Candid Obama

Two candid shots of Obama stand out on the Obama wall. Both shots feature him seemingly unscripted, his suit crumpled, his face turned away from the camera. This is Obama at home in public. They are good shots, clear shots, evidence of solid, if unimaginative, photographic work. They are, in fact, evidence of the kind of work produced in this studio.

The studio offers 12 passport photos for Kshs 150, Kshs 200 gets you 8 done express, within 5 minutes.

Although other kinds of photography take place here, the studio is dedicated to passport photographs. It is definitely not Studio One, across the street, from where our obligatory family portrait emanated in another time.

I wonder about the promise of the passport photograph, and how it functions as a tool of social mobility—a mobility that may be diagonal, vertical, horizontal, the only promise being that movement will happen.

I wonder, even more, about the promise of Obama’s face in this particular studio. It is repeated at least 6 times, twice on the calendars that hang on the wall, as though to suggest we are now in Obama time, or that the passport might change time and destiny.

This narrative is suggested by an ad in the paper: Obama’s face looks out from an ad that promises to help one get a green card to the U.S. Apply now and become Obama, or so it seems.

I have suggested, previously, that Obama represents the myth of Stato, a confirmation of unconfirmed stories. After all, we only have the word of the summer bunnies and the winter bunnies that they are “doing well,” little proof. And we know plenty of stories about those who disappear into the ether of foreignness. Whose faces, unlike Obama’s, cannot be displayed as emblems of success, the kind of success premised on “anything is better than here.”

And so we line up here to take our passport photographs taken. It is a hopeful gesture, an indication that we continue to believe in the futures Obama embodies.
The other photographs are official, issued from the U.S. image-makers, and they also tell a certain kind of story, create a certain kind of dream to which one might aspire.

This story is more ambivalent.

One part of it is about the kind of institution this studio aspires to become, an institution in which images are created that circulate around the world, an institution that takes photographs of important people. And one sees, in some of the faces here, an aspiration to be one of those whose image will circulate.

A darker narrative is about going to the place where such images have been created. It is a narrative about the passport photograph joining to the passport and enabling travel to a different kind of image-space.

I am struck, most, by the multiple Obama calendars on the wall. A passport ensures, it seems, not only access to a different space, but also access to a different time.

It is a time that lives in the difference between the 12 photographs, promised within an hour, delivered in two, and the 8 photographs, promised within 5 minutes, delivered within 10.
The studio also has photographs of Kibaki and Raila. They sit across the room from the Obama wall, in a recessed shelf. They also represent a time-space, a kind of poa, time will wait, space will accommodate. They are accommodated and take up space.

Kibaki and Raila do not represent the promise of the passport photograph. The forms of movement associated with them are de-linked, paradoxically, from mobility for others. One cannot aspire to be a Kibaki or Raila, and while becoming Obama seems more difficult, it is also, paradoxically, easier to dream about.

Kenyan photo studios have always been aspirational spaces. We lined up to pose as the families we wanted to be. Lovers posed in magazine-learned contortions, convinced that standing just-so ensured a just-so future.

One of the photographs on the wall represents one of these just-so futures: Barack, Michelle, and their daughters, posed as the family passports enable.

There are no pictures of a Kenyan family on the Obama wall. No counter-narrative offered, and it registers as blankness. Instead, the Kenyan test shots feature employees of the studio, each standing alone, each against a generic black or blue backdrop.

And each one threatening to fade into a background that will not allow movement.