"History, they say, is written by the victors. The same is true of the images that illustrate history. Nations defeated in the great battles of the centuries were threatened with obscurity unless they could leave oral or visual proof of prosperity. A victor was only a true victor once he had proclaimed his superiority for all the world to hear and see. Images have tremendous influence. They are suggestive. They show what is casually accepted as truth and reality. They challenge us. Images are a privilege. If you’ve got them on your side you have a better chance of things going your way”
This excerpt was taken from “Universal Spirit” - a photographic memoir featuring photography works from the last five years of research and exploration by self-taught British-born Sierra Leonean photojournalist Henry J. Kamara. Inspired by the movement of his family, Kamara is particularly concerned with the complexities of identity and exploring how race and class impact the movement of people and culture.
Forming a more complete understanding about the origins of his heritage and movement of his culture quickly became a topic of interest for Kamara. “My father was born in Sierra Leone, Mende tribe. His mother was of the Mende tribe and lived in Manjama, Bo in the Southern province of Sierra Leone. His father was a Lebanese man. Story unknown. My mother is also Mende tribe and was born in the Eastern province in Blama. As a young child after the death of her mother and father, she moved to Tikonko, Bo” he explains. “In an attempt to become more familiar with the agents responsible for shaping my life, I left for Salone. Growing up in London left me with an insatiable sense of displacement."
"Growing up in London left me with an insatiable sense of displacement."
"How did I come to be born in the “mother country” of the British commonwealth? What were the social and historical forces that dictated my family’s movement? How has this impacted my understanding of class and race? How different would my life have been had I been born in Sierra Leone?"
Kamara offers his story as a vehicle for conversation, an example of an immigrant reflecting on their identity and celebrating the history of their ancestors. Keeper of the Flame is the first insight into his own experience and a series Kamara describes as “a lifelong commitment to documenting, preserving and promoting the culture and people of Sierra Leone”.
"Returning to take photographs in Sierra Leone was a daunting prospect at first. In the past Sierra Leone has generally been portrayed as poor, in need of aid; or as a war-torn paradise with stolen riches and corrupt leaders. Some of which is true, however, far from enough to form a comprehensive picture of the culture and people who call it home. As a result, there is an underling sense of uncertainty and mistrust towards those they do not recognise as native Sierra Leoneans. Not to mention the inescapable reality of my Western lens. The thing about the diaspora is, you never feel quite one or the other. Not really British, not really an African. Somewhere in between. So overcoming these conflicts was also a personal battle, not just an occupational one. It wasn’t long until I began to notice the looks and the murmuring. Soon after, I learnt the phrase pumwee, a krio word meaning white boy. A term alluding to my inescapable British tone of voice, Western education and fresh smelling clothes. I quickly found myself explaining how I loved Cassava leaves, that I could rap every word to borbor pain and displaying my best Krio in an attempt to validate my commitment to Sierra Leone.
"The thing about the diaspora is, you never feel quite one or the other. Not really British, not really an African. Somewhere in between."
"This meant that whenever I did find the courage to speak to someone, it was never without fear of being misunderstood. But I was aware of this, and it encouraged me to evolve my approach."