Past Exhibits: Community: Portraits of Tradition / Portraits of Change

Laena Wilder, photographer

Artists' Notes

Portraits of Community: Zanzibar, Tanzania

Best known as the "Spice Island", Zanzibar has a pungent and varied past. Located 6 degrees south of the Equator and 25 miles off the coast of Tanzania, in the past this location was highly valued by Omani Sultans as a strategic location to procure, control, and tax the trade goods entering and leaving East Africa via the Indian Ocean. The tremendous wealth of the Sultanate was gained primarily by the export of slaves, ivory and cloves to Arabia, Persia, Europe and India. In 1890, the British abolished slavery and established the Island as a protectorate separate from Oman. In 1964 Zanzibar gained its independence from Britain. Soon after, a bloody revolution took place as the mainland Swahili majority overthrew the new Arab leaders. Three months later the sister islands of Zanzibar and Pemba unified with the mainland Tanganyika to create the United Republic of Tanzania. The current population of Zanzibar is comprised of mainland Tanzanians and the descendents of families that arrived via the Indian Ocean and settled on the island generations ago. Today's residents are a direct reflection of the diverse history of this location.

This series of portraits was made in the spring of 1998 during a three-month stay in Zanzibar, my third visit to the island. With each return, I reinforce the relationships I have established and gain a broader view of the pertinent issues that are challenging and transforming daily life for the citizens of Stone Town, Zanzibar. The individuals in these photographs are part of a community- all living and working within one block of each other. They are neighbors, relatives, colleagues and friends.

The portrait sessions were approached as collaborations between the people in the photographs and myself. I chose to use a large format camera because it necessitated a lengthy photo session, thereby allowing us to spend more time engaged in the creative process. Using type 55 Polaroid film made it possible to produce a positive print and negative within minutes of making the exposure. The immediate visual feedback allowed the photographed person to see the results and make decisions about how they wanted to be portrayed on film. We would often make several pictures as the creative image-making process unfolded. Each interaction was unique and dynamic.

Portraits of Change: The Identity Project, Hunters Point San Francisco In the Spring of 2001 I collaborated with a group of high school students at the Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in Hunter's Point. This neighborhood is an industrial lower-income area on the southern side of San Francisco. It is often a starting point for new immigrant families that move to the Bay Area. This environment is incredibly multi-cultural; a majority of the students I worked with are first and second generation immigrants from such places as Samoa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico and China.

In order to encourage the recognition of the individual within this diverse inner city public school environment, the teenagers and I engaged in a project that explored Identity. I asked the students to consider their sense of self within several contexts, for example: How do you describe yourself? Who are your role models? Which people in your life reinforce your sense of identity and how? How do you think others perceive you? How do you want to be seen and represented?


The portrait sessions were approached as collaborations between the students and myself. Using a 1930's Crown Graphic 4 x 5 camera and Polaroid type 55 film allowed us to create a positive and negative within minutes of taking the picture. As a result, the students were able to see their photographs immediately and make decisions about their poses, expressions, etc.


During this facet of the project, the question I posed to the students was: If you had to describe who you are using only objects as symbols for your identity, what would they be? The process of collecting and arranging their belongings became a story-telling devise, a way for each teen to express her/his personal history.

In addition to the photographs you see here on the wall, each student created a portfolio filled with their reflexive writings and photographs.

Portraits of Tradition/Portraits of Change
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