Portfolio — From the December 2013 issue

Look at Me

Photographs from Africa past and present

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I grew up under the watchful gaze of my dead grandmother lying in her coffin. Her funeral had been meticulously documented and a series of 4? × 6? black-and-white photographs had been printed, then framed, to hang in the living rooms of my uncle’s spacious house in Haiti and my parents’ crowded two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. My grandmother’s “shadow” followed me from even before I was born, right into my transition into a new life in New York City at age twelve. It followed me, that is, until the photographs were lost: one during a move in New York, the other during the Haiti earthquake of 2010.

There was no taboo associated with funerary photography in my family. In many cases, there were only two sets of pictures of my eldest relatives: one of them posing in a photo studio on their wedding day, the other taken on their way to be buried. Before the widespread accessibility of cameras, photographs like my grandmother’s, and even some of mine, were long deliberated over and saved for. They were never meant to be candid or casual. And they were costly, sometimes requiring the equivalent of a day’s salary per sitting. The photographer and the photographed knew that they were creating heirlooms, calling cards to generations yet unborn.

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