Two coconut trees with long trunks are looking down at an old building. Their fronds are close and nearly touching. Between them are three birds with wings apart, frozen in flight. They look more like they’re circling than moving toward a destination. There’s a fourth bird, lower and to your right. It is caught in the angle created by that coconut tree and the right side of the frame of the picture.
Further below is the top end of an old fortress. It is the Elmina Castle, because a canon is peering out from above the building. The wall of this fortress, which is painted white, has not been painted in a while. Still, it offers the impression of something strong. It is the Elmina Castle. As Ghanaian, you probably guessed it immediately you saw it.
The picture is the scene of solitude, and was taken by Kwasi Kyei Mensah Jnr., a budding photographer who is himself drawn to the idea of peace and mature solitude, i.e, the one which is not characterised by sadness of any kind. He’s also drawn to black and white, which is a tool for class and timelessness in a photo…if you ask me. With black and white photography too, Kyei easily achieves the complexion of air and the fluorescence of quiet.
It was this quality in his work, specifically, which attracted me to him in August of last year. He had posted a photo on his Facebook wall…also rendered in black and white, also capturing beautifully, the atmosphere of solitude. It was a picture of a man riding a bicycle and wearing a hat. Fastened to the carrier of the bike is a gas cylinder and two polythene bags. Trees and street lights are blurred in the distance, and he’s virtually the only thing we see, save for the short pole behind him. This picture is so silent and arresting, it initiates conversation in our minds; Who is the man on the bike? What is in the plastic bags? What is his occupation? Is he on an errand for himself or a master? Is he depressed on that day?
Let’s return to the picture of the Elmina Castle though, shall we? The sky behind is stainless and all but deserted and resembles a canvas. It seems to me that the sky in the frame was the only spot for activity on that day. It is a brilliant picture, taken hours into the afternoon in natural light. The sky is usually a peaceful place.
Who looks into the sky? Which photographer aims their camera into the sky? We all look into the sky; it’s the farthest thing we can see with our physical eyes and the closest thing to God, literally. We look into the skies often, and since we can’t see God, the sky is also god to us, and sends our prayers to the deity beyond it.
Who looks into the sky? It is the person who has lost hope or the one who is looking for some peace and beauty. The sky is gentle; there’s hardly hasty activity in it. Occasionally there’s a flying object; a bird, a plane, a shooting star, a cloud…but somehow, the sky slows them all down.
What is the focus in this photograph? It is the coconut trees; who look like friends from childhood who have made it to old age. They are identical because they are all they’ve had for a long time so they just mirror each other. They seem to gossip about activity on the sea ahead and the expressions on the faces of tourists. It is the coconut trees because their trunks look like they have been through challenge and have known evening loneliness.
What is the focus in this photograph? It is the birds up there in the sky but with no destination in mind in the meantime, just spreading their wings to the refreshment of altitude. They are like little children playing in the sand or chasing each other with giggles and for recreation. As we have experienced, it is the best time to live…it is the best way to live; constantly laughing, easily forgiving and dwelling without care or thought about the morrow.
What is the focus of this picture? It is the canon who’s tail we can only see. It’s not all there is to it, but it’s all you need to see to be frightened…if you know what danger a canon can be.
It is the wall which hasn’t been painted in a while; it has seen so much and been part of so much death shameful history and nobody has demanded an opinion from it. Walls have ears, and this wall is a very important wall. It has heard tears and prayers of hundreds (thousands, perhaps) and stood through the various phases of the history of the native. It can tell that the tour guide is being inaccurate, but it is doesn’t say anything…it’s just waiting to be asked. It has seen several centuries and will witness more, so it has developed courage and nonchalance. It was built for that kind of thing.
It is the gentle sky which works perfectly as backdrop. It’s expansive, covering the entire frame… and is the reason every other element in the frame stands out, but it doesn’t demand any of the credit. It leaves it to happy birds and coconut fronds.
What is the focus of this photograph? It’s everything and nothing. I doubt if Kyei set out to take merely a shot of birds, coconut trees and a wall –everybody can take photographs of buildings and birds.
I suspect that he set out to capture mood; the adjectives “calm”, “gentle”, and “home”. He recognises that it’s not something e can easily do. Memory? Fine, but mood is rare even to a camera. In the end, he wants something with longevity in its beauty, so he looks to the sky…at the one thing which is farthest from the naked eye and closest to God. This is the result. Everything in the frame looks like it’s supposed to be there, like they have been carefully picked out for a ceremony.
This picture is brilliant, because it’s natural, an accident even. But it’s an accident that Kyei intended and patiently ambushed.
It is beautiful and serene –this picture –to the point of therapy. It is also a serious picture, and pays homage to the sky and its purity. It’s interaction with the eyes is silent and meditative, so it’s an important picture.
A version of this essay appears on myershansen.wordpress.com