Nyani Quarmyne (Australia, WK 90-91)
Equity in Action – Telling Impactful Stories through Photography
Embedded in the Waterford education is the desire to take education beyond the classroom. It is to expand opportunities for students, while changing their approach towards their environment and the role that they can play within their sphere of influence. “I don’t know if I can pinpoint an exact way that WK played a role in my career path”, says Nyani (Class of 1991). He does, however, note a similarity in his area of work and his Waterford experience. “ It’s so easy, if you live in a homologous environment, to accept at face value the things you are taught, that you’ve heard and that you see expressed on television. As soon as you live amongst [different] people,
as soon as you travel and work amongst them, you realize that those things are simply not true.”
Becoming a “Waterfordian”
“My name is Nyani, full stop. I am a photographer,” are the two sentences that Nyani uses to introduce himself. Nyani’s journey to join the Waterford community is one that aligns, quite well, with the life he has created for himself through his career. “I was desperate to escape from the incredibly backward, anachronistic school system in Zimbabwe [in the 80s]”, he says, so when WK English teacher Robin Malan visited Nyani’s secondary school, “that was the beginning of [Nyani’s] connection with Waterford”.
Identity and Initiation into Photography
While he doesn’t use the term anymore, Nyani has referred to himself as a “hybridized African” in the past. Speaking to this term, he notes that “there’s not really any one place that I come from but I have, to a large extent, had a life that’s across the African continent and the ‘West’. I sort of exist across those places.” Nyani has lived in East Africa, Southern Africa, West Africa, Europe, and North America – calling around 10 countries ‘home’ for a period of time. Photography further keeps him traveling around the world, typically for half of the year or more.
Photography was not a linear path for Nyani, it took him numerous careers to get there. Having pursued the ‘success’ journey Nyani was “questioning what contribution [he] was making in the world” when he found himself working for an organization that was proposing to do things that he found “environmentally unconscionable”. This point coincided with discovering photography and a transition from consulting to this area of work. “I almost immediately fell in love with photography and knew within a couple of weeks that this is what I wanted to do.” Sure enough, Nyani, his family and their dog picked up and spent a year in North America in what Nyani calls “a year of reinvention.”
Changing the Face of equity through photography
Most of the work done by Nyani is in the domains of development, social justice and humanitarian issues. As a freelance photographer, he works around the world for a variety of NGOs, publications and, occasionally, corporations. It is not always about those themes, however. “Sometimes, I am just drawn to human stories and focus on those.”
The freelance work he has done has literally taken Nyani ‘across the world.’ He has captured the effects of the rising sea levels on Ghana coast, documented life in a refugee camps in southeastern Mauritania. He continues to tell the stories of the mentally ill in Ghana and Sierra Leone through photography, where he notes the link between beliefs and inhumane treatment of the mentally ill. Speaking of images he made while working on a project about children with disabilities, he voices out that he “wanted to get away from the clichés of the representation the African child. I wanted to give back the dignity that is stripped away from them.”
Nyani has been intentional about changing the rhetoric of photography by moving away from the stereotypical representation of societies. He notes, “Photography very much, because of its history, has often been something that has involved people coming from one place – often the ‘western world’ – to somewhere else and portraying things in a way that creates a sense that this place, or this person, or this way of living is different from ‘ours’.” Thus he tries to ensure that any work he puts out aims to have a positive impact. “I began working on things that were not as I wished them to be in the world,” he notes. He further acknowledges the transitions that have occurred in the process by addressing the often-misconstrued idea of what is and what isn’t. “I think my view on the organizations I choose to work with has become more nuanced over the years. I have learned that things are not always as cut and dried or as black and white as they seem to be.”
“At the most fundamental level, photography is a medium that cuts across language,” states Nyani. He notes that, through photography, he is able to play a role in initiating communication on the causes he cares about. He adds that, “as empathetic beings, photography is a medium that allows us to enter – or at least get a glimpse of – somebody else’s reality, and that hopefully allows us to experience realities outside of our own immediate one.” Nyani definitely takes people across realities through the diverse focus of his work. Some of his favorite projects include work taking Internet access up the Caucasus Mountains in the Republic of Georgia, and to a remote valley in Kyrgyzstan. “There are so many places that I relate to experiences,” he says. “For me, it’s the memories of the things that happen outside the pictures that are a large part of what I remember about a particular story, or place, or trip.”
Lessons along the way
“I’d say that I have a more complex view of my motivations now than I did in the past,” says Nyani. “But in essence it is still very much about communicating and challenging people to think about things, and to build bridges.” Nyani notes that there are many facets of the industry and his approach towards photography that have altered over the years. “Photography has been shifting and transforming rapidly over the last couple of decades. That is certainly one challenge. The practicality of, not just finding work, but finding ways to get meaningful work done, and building relationships with an organization that one wants to work with is another.” Finally there is the challenge of “being able to connect emotionally to the issues that you work on. Sometimes that means grappling with difficult issues and having to question one’s own relationship to those issues, and deal with how one feels about them.” Nyani notes that this can be difficult at times, and personal impacts can be a by-product.
“One of the things that I am really grateful for, as a photographer, is that my work takes me to places that I couldn’t otherwise go. That, in many ways, it is a license to enter places, situations, contexts, and realities that one could otherwise simply not access.” For Nyani, photography is his process of making sense of – and understanding – the world. “I have a career that allows me to travel and to be thrown into different environments, subjects, and themes, all of which you have to consider, contemplate and understand enough to approach them intelligently. I am grateful for that.”
In a society where nationalism and the ‘other’ rhetoric is rife, the work done by Nyani creates a changing perspective of what it means to exist. This work is reflective of the role that the Waterford system hopes to play in changing the perspectives of many outside of our local and international communities. Through the travel that comes with his work, he never tires of discovering the ways “in which we are different but the same. In the sense that, while there may be superficial differences – cultural or dress or religion – fundamentally all humans are the same. Fundamentally we all have the same wants, needs, and it’s far easier to find the commonalities between us than the differences.”