Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Patricia Willocq: White Ebony

When, over twenty years ago, I was working in Southern Africa, I occasionally happened to come across albinos and always had trouble to take my eyes off them. They not only looked different, they seemed to be different. I sort of knew that I was wrong but the sensations that I experienced were another story. I felt pity for them; surely, to so obviously stand out must make life terribly difficult.

While leafing through Patricia Willocq's White Ebony, I've however experienced very different sensations – I felt drawn to the ones portrayed, felt no pity at all but affection. And, not only for the whites but also for the blacks  they were often shown together. The fact that most of the photographs were cleary staged did not diminish the feeling of togetherness.
People with albinism (PWA), I learned, "are often cursed and accused of witchery. Some people spit on their chest when they meet them in the street to ward off bad luck. Others will wake them up in the middle of the night when leaving the room to avoid meeting their spirit in another room." Reading this, I once again wondered what strange beliefs people adhere to. I guess we all do and as long as we do not insist on imposing our views on others or make them suffer because of what we happen to believe, there doesn't really seem to be a problem.

However: "In some countries, superstition reaches such a peak that PWA become victims of atrocities. And so some women with albinism are raped because of the belief that sleeping with them cures AIDS. In other countries the run-up to elections is a dangerous time, when attacks against PWA, including children, increase. Indeed, magic potions made from PWA's limbs are supposed to bring wealth and power to those who consume them."
To fight harmful and destructive superstitions, education of the kind this book provides is needed, be it through visual illustration, be it through textual information. Albinism is a genetic condition, "characterized by a deficit in the production of melanin (responsible for the colour present in skin and hair), regardless of the normal presence of pigment cells, resulting in fair skin and white hair colour in PWA. This complete or partial absence of melanin makes them more likely to develop skin cancer."

There are also quite some portraits in this superb tome, and they come with texts that I've thoroughly enjoyed. The portrait of Coco Marie, for instance, the woman shown above, who is 95 and has about  eighty grandchildren and as many great-grandchildren. "... well, to be honest, I can't really remember how many great-grandchildren", she says. And, also: "I have always loved giving advice to people who needed it." Or, the one of Michel Mulaba Senga that Patricia Willocq begins like this: "Michel is one of my best friends. I met him one night at Kvilu, a trendy bar in Kinshasa, and we became good friends in less than one minute."
"This photo report", writes Patricia Willocq, a freelance photographer, born and raised in the Congo, "can be used to promote understanding and tolerance towards people with albinism, in the Congo and in the rest of Africa." Yes, indeed!

Patricia Willocq
White Ebony
Edition Lammerhuber
Baden, Austria 2016

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