Invisible Borders: An Interview With Teresa Menka
Teresa Menka is a photographer based in Accra, Ghana who works shooting weddings and other events to facilitate her more artistic work. In 2013, she journeyed to Khartoum, Sudan to participate in a 20-day workshop organized by the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photography Project. Named after the confluence of the Blue Nile and White Nile rivers, the “Where the Nile Meets” workshop was composed of ten participants from Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana, and culminated with an exhibition of their photographs, writing and video at the city’s Alfaisal Cultural Centre. The workshop was an opportunity for Invisible Borders to revisit a city they had spent seven days in during their 2011 road trip from Lagos in Nigeria to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (via Chad and Sudan), and featured a masterclass facilitated by IA Artistic Director Emeka Okereke and fellow Nigerian photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi. Menka’s contribution to the exhibition was a series of photographs of beds set up on the streets of Khartoum for the relaxation of their owners, in addition to shots of an old bare-bones bookshop in the city’s downtown section lit only by fluorescent and natural light. Closer to home, Menka captured the busy Osu night market in Accra, with its many food, fruit and vegetable stalls serving post-workday clientele lit by fluorescents. By daylight, Menka caught Accra’s athletic spirit on film with a series of shots of Ghanaian soccer player Jonathan Afadi training on an oceanside beach – the photos developed in both color and black & white, reflecting Menka’s affinity for the latter format. I interviewed Menka remotely from Accra following the inclusion of her bed series as part of the Invisible Borders installation, “A Trans-African Worldspace” at the 56th Venice Biennale of Arts. She discussed her workshop experience in Khartoum, her various photographs of Accra, and working as a professional events photographer compared to her artistic projects.
What follows are her words, adapted from our conversation.
On Her Invisible Borders Workshop Experience
About two years ago, Emeka was in Accra to do research on a project. Before he left, I went over to show him some of my work, and then I talked to him. So in 2013, I got a call from him that I should send him some details about my work, and then I was invited to a workshop in Sudan. So that’s how I first got involved with Invisible Borders. I met Emeka here in Accra, he got to see my work, and when the opportunity for the workshop in Khartoum came up, he invited me to be a part of it. While we were there, we would occasionally take walks around. The downtown area was really close, so we decided to take a walk around that part of the town. That was when I got to take those pictures of the bookshop. A photographers group in Sudan was hosting us, and they took us on a Nile trip. I guess they wanted us to have a better experience of Sudan, so they took us on a Nile trip in the evening, and we had this agashi by the Nile. It was really nice.
I wish there were more Invisible Borders. Because if it wasn’t for Invisible Borders, I wouldn’t even know that there is a different way to work. I wouldn’t be exposed to those things. I’d just be working alone in my little corner in the dark without anyone pointing me in the right direction. We need to talk about our work. When we got to the workshop in Sudan, everybody had to show their work. I’d been doing photography for some years now, and I hadn’t even seen my work projected on a wall before. I hadn’t critically engaged my images. I’d just take the pictures, and then they’d sit on my computer. But now, Invisible Borders, the dialogue with other artists has taught me so much. It’s opened my eyes to a lot of things. Now, I don’t just have to pick up my camera and go make an image. Sometimes I have to research on the subject that I want to work on.
So Invisible Borders has transformed the way that I work as a photographer. It’s helped me know that there’s more, and I have to do more, and I have to push. I can’t just be a lazy artist. I have to critically engage my subject, engage the world around me, and not work in isolation. It’s opened my mind in such a way, and I feel people have to engage each other. If I didn’t have them, my work wouldn’t even be part of a presentation like the Venice Biennale. So they’ve helped me so much. They’ve changed the way that I work. They’ve changed the way that I see what I’m doing. They’ve changed the kind of confidence that I have in myself. I feel like there should be more of that, more people should be engaging, talking. You just need someone to look at your work and give you an honest opinion. So I think that artist collectives, that’s the way to go. There should be more of them, definitely.
