A place in the sun, (German: Ein Platz in der Sonne) is a phrase heavy with longing. It is credited to the Foreign affairs Minister of the German Empire, Bernhard von Bülow. Referring to the parliamentary debate about the empire’s colonial ambitions in 1897, he said “we do not want to put anyone in the shade, but we also demand our place in the sun”. His words marked the early beginnings of a 30-year colonial empire: from China’s Kiautschou Bay to ‘German Southwest Africa’ and beyond, an empire that was outlived by a distinct longing.
The phrase depended on the jolly images that it produced in people’s minds. Despite its seemingly harmless connotations, It became a metaphor for a counterintuitive dual fantasy in which domination met urlaub: put differently, it significantly blurred the lines between German colonial nostalgia and the ‘right’ to enjoy holidays in a sunnier part of the world at any given time.
Brazilian photographer Ana Paula dos Santos, who has been living in Germany for over a decade, is no stranger to the occasional longing that flashes through strangers’ faces when she reveals where she was born. Until very recently, the country was shorthand for sunny beaches and good vibes.
Images from her ongoing series Deconstructing a Place in the Sun were recently shown in ‘Witnesses’, a group exhibition at Frankfurt’s Sakhile & Me gallery. In the series, dos Santos reconsiders the phrase as someone who grew up in a place in the sun, but contends that it wasn’t always sunny. The images tone down the tropicality of her hometown—the port City of Santos—to reveal a melancholy that is heavy with questions about home, distance, longing, memory and individual reality. GRIOT speaks to Ana Paula as she prepares for an upcoming solo exhibition.
Do you remember the first camera that you had? What kinds of things did you photograph?
I began photography almost ten years ago but I never studied it formally. I was just interested in old analogue cameras because of the texture that they produce, that dreamy and imaginary world they create. The first analoge camera I owned was a Minolta, and I bought it at a flea market. Working with that Camera was very interesting for me, and I learnt how to switch films etc. I then started experimenting with everything I saw around me, less with people though, I was a bit hesitant to hold my camera in front of people’s faces. I began with street photography, for example, abstractions on the road, tarmac and the mirror effects of puddles, but also with nature, mostly natural forms such as trees and plants.
You mentioned that you are self taught, did your love for photography develop during this phase or were you already an enthusiast before?
I’ve always been fascinated by photography since I was a child. I loved older family albums and I would take them, look at the photos and ask very particular questions about when they were taken and who the people in the images were. There were photos from the 1960s and 1970s, and I was always interested in hearing where exactly my mum or dad was. But i didn’t really have access to photography in that way. There were very few role models for a Black brazilian woman like me. Black photographers, particularly Black female photographers were rare. That’s probably the reason why it took me a while before I got my first analog camera.
Did you find any role models later on as you were growing up and beginning to explore photography more?
Actually, there’s hardly a name that I can mention that I looked up to as a teenager. Later, I went into photography irrespective of that experience. Now I love photographers like Zanele Muholi, Lorna Simpson (who is also a visual artist), Sharon Farmer and many more. Platforms that center Africa and her diasporas also inspire me very much. But a lot of people I see with cameras in their hands are white men. When I look for tutorials on older cameras, like my Leica or Rollei, one hardly finds anybody else talking about them. It is important to me that more Black women explore and express themselves via photography and the visual arts generally.
There are cameras I hold in my hand and know that they have never been held by black hands before. I have a Leicaflex SL, or a Kodak Retina 1a—a folding camera that I bought at a flea market—or a Kodak Jiffy from the 1930s. I’m almost certain that I’m the first Black woman or maybe even person to use these models. I find the playful ceremony or ritual of working with them, and the process and history behind cameras and photography intriguing. This is especially the case with the technical aspects of light and lighting. Older photos of Black people have really bad lighting because nobody seems to have given it any serious thought.
The group show in Frankfurt is your first exhibition, how did that come about?
It was a process. The first idea for an exhibition was in university in 2015. We had travelled to Mexico City for an excursion and I was tasked with photographing the city and organizing an