1 on 1 with National Geographic Photographer David Pluth
The man behind much of the photography on Uganda.
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First published: November 3, 2006
It was a little over a month ago when Eunice Rukundo, our talented writer via Ultimate Media Consult, presented us with an article on The Karamojong. We needed some photography to go with the article and little did we know that this search for photographs would lead us to some of the most interesting little-known, yet very well-known images of Uganda and its people. The photographs are well known by many of us who see them on Ugandan websites such as www.visituganda.com, www.magic-safaris.com and the Uganda Wildlife Authority website www.uwa.or.ug. Yet... little is known about the subjects of the photographs or their photographer... or even the fact that they are from the same photographer.
With the power of the internet, our reaching David Pluth for permission to use the photographs in Eunice's article proved to be very timely. He read the article, saw how we were going to use his photographs and he was quick to give his consent. At the same time, we found out that he was close to finishing a new book: KARAMOJA! Uganda's Land of Warrior Nomads. This book on the culture of the people of Karamoja, is a collaborative effort with Sylvester Onyang of the Monitor and Jeremy O'Kasick, a writer now in the United States.
Photo by Nichole Smaglick.
After a brief ping-pong of emails, it became clear that we needed to share what we were learning about David with the rest of our UGPulse visitors. With a little more on his on-going work in different parts of Africa and with more on his famous subjects such as the "Smiling Killer," we present to you David Pluth.
Karamoja: Uganda's Land of Warrior Nomads
Photography by David Pluth.
Stories by S. Onyang
and J. O'Kasick
About the book
Peter: David... I think it is important that we first address the critics. Not only Ugandans, but a number of people of African origin feel that it is unfortunate that the rest of the world only gets to be educated about Africa through the eyes of publications such as National Geographic. And it is felt that such publications only promote negative or exaggerated stereotypes of Africans and fail to paint a realistic picture of the continent. You yourself are a National Geographic photographer. What say you about these critics and your responsibility in your photography?
David: Well, Peter, to be perfectly honest with you, I have to say that some of the criticism is correct. It is true that too often photographs that feed into stereotypes are published. They are often negative and grossly exaggerated, or display a patronizing, arrogant and paternalistic attitude on the part of the photographer and/or the publication. The pictures portray an idealized version of what Westerners think Africa should be. And I have to admit that sometimes I am as guilty of this too. I may try consciously not to do it, but in the end, I come from a Western culture and I ultimately am going to see things through that lens.
At the same time I think that Africans can over-react to the pictures they see, assuming them to be exploitive or patronizing, when that is not the intention at all. Now it never hurts to have a healthy exchange of views on this, but at the same time I think we can go a little overboard into political correctness. I think that an African viewer should also understand that what they might find mundane; a marketplace, an elephant, a colourful dress, beautiful hair, to a Western viewer it is exotic, wonderful, fascinating, worthy of a picture. It may just be a slight difference of perceptions.
I think it is important, for educated Ugandans particularly, to realize that they live in a country with a booming modern economy, a country that had in the past and is rapidly developing again unrivalled educational opportunities, yet at the same time a country that possesses a rich mosaic of traditional cultures. These cultures should be a source of pride and respect.
Africans correctly ask: so, how come you only take pictures of the traditional cultures and you don't take pictures of modern Ugandans at work, graduates, bankers, scientists, break-dance contests, people on mobile phones. My answer to this is, we do. I do. I am asked to do that all the time and if people go to the Tourism Uganda website (www.visituganda.com) they will see whole sections on the attractions of modern infrastructure being used as a marketing tool to bring in the tourists. But still, it is the pictures of the rapidly changing, possibly dying, traditional cultures which hold the eyes of Western viewers, and I believe they can be instructive as well to urban Ugandans who can get the opportunity to glimpse a little of a traditional lifestyle they may never have experienced.
As to the responsibility of being a photographer....
Never ever insult a person or a culture. We need to be conscious that our work is seen by thousands of people who do not know our intentions. We have to be able to project those good intentions through our work. I do not mean that we need to glorify, but we need to illustrate. We cannot be insulting, crass, disrespectful. We have to show a clear picture of the culture, not an idealized image of what we think it should be.
I think that the photographer has to understand when a picture can be taken out of context and misunderstood. Of course, this has really become a serious issue with the Internet and the easy flow of images. Anything can be picked up and used and abused. So, with the particularly sensitive imagery, we have to be exceptionally careful.
True. Is it fair to say that none of this work on what would be considered a more developed Africa gets any attention from these critics? I see from your website that your list of African customers includes the Addis Ababa Hilton, the Addis Ababa and Kampala Sheratons, Nile Breweries and Ethiopian Airlines.
