This article by photographer and poet Amaal Said is part of the Spread the Word series, commissioned for the SLG’s Convergence programme.
Please note, this text refers to acts of violence.
I watched Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson in awe. Each vignette is a part of a film she’s worked on and that she comes back to in memory. One scene, in particular, stayed with me. Kathy Leichter, a filmmaker working on a documentary about her mother’s suicide, is being filmed. At first she’s sitting on the side of the bed talking to Kirsten and then she’s hiding from the camera. In between these two moments, she breaks down and throws her mother’s documents to the other side of the room. She says, ‘I totally don’t want you to see me.’ I found it incredible, hearing a subject say clearly to the one recording that they didn’t want to be seen anymore. Kathy’s wishes are respected. She can be fully present in her grief without being watched. I think about this scene often because not all of us are afforded this privilege.
As a photographer, I’m not immune from violating people by photographing them, even when my own family are involved. My good intention doesn’t lessen the violation. The excuse was that I took these pictures of family members because I wanted to keep their image with me forever. But I realised I had no right to their image. I didn’t bring my camera to my grandfather’s room in Mombasa, Kenya, because my parents didn’t want a picture of him looking frail. They wanted to remember him much younger, before his illness. I felt intense regret and sadness when he passed away last year and thought about that bedroom we all sat in. I struggled to remember its details. I wanted to go back to that room and ask him directly for a photograph. I haven’t taken many pictures of my father either. Once, carrying my camera to our living room, he looked over and said, ‘take a picture of someone else, not me.’ I’ve been careful not to capture him, even now that he’s softened to the idea. I often think about those photographs because no question was asked before and after their taking. I took their silence before as consent, which was a mistake.
Last year, my little sister told me to delete two images of her from my Instagram feed. She’s 16 now and knows with certainty that she is in charge of how much people see of her. Instead of telling her how beautiful she looked, and how much I cherished those pictures, I took them down without hesitation. I’m glad she’s learnt that she can choose who she trusts with her image and that she can revoke this. It seems simple, the ability to take away consent when you’re no longer comfortable. The image lives on longer than the one filming imagines. Those few seconds of Kathy throwing her mother’s papers in frustration are still on my mind, three years after watching it in cinema. Yet still, those of us who know how little Black pain and suffering is believed know the power of the recording, of being able to point to something that defends us. No evidence means it didn’t happen and that state officials haven’t abused their power. It means that those who were already intent on disbelieving us can keep denying our humanity. Evidence also means that public grieving can occur, which is what interests me. We are haunted by the absence of that person. We say their name so that others can remember them too.
Judith Butler in Frames of War asks, ‘whose life, if extinguished, would be publicly grievable and whose life would leave either no public trace to grieve, or only a partial, mangled, and enigmatic trace?’ I’ve woken up thinking about Mahamud Hassan every day this week. The first time I read the news of his death, they used a photograph of him smiling. I remembered his face immediately from primary school. Years have passed and here was a description of his final day. I scrolled my timeline expecting a video or a picture to pop up at any minute. Footage to support what we knew, that excessive force had been used. And I felt bad expecting this, knowing that his loved ones were grieving and probably wouldn’t want anyone to see him in that state. But I also thought, without evidence, they will find a way to blame him for his death. This seems incredibly simple too. There should be mourning and justice without footage of his death being looped. No one should be beaten to death. No family member should find their loved ones covered in blood. And if we know that footage that demonstrates harm being inflicted is not always enough, that other justification will be found, is it still worth making this footage public? I have more questions than answers.
I’m thinking about Mahamud because we grew up in the same place, and then he ended up in Cardiff, and then in a police station, and then dead. If there are pictures of these final moments, we haven’t seen them yet. I think about all the others who have been wrongfully beaten and killed, and with very little that proves them innocent. Forgetting them is also a type of violence. I don’t want to forget Mahamud. He could have been my little brother. Would he want us to see his final moment if it meant that the ones that harmed him are held accountable for their actions? There should be consequences for those who abused their power and took him away from everyone that loved him. We won’t ever know what Mahamud would have wanted. In another world, we believe in Mahamud’s innocence and those like him who are harmed by the state, without needing to see graphic footage. A description of what occurred and the image of Mahamud smiling is enough to remember him, to grieve his absence.
Amaal Said is a Danish-born Somali photographer, and poet, based in London. Her photographs have been featured in Vogue, The Guardian and The New York Times. She is concerned with storytelling and how best she can connect with people to document their stories. She won Wasafiri Magazine’s New Writing Prize for poetry in 2015. In 2017, she was exhibited in Los Angeles, California. In 2018, her photography was featured in the fourth volume of African Lens and was exhibited in Accra, Ghana. She is a member of Octavia, poetry collective for womxn of colour, and is a former Barbican Young Poet.
Spread the Word is London’s writer development agency, a charity and a National Portfolio client of Arts Council England. It is funded to help London’s writers make their mark on the page, the screen and in the world and build strategic partnerships to foster a literature ecology which reflects the cultural diversity of contemporary Britain. Spread the Word has a national and international reputation for initiating change-making research and developing programmes for writers that have equity and social justice at their heart. In 2020 it launched Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing by Dr Anamik Saha and Dr Sandra van Lente, Goldsmiths, University of London, in partnership with The Bookseller and Words of Colour. Spread the Word’s programmes include: the Young People’s Laureate for London, the London Writers Awards and the national Life Writing Prize.
Convergence is an ongoing series of critical conversations, screenings and written commissions, facilitated by the SLG and curated and hosted by invited guests.
With Art Fund support