Anthropology, Hip Hop, & Documentary with Nancy Musinguzi
You know that old saying about how a picture is worth more than a thousand words, well in my opinion great photographers utilize every last pixel to create a striking narrative. It was this exact idea that caused me to delve deeper into the work of Nancy Musinguzi. With an anthropologist mind and a documentary photo style, Nancy is able to capture life in Uganda, the Ferguson Riots, and a musician’s tour life with a discerning eye. After reading and digesting her in-depth piece, No One On the Dance Floor, I knew there was a ripe personal history waiting to be unearthed.
If you haven’t already peep Colors, Patterns, & Honesty with Bronx native Dondre Green.
Let’s jump into the full spread below.
Tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m 24 years old and I’m from Franklin Township, New Jersey. Nancy, was taken after my mother’s grandmother in Careysburg, Liberia. Musinguzi, comes from my father’s patriarch in Mbarara, Uganda. It means “conqueror” in Nyankore, my father’s native language. I grew up asking “why” a lot, and adults telling me stories about their lives and memories from historical times. I got my first camera, a Yaschica FX-3, and two rolls of Kodak film from my father on my 15th birthday in summer of 2006. I was stoked! The camera has been such an integral part in my life. Without it, I don’t think I could tell you much about myself. The art form has helped me shape my understanding of the world and my place in it. It has healed open wounds and built deeper connections.
“I now know a language that lets me speak and accentuate my words in tones, textures, contrasts, symbols – all in a matter of fractions of seconds, bending time into reality. There is no other art form as magical as photography.” – Nancy Musinguzi
I know your journey to Uganda must of been very eye opening, tell me a little about your experience documenting life in Uganda and how Salt of the Earth came together.
When I was in the 2nd grade, my dad took me and my family to Uganda for spring break. That was the last time I went. So last year only being my second time going at 23 years old made me pretty nervous. For one, I was all too familiar with their anti-gay death bill, so the possibility of being confronted about my non-binary sexuality and culturally embarrassing my father wasn’t thrilling. Being American was also not so thrilling, having a suburban accent, tattoos, dreadlocks, little understanding of my father’s language felt like a nightmare. But then a few days into my trip, I shook off all the irrational fears keeping me from fulling embracing myself and recognized a rare opportunity to just learn and experience Africa through my own perspective – being first-generation American, androgynous, young, female – and trusting myself to articulate that understanding with my greatest weapon of all – photography. I took to the streets of Kampala and everywhere in between that I could bring my camera to represent Uganda through the eyes of an anthropologist, someone actively seeking a connection to truth and grounded understanding of life by being observant and present in the world.
That’s where Salt of The Earth was born – from my life’s desire to learn more about myself with art, who I am, where I come from, where I’m going. The name came from its dictionary definition, “a person or group of people of great kindness, reliability, or honesty,” to represent African identity with a contemporary view. So, the project was more than just a visual memoir, or a visual journal, or even an ethnographic study. It’s a personal piece of art that will be on-going and ever-evolving like culture itself. One day, I hope to bring my project to Liberia next to document my mother’s family history for a second edition of the book.
I live to affirm who I am – fearlessly and unapologetically so. Despite being classified historically marginalized in mainstream institutions of power and influence, I believe the very act of creating is a political one, a counter-response to the limited, 2-dimensional understandings of the human condition and ability.
One of my biggest dreams is to go on tour with one of my favorite musicians and document the shenanigans. How was it like spending time with Moruf and co. last summer on the Be Water Tour?
Really really fun. I had recently moved from Minneapolis last summer to NJ, so when MoRuf asked me to document the tour, it felt like perfect timing. I had never been on a tour myself, so I didn’t know what to expect. The most memorable moment was the first day. It started out with me speeding on the NJ Turnpike to meet up with MoRuf; Catching him getting a haircut in his neighborhood barbershop by his childhood friend, printing limited edition Be Water t-shirts out of a friend’s apartment, linking with friends before heading to the venue. So here I was, two years later after first meeting MoRuf to documenting and participating in the intimate moments of his closest friends, on a most legendary day.
How do you find the truth, while documenting an event, protest, or community outreach?
Listening. I make it a point to put down my camera to be present in my environment and fully experience a moment with all of my senses. Photography is more than just seeing, it’s a careful process of unveiling what is not understood or familiar on the surface. Sometimes I’ll be at a show and I’ll see an emerging artist perform for the first time.
For me to capture that moment genuinely, I need to be connected to the artist – in their performance, their message – like a fan would so I can remember exactly what happened after I clicked the shutter. That’s where the truth lives – in the live experience.
I think it’s so important, especially as a documentarian, to be a part of what you are capturing so you can truly affirm the angle of your perspective. It’s easy to get entangled in the hype and action of a moment. You have to be mindful of the power in the art form – your lens has a limited amount of frame to reveal your vision for your audience to focus on, realize, recognize, understand. Bias is real in photography. I mean, imagery has been used to distort meaning, leave out information, stir prejudice, affirm stereotypes. That’s where the role of anthropology has become most practical in my work. When documenting sensitive moments like protests or even in intimate places like greenrooms or studios where cameras could possibly feel intrusive or even disrespectful to the subjects, it becomes a dance of ethics, of confidence, but it becomes a natural part of you with time and experience.
What advice would you give a young female creative who is just starting out?
Don’t let who you are, what you are, or where you’re from, limit you to what you want to seek and learn more about. Spend time sharpening your vision. Create imagery that reflects you and your vision of the world, study imagery that enlightens or even challenges your perspective. Find mentors that care about you and your artistry, developing you into the kind of creator you want to be remembered for the work you will be remembered from. Disrupt the old order, rebuild foundation. Make history every day by simply having the audacity to create. And never ever stop creating.