And please do not neglect to mention the work we have done for Speke Resorts and Ndali Lodge! Let's just say that the publications which buy the pictures are more interested generally in what they think the traditional Africa is, than what the modern Africa is, although the tourism industry is starting to learn that showing good pictures of telecoms, computer usage and medical facilities is a good way to attract tourism. Travel Africa magazine is a particularly good example of a responsible publication showing Africa as it really is, the full blend of modern and traditional. There are wonderful things to be seen in all parts of Africa, the modern and the traditional. Sometimes when I am photographing one I yearn to do the other.
You are a Canadian living in Switzerland since 1987. Without any fear of being lengthy, please treat us to a little bio on David Pluth... from your childhood days, to your discovery and pursuit of photography and to your landing a gig with National Geographic.
Is this sort of like, I have 30 seconds to kill, tell me your life story?
I was born into a very poor family in northern Minnesota, in the USA, just after World War 2. We lived in a tiny place. My parents' "room" was a corner of the main room closed off by a blanket. My bed was in a large dresser drawer that held our clothes and I can still feel those icy winter winds blowing through the place. When we finally left there, the house, in fact the whole neighbourhood, was condemned as unfit for human habitation and bulldozed. But my father was young and energetic. He worked hard, got himself a job in advertising and started moving up the ladder of success. We lived throughout the American Midwest, towns like Peoria, Indianapolis and Minneapolis.
I remember at my Grandmother's house I found an old box camera, not much more than a stiff cardboard box with a hole for a lens and something to open and close it. I was fascinated. I took hundreds of awful pictures. My parents were really patient and indulgent with me. It was somewhere moving around those towns in the American Midwest that my father gave me a Kodak Brownie camera, which I immediately dropped and broke. He glued it back together with soothing words and I started taking pictures like a little demon. I went everywhere with that little camera and I was only 8 or 9 years old. We then moved out to Los Angeles, California when I was about 14. I went to high school in Los Angeles and spent far too much of my time on my motorcycle and learning to fly airplanes. Somehow I got into the University of California at Santa Barbara and did a BA in Geography, despite the motorcycle and an increasing attraction for pretty college girls. Photography got put away for those university years. I had lost confidence in myself.
About this time though, the US was involved in the Vietnam War and I had some pretty strong negative feelings about that. I was an anti-war activist and finally decided that I would pursue my graduate studies in Canada. So in 1969 I moved to Vancouver and went to graduate school. I got involved with environmental causes, as well as my continuing anti-war activism. I was a co-founding member of the British Columbia chapters of the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and Green Peace. In fact, I was so busy on causes that I dropped out of graduate school to focus on activism. But I had no work and money was pretty scarce after I gave up my teaching job to be an activist.
It was around this time that I fortuitously went to a film and lecture given by the now-famous photographer, author and filmmaker David Hancock. The film I saw was about a trip up the West Coast of Canada to Alaska in two small boats. I was hooked. For sure I wanted to do stuff like that for the rest of my life. After the film and lecture I went up to Mr Hancock and just blurted it out. I asked him if he needed an assistant. I was sure he didn't but I thought I should try. I was sure I was going to starve to death if he said no. To my surprise, he said his assistant had just left for another job and he was looking for someone, so I should come and visit him on his island home. I did, and worked for him as a still photographer and film cameraman for a couple of years. It was my first job in photography. It was my first chance to play with real professional equipment.
A young photographer at 22.
1973 - Doing it!
1975 - Climber in Japan.
After that I started wandering the world, travelling to Japan and Asia, winding up working as a mountaineering ranger at Mt Cook National Park in New Zealand for about 2 years. Then I returned to Canada and soon thereafter met my wife-to-be Patricia. In those days the photography was not too successful although I did some work for industrial clients like US Borax, Hanna Mining, and PetroCanada. In New Zealand I had been doing weddings and baby pictures. It's true.
Strangely, once I returned to Canada I got a job in the oil industry in Calgary. That lasted for a couple of years until the oil prices dropped and I went back to school to get an MA in Environmental Design from the University of Calgary. I did my masters thesis on development issues in northern Ghana just at a time when they were suffering a major economic downturn and experiencing famine in some regions. Immediately upon graduation I got a job working for a consulting company in Sudan as the head of a development project.