On Her Khartoum Bed Series
While we were in Khartoum, they told us that we had to work on a project. Everybody just got to pick a project to work on as a series. So it was my first time being at a photo workshop like that, but some of the other participants had been at workshops. I’m coming from sort of an informal training as a photographer, so these organized people knew what they were doing. I was so scared, and I was trying to come up with a groundbreaking idea. I spoke to the facilitator for the workshop, and he said, “Just take it easy. Just photograph what comes to you naturally.” I’m a very curious person. So as we walked around Khartoum, and then some other places, we went to Tuti Island. We just walked around as they were taking us around, and I just kept seeing a lot of beds everywhere. They were outside on the street. There were just too many beds, and I decided, “Oh, I’ll photograph every bed that I see.” I kind of photographed that because it’s a contrast from where I’m coming from, or from what I’m used to.
Here in Accra, if people want to relax outside or get some fresh air, they don’t take their beds outside. It’s different as opposed to Khartoum. Then I started to see all these different things. So I started asking them, “Why so many beds?” Then they started to tell me little stories about the beds, about how they are so closely knit as people. One thing that I took away from my trip to Sudan is they’re such amazing people. They are so friendly and they are so hospitable. They welcome strangers. They were so nice to us, and it was something that stuck with me. I think it’s a story that has to do with their beds, because they are so welcoming and they’re so inviting. So that’s why I did the bed series project. It wasn’t like a profound thing. It was just a curiosity kind of thing. I was led by my heart to just photograph that.
With the bed series, it was a totally different thing for me. Because then I’m coming from a place where I’m photographing events or weddings, and it’s all about beauty and making things look good. Then with the bed series, it was so natural, and I didn’t have to arrange anything or change anything. I worked mainly with natural light. So I feel like now having worked on the bed series, and then the portrait that I did of the soccer player, and then the Nile, I want to push further in that direction. I want to depart from where I’m using all this light. I want to stick to how I photographed the bed series. So the Khartoum workshop and the bed series was an eye-opener for me. I like the way I photographed that, and I want to continue that.
On Taking up Photography
When I picked up an interest in photography, I wanted to go to a school. But then, here in Accra, there are no schools that are strictly for photography. It’s either you are studying film, and then a few semesters you get to do photography. I wanted to go to photography school, but at the time the resources weren’t there. But I got the chance. My uncle was going to South Africa, and then he took me along with him. So while he was away doing his business, I had some time, a few weeks to attend a photography school. All they taught me was the fundamentals of digital photography – so basically how to use the camera, composition, and stuff like that. I just continued to learn on my own, and to build on that. So I can’t really say I have photography training. I just got trained on how to use the camera.
My interest in photography started when I was younger. But then I didn’t know how to pursue that, so I just stuck to school. After high school, I got a job at a small studio here in Accra. I was so excited that I could just be around cameras. But at the time, that was when the whole digital camera thing started here. They had a DSLR camera at the studio, and I was just so excited to be able to hold the camera and take pictures. So I started working at that small studio here in Accra, and what stuck with me from the studio was just the love and passion of photography. It was owned by this young girl. She was in the university at the time, and then she decided to have a little studio to just make money with people coming there to take portraits and stuff like that. The time that I was there, there was another guy, and he’d been there for a while. Here, some people get into photography not because they have a love for it, because the other guy that was in the studio wasn’t really into photography. He was just working at the studio. So people come in there for portraits, and they come in to take their passport pictures and stuff like that. So I just loved the fact that there was this passion from the owner of the studio. I liked that passion, but I didn’t really pick up a lot of technical stuff from there. It was just that passion, and being able to photograph everyday, or doing something related to photography everyday. But that was before I went to South Africa.
Going to South Africa opened my eyes to a lot of things – to flash, to using a tripod, to all this other technical stuff. But then they didn’t go in-depth into those things. They just mentioned, “You can do this with flash,” because it’s sort of like a building block course. So after the fundamentals, I was supposed to do something else and then something else. Because I wasn’t there for a long time, I just did the fundamentals in photography, and then I left. So when I came back, because my mind had been opened to all these different things, I started to learn online. I started to watch videos, and I started to practice. So little by little, I got a flash for myself, I got a trigger, and then I remotely triggered the flash, and then I started to practice. So I think it was more practicing, and then the internet helped me a lot. I was able to watch videos, and I was able to read all these articles about photography.
