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Blog / Making a Film of a Photograph

Making a Film of a Photograph 11 Aug 2014
by Genevieve Bicknell

It wasn't the beauty of the aerial photographs that attracted me, though they are for the most part, stunning: abstract patterns of greys, like moonscapes, occasionally sliced through with the deep black of a river or curve of a boulder.

It was instead the tiny cross positioned in the centre of each image.

At first I mistook it for the shadow of the airplane, but after leafing through the photographs and seeing it on each, I realised that it was marked on them, made by someone to indicate the centre of the frame.

These photographs were taken not for their own sake as art or as a memento of a place, but for mapping it.

The timing of the shutter, the speed, height and course of the plane were exact, enabling each frame on a roll of film to overlap its neighbours by 60-70%.

Viewed together through a stereoscope (as the surveyors in the field did) two photographs suddenly merge.

Hills, mountains, trees lurching out.

Valleys, ravines and rivers falling away in a 3D landscape that resembles a model rather than an image of the real thing.

If one lays the photographs on the floor (as the cartographers did, in large, warehouse-sized spaces) one huge photograph of the land is created.

If there had been space, the whole of Kenya (as they were the photos I was looking at) could have been splayed across the ground.

I was laying down the photographs, connecting them through the paths that meander across them, when a straight line cut through one photograph to the next and continued onwards from photograph to photograph.

Beside the line ran row upon row of trees. A plantation.

As I pieced it together it occurred to me that these photographs were documents of the change in the use of the land and its ownership (for this massive plantation was unlikely to be owned by black Kenyans in the 1950s) but also that they were involved in creating that change.

The mapping that they enabled was part of the process of colonisation and the alienation of land from the local inhabitants.

These photographs that simultaneously documented change and created it, could, I thought, make a film.

Who used these photographs to map the land? How do they interpret their role in colonialism? Who was on the land now and how do they feel about its past? What are the legacies of these innocent-looking, beautiful photographs? I decided then to go to Kenya to find out.

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