After Sudan, I was immersed in the Swiss business world, commodity trading and finance. I was working in Uganda, Tanzania, the Middle East, the Far East, all over the world. And one day, walking down the street in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on an impulse I went into a shop and bought a new camera. I had decided to quit my business life and return to taking pictures. I flew out to Bangkok to meet up with my boss and gave him the news. Then flew back to Zurich to re-arrange my life.
I started travelling, first back again to Uganda, then to Tanzania, eventually spending almost 2 years in Mongolia. I was collecting photographs, starting to develop ideas for books and films.
1979 - Mt McKinley.
1981 - Nepal.
So, then one day I got a call from the National Geographic book division. Somebody had seen a photograph of mine on a poster and wanted to use it in a National Geographic book. I sent them the picture and they came back and asked for a few pictures. I sent those and that was fine. Then they gave a short assignment of pictures that they wanted me to take for the book and off I went to Tanzania to shoot them. It was not long after I sent those pictures in for the book that they asked me to sign a contract with them to have my work represented by the National Geographic Image Collection. It was pure luck, being in the right place at the right time with the right picture.
David Pluth in Antarctica.
I don't want to trivialize the importance of being a National Geographic photographer. It takes a lot of hard work and total commitment to your art. I may say it was pure luck, but as a famous investor once said: I find that the harder I work, the luckier I get.
What led you to a Swiss residence and what is life like in Switzerland... if you are ever there?
It was toward the end of my time in Sudan. I spent almost 3 years in Sudan but it was not uneventful. There were security problems and my wife was not allowed to stay. She moved to Geneva, Switzerland, to stay with friends so she could at least be closer to me than living in Canada. She found a job with the United Nations. That is another subject for a book, believe me!! She can tell her own story! I visited her frequently and on one of the trips met with a Swiss company working in Africa with good contacts in Tanzania and Uganda. As soon as my job in Sudan ended I went to work for them in Geneva. We stayed in Geneva for 4 years and then moved to Zurich where we live now.
Switzerland is wonderful. Simply wonderful. I do not get much chance to spend time there but I really enjoy it. It is a simple society built on trust. I had been in Zurich for a week and had to buy some stuff for the house. I went into a shop in town where I had never been before and carried a large selection of stuff to the counter to pay, only to discover that I had no money in my wallet!! I was really angry with myself and figured I would have to trek all the way back home and all the way back to the shop to pay and pick up my stuff. But no, the shop clerk just asked for my address, packaged up my purchase, handed it to me over the counter and said they would send the bill to me in the mail. I had never seen him before in my life. He treated me like a brother. I was astonished. It is a great place to live and the Swiss are wonderful warm and courteous people. They have a great sense of humour. Surprisingly, the Swiss are quite shy, or at least they seem so to me. I think sometimes that shyness is taken for aloofness or even arrogance, but it is not. They are shy, and gentle. I love the place. It is my home, where I relax and work in the garden.
What led you to your first visit to Uganda... I believe in 1986? This must have been major risk for you knowing that this was the time when the country was not so stable and no one was very sure where new-in-power Yoweri Museveni was about to direct the country. What were your thoughts at the time?
Well, it was during my business years. I first came on a trade and diplomatic mission with some Tanzanian diplomats. I was working in Tanzania a lot then, and they thought it was a good time to start to understand who this young bush fighter was and see what was going on firsthand.
My thoughts? I was overjoyed to step off the plane in Uganda the first time. It was exciting to be in a place that was going to change. Yes, it was unstable, I guess, but it seemed fine to me then. I loved it. I still love it. One of the great countries of the world, without a doubt. Switzerland and Uganda share a lot in common.
On that first trip to Uganda I stayed at the house of the Tanzanian ambassador on Tank Hill. It was not possible to drive a car up the hill because of the potholes. And there was no electricity. And no water. I will never forget the Tanzanian Ambassador, the Deputy Ambassador, the diplomat that I had come with and myself lugging jerry cans of water up to the Ambassador's house. We had a lovely candle light dinner. In those days, everyone did, every night.
Soon after that I started looking for agricultural products to buy in Uganda and hoped to meet some of the import demands for products as well. We used to import containers of sugar and we sold sacks of sugar right out of the containers at the roundabout on Jinja road. And we uploaded beans, white maize and sesame seeds for export. It was great fun.
Two Boats - Uganda.
That is how I first got out to the west and saw the Rwenzori mountains for the first time. I was looking for products to buy and travelling around the country. I was really hooked and wanted to come back again and again.
For Part 2 go to Part 2 of our 1 on 1 with National Geographic Photographer David Pluth.
For more on David Pluth visit FotoGrafx: Photography by David Pluth
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First published: November 3, 2006