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Empires Wake

© Tom Martin

The photographs in this series were taken across west Africa in places layered with history. They bring together images of people and landscapes, trading posts of ancient empires, cultural signifiers and old slave ports. These sit alongside portraits of the people who inhabit these spaces, representing them as people existing now, owning and occupying space beyond those imperial legacies. I’m inspired by photographers such as Malick Sidibé and Sanlé Sory who defied dominant stereotypes of African colonial representation – creating portraits that show a vibrant culture and African people as individuals.

This project came about as a personal response to the ethical challenges I’ve faced as a photographer working for development agencies funded by western governments and donors. Documentary photography is a conflicted discipline; the challenges of balanced and meaningful representation in photography are as old as the medium itself. These challenges are amplified when working with communities who have been historically disempowered by entrenched global power relationships.

In attempting to circumnavigate this political geography I’ve spent time with communities, becoming engaged with the issues that affect them and facilitating participatory processes that directly involve the subjects in the image making process. Despite this, issues of power and representation often repeatedly emerge.

For Empires Wake I embrace my position as a European in Africa with a camera. Instead of ignoring or trying to resolve this position I accept it and draw upon it. The history of exploitation and colonialism belongs to all of us; it belongs to the communities that have suffered, as it belongs to nations in Europe who have profited from its violence. Echoes of this power and control flow through us all.

The images were shot in: Freetown - Sierra Leone; Bamako - Mali and Lomé - Togo, from 2016 – 2020. Using a Mamiya C330 twin lens medium format camera and Ilford HP5 film.

click to view the complete set of images in the archive

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