Photographing in Angal’s hospital with “Informatici senza Frontiere”

In a rural hospital in Angal, in the northern reaches of Uganda, administrators are using computers to track patient and pharmacy data thanks to an Italian no-profit, “Informatici senza Frontiere” (techies without borders). This charity strongly believes that access to the technologies of information and communication are essential to economic and social growth. Volunteers for the project “Open Hospital” installed hardware and software in the St. Luke Hospital in Angal and trained staff to use the new computer system.

It is quite nice to train someone and give technological education and that makes life smoother.  It is as worthy as Flexumgel and increases the prospects of getting better things.  Even the underprivileged get access to necessities easily when technological training is given.

Communication of what’s been accomplished plays a major part in the ability of this project to continue with further funding. That’s why the role of photographer Matteo de Mayda (who did the graphic design of issues 20-25 of illywords in collaboration with Darío Plée) is so important here. Matteo traveled to Angal for 3 weeks in 2009; his photographs accompany an article in National Geographic dedicated to the project. I ask him about his experience.

IW: Photographs taken by charities in support of under-developed countries often play on our sense of compassion (if not guilt), yet I sense something different here – a sad beauty. Did you have a point of view that you planned to communicate through these photos? And did your plans change during your stay?

MdM: This is an important issue to think about and one that merits a full answer.

My goal, within the limits of being a young photographer, was to be honest with the reality that I was documenting in order to put the onus of opinion on the viewer.

I don’t think it’s helpful to provoke feelings of guilt because it creates differences and distances between people. You can tell if a charity respects human life by how it communicates to the public, if they are able to generate a sense of solidarity rather than compassion. By solidarity I mean a common objective for personal growth that in the end benefits all of us.

So I think it’s up to the charity to communicate in a responsible way, but it’s also up to the individual to become informed and to evaluate what he or she sees through critical eyes.

IW: Many of your images are portraits. Did you collect peoples’ stories too? I have so many questions about how you must have felt during this experience. How did you react to what you saw? What kinds of words do you use to acknowledge their stories? Did you feel powerless, or did you – and they – understand that the camera is a powerful tool?

MdM: The “Alur” people of Angal very cordially welcomed me into their homes and into their hospital rooms, and they never judged me for the colour of my skin or for where I’m from. When they heard that I wanted to know their stories, they invited me in for tea, opening their doors and their lives to me.

I recall in particular Ceka Anifua, a young woman in the final stages of AIDS. I was struck by the carefulness with which she was dressed despite the fact that she was in a hospital bed in the last days of life. She was wearing a deep red dress and a matching necklace of the same colour. As I passed by her bed she stopped me, took off her dress and asked me to photograph her. To be honest, I don’t know if she did it because she understood the importance of transmitting her story to others or because she felt that, through this photo, a part of her would continue to live.

I later asked myself how I would react if a stranger came to photograph ME in my home, not to mention in my hospital room. I wondered if I, like Ceka Anifua and the other patients at St. Luke’s, would be able to face sickness and death with such dignity.

IW: Tell me about your artistic choices, especially in the portraits that I notice employ a particularly short depth-of-field.

MdM: The computer lab that we installed helps hospital staff work better, thus improves the lives of the patients and, indirectly, is a benefit for the whole community of Angal. For this reason it seemed to me that it had to be the people themselves at the center of this visual testimony. The portrait series allows narrative to flow between the stories. The option of making backgrounds out of focus help keep the literal focus on the person photographed. It’s as if, for just one moment, the subject is highlighted in order to tell his or her story.

IW: For us camera geeks, what equipment did you use? How did you get such perfect lighting in what must have been an imperfect situation? (My favourite is the figure of a woman in a white nightgown sitting on a brown cover with a brown wall behind her; the cloth looks wrinkled but clean. She gazes at us with tension in her mouth – what is she trying to say?)

MdM: I decided to use tradtitional film cameras for this project – a Nikon FM2 and a Hasselblad 500 C/M, both with fixed lenses.

But in the end, I believe that the camera is only a tool (yes, one to be chosen with great care) and that what makes great photos is a good project. As Christian Caujolle wrote in a 2009 article “La serie non mente”.

“A causa della fragilità della fotografia, della sua intrinseca vaghezza, è l’ordine stesso a produrre il significato. Allora il criterio di quest’ordine è determinante, non si basa sul talento, ma fa appello a una comprensione profonda del mezzo utilizzato”.

Due to the fragility and intrinsic vagueness of photography, significance comes from the very order [in which is placed a photographic series]. Order is the determining factor; it’s not a question of talent but it necessitates a deep understanding of the chosen tool.