Now I make money from photography, because I have this events side of me where I photograph weddings, I photograph parties. That’s what I do to be able to make money to survive so that I can do the artist work. Because on a day to day, I just go out with my camera and make photographs. But then I get called for weddings and all that stuff. So that’s what keeps me able to do the other work that I do.
On Shooting in Black and White
When I started photography, I think I used to do a lot of black and white. Some of that appeals to me, but then more and more, when I have to work with people, they always prefer the color version of the pictures. When I photograph these days, sometimes when I look at a scene, I can see it in black and white. So when I photograph it, I usually convert it to black and white. Because there’s something about black and white that speaks to me. But also, I want my work to be able to appeal to other people. It depends on what it’s going to be used for. Even [Beach Workout], I was working for a website here in Accra, so they wanted a color version. But when I put it on my blog, I decided to put a color, and then a black and white. So when I photograph, most of the time I like to do black and white, because that’s how I see some subjects. Then other subjects, like with the Osu Night Market, if it was black and white, one wouldn’t appreciate the colors or the textures as much. So sometimes it depends on the subject, and also it depends on how I see what I’m photographing.
On Her Osu Night Market Series
It’s a market that is in a part of Accra called Osu. It’s like a colonial part of Accra. They call it the old British Accra. The other day I went for an artist talk, and some architects actually have a project with regards to the market, and I learned that it has been there for 120 years. It’s a market that was started in the community. Because of the way people work in Accra, the time to head out is usually at night. That’s on weekdays. So the people there sell street food, some vegetables, and stuff like that at night. That’s when the market is very active. So at that time, I was working for the website in Accra, and I wanted to just do a story for them. Someone told me about the night market, and I went by there, it was really interesting, and I decided to photograph it. So it’s a market that’s very active at night, and it brings together a lot of people.
Usually I like to photograph with available light. But with that particular one, because of the setting of the place, the light was a bit too low. So I combined it with a bit of flash. I went there with a friend of mine, so we had a flash, and just threw in some lights to make it a bit more visible. But usually, I wouldn’t work in that way. Usually I like to photograph with the light that is available. But with that one, I wanted people to be able to appreciate more of what is there, and that’s why I photographed it that way.
On Wedding Photography
Sometime last year, I worked on a few portraits for a children’s magazine in Amsterdam, and they sent me a brief on what they wanted. But then they also asked a lot of questions. They also wanted to know how I would photograph it. So I felt more involved in it. But when I’m photographing weddings, it’s kind of difficult, because sometimes I would probably like to photograph a wedding with available light. But the client wouldn’t want that. So most of the time, when I photograph weddings here, it’s mainly what the client wants, and then a little bit of me. So when it gets to the formal, like the shoot after the actual ceremony where I get the couple alone, that’s where I get to work a bit of my magic. That’s where I get to leave a bit of me, my signature, with them. But the rest of the things I can’t really control. It’s little by little, like you have to keep pushing that envelope bit by bit. When I started, I didn’t have much control. I’m getting to a point right now, before I’m booked for a job, I talk the client through how I photograph, what I do. So it’s little by little.
On Photographing Accra
I like to photograph Jamestown a lot, even though it has become a bit of a cliché with photography. Because anyone who lands here in Accra likes to go over to Jamestown. It’s a part of Accra where the fishermen are. It’s an old part of Accra where a fort used to be. It’s heavily congested with all these people. They have all these shops that they’ve built up there. But I find that the more that I photograph that place, the more I see something else. Because when I go there, I’m not aiming to go photograph the people who are fishing there. It’s more about the life and the traces of the life that they leave there. Last year, I was part of a photo workshop and then we went there to work on a photo project for the workshop. I realized that just out of being there for a while I actually got to see something about the environment, because then you have all these people living there. Sometimes they are not able to dispose of their waste properly. So there’s a climate waste problem there, and that’s something. That’s out of the ordinary of the kind of images that you’d usually get from the place. So even though it’s a photo cliché kind of place, there are still more stories there that people ignore.