Ana Amigo (Scheu) grew up in Zurich, Switzerland, with a Spanish mother and Swiss father. She owned her first semi-professional camera when she was fifteen years old and has been photographing ever since. In her first documentary, she endeavoured to make sense of the problem of segregation at her exchange high school in America, and afterwards lived in Uganda for one year, a country she returns to often. She studied Political Science and Social Anthropology at the University of Zürich and is working on a second documentary on albinism and beauty in Kampala, Uganda.
It seems we’ve caught you at a moment when you’re straddling the arts of photography and documentary making. So let’s start with photography: when did you first pick up a camera? And what subjects were you initially drawn to?
The first time I remember consciously taking pictures was when I was about eight years old. My dad had bought me a single-use camera for a school trip, and I remember how excited I was about it. The photos turned out quite artsy—framed unusually, fingers on the lens, unfocussed. However, I really became invested in photography through my interest in fashion when I was about fifteen years old, while looking through Vogue and admiring the very staged photographs—the complete opposite of the kind of photography I am practising now.
In what ways (if at all) have your studies at the University of Zürich informed your art?
I spent one year in Uganda before going to university and took a lot of pictures during that time. Looking back, I think that my social anthropology minor has influenced how I choose my subjects and how I reflect upon them. One of my professors talked about the perpetuation of stereotypes through photographs, and how people are often automatically drawn to photographing those subjects. In another class we discussed representations of Africa in Western discourse, and how our images of a whole continent are often limited to poverty and war. Whereas before, the main aim of my photographs was their aesthetic, I then started reflecting on what photographs I was taking and the associations people might make when they saw them. It was shocking when I realized that I had taken a lot of photos of poor-looking children. “She looks like she’s starving,” was one of the comments I received about a photograph of a Ugandan child. Why wasn’t I taking more photos of fancy malls, luxurious weddings and music festivals, which are just as Ugandan as the grass huts you find in the countryside?
Today I reflect more on what photographs mean for the people I am capturing and what associations others could make when they see them.
What have you learned over the years about being a traveller with a camera?
Taking pictures during a trip often sharpens my senses to details: I am constantly looking for interesting hidden subjects, trying to find the beauty in chaos or capturing interesting-looking people. I take no interest in photographing tourist attractions.
I also learned that you always have to adjust to your environment. I usually find it quite challenging in the beginning: How will people react if I ask to take their photo? Will people mind if I photograph this place? In Uganda, people usually really enjoy having their picture taken, which makes it very easy for me as a photographer. In Morocco this is very different: people might get offended, even if you ask in advance. It can also be interesting to see that a certain subject might be interesting for me to photograph, yet a person from that place might not understand the value I see in it. This can give way to very interesting interactions with people.
How do you think about the concept of the ‘outsider’? And how do you think about the responsibility of representation when it comes to choosing the images you share with the world?
Being an outsider makes it easier to discover things that might go unnoticed by locals. I never really enjoyed taking photos in Switzerland, since everything seems too familiar. However, a danger of misrepresentation lies within this: As an outsider we tend to stress what is different instead of what is similar, therefore creating a bigger gap than there actually is.
I understand you did an exchange year in the U.S. state of Virginia when you were in high school. What prompted you to make your first documentary while you were there, and what themes were you exploring?
For one year, I lived in a very small county called Surry in the countryside of southern Virginia. The population of the county was about 50% Caucasian and 50% African-American. The high school I went to was about 70% African-American and 30% Caucasian. My perspective and role as an outsider enabled me to spot underlying social structures and ask tough questions about them. I remember being quite shocked at the obvious ‘segregation’ when I entered the high-school cafeteria for the first time—black people were sitting to the left, white people to the right. When I sat down on the left, my first question was: “Why is it so separated?” I remember one person’s indifferent answer quite clearly: “Because we are just different.” I wanted to learn more about this puzzle, and me being foreign and not culturally ‘white’ or ‘black’ gave me the opportunity to move more easily between both groups. The theme I was most interested in was how people drew those lines, and also how they moved between those lines. The lines seemed to be drawn culturally, not necessarily racially. You could be part of the white culture as a black person, if you also listen to country music, enjoy farming, drive a big truck etc. Or vice versa.
How do you think about that first documentary now, many years later?
Apart from the technical weaknesses of the film, there is a lot I would do differently now. I remember how my teacher told me to somehow ‘include’ myself in the film. I did not really understand what he was trying to tell me. Only later did I realize what he meant: Even though I wanted people from there to speak for themselves, the story I was telling was very influenced by my personal experiences. It is how I had perceived the situation, and I could have transmitted a very different message if I had chosen to portray other subjects. For example, I never really mentioned private schools and homeschooling, which were mostly attended by white people. I chose to focus on the public school only, but of course this tells a very different story. I think today I would probably be a bit more critical and I would have researched the topic more from a theoretical perspective. Yet I do think it is very interesting how I perceived everything back then. My teacher was right: The story I told was worth telling, but it would have been important to reflect on my perspective.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on my second documentary, which is part of an anthropological research seminar. My research topic is albinism and beauty in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. What caught my interest in this topic was that on the one hand, people with albinism are often stigmatized due to their different looks, yet a number of people with albinism have been able to start a career as models and are celebrated in the fashion world. My film aims to show how four people experience living with albinism, what role beauty plays in this experience and what strategies they develop out of this.
And, finally, the Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?
I recently read Kintu, a novel by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, and it has been a long time since a book last fascinated me so much. The story begins with a family curse and a streak of mental illness that starts in the 18th century and is carried through different generations. The author portrays six characters, set in different times and growing up in different circumstances. The characters are incredibly well-embedded in their historical contexts, revealing interesting historical facts and ideas of that time. The stories are captivating and so interesting that you cannot stop reading. Each character is incredibly unique and multi-faceted—never did I feel they were stereotypical or shallow. It often surprised me with aspects of Ugandan society that were unknown to me, and I am sure even Ugandans would feel the same. The author writes with a lot of humour and highlights absurdities of Ugandan culture and history, as well as its relation to the West. This novel is a masterpiece and deserves to be internationally acclaimed.
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