects can tell us a lot about who we are. And Jua Kali, Value and Displaced, when shown in galleries, have a structural element to them; there is an installation for Jua Kali, there is an installation for Value, a book for Displaced that functions as an installation that works in tandem with the concept itself. For future projects, looking at how I have evolved as an artist here in New York, the idea of the portrait will evolve as I am looking to turn the camera back at me in a more historical manner, but still a maintain a sensibility as to how I use objects, how I use maps, how I use collage and so on.

R.O.: That’s a nice segue into what I want to talk about next, thinking about your own self-portrait, how have you explored that?

T.K.: I think if you are a portrait photographer, and like to take photos of people, it’s almost natural that you will turn the camera back at yourself, experiment with light and all that stuff. You deal with models, and sometimes, I photograph fashion and things that don’t necessarily deal with my fine art practice, but it’s important to know how it feels to be in front of the camera, I always photograph myself for a project before I ask other people to do it, to understand the framing better, all sorts of bits and pieces

R.O.: So it helps you understand the technicalities?

T.K.: Yes. There is something about knowing what it’s like to take the photograph yourself. When you are taking the photograph of someone else, something that might not be spoken, might not even be completely discussed, for some reason, just happens.

R.O.: I’m interested to know how intangibility may translate to something more tangible in the self-portrait.

T.K.: When I take photographs of myself, there are a few things I go through. What does my body look like? Does this conform to the social construct of what my body should look like? Does it conform to my personal construct of what I want to be perceived as? Does this conform to some conceptual notion that I am trying to communicate through my photographs?

Now, one of the things that I think is very important about self-portraiture and photography is that photographs do not necessarily tell the truth, and you can control how things are seen through the lens. It gives a weird fantasy that this is true, that this is what I look like. Yet if I put the camera slightly higher, and I move the light and I stand in this particular way, will my chest look bigger, does my waist look smaller and so on. The angles of the camera shape how your body looks because it’s all to do with perspective. This is where it becomes interesting with regards to self-presentation, and does it conform to what media dictates?

When I take photographs of myself, it’s more about how I use my body to play around with light, and these are all personal things, and you can see this in Kiangazi, one of my earlier projects; it’s a lot about myself, my body and my relationship with light and how it makes me feel and what it makes me think about. It’s also about shape and form.

About the Writer: 

Rosie Olang’ smiles with her eyebrows, is eternally grateful for caffeine and believes that in a parallel universe she is an elephant. She’s constantly thinking about the intersections of visual arts, poetry and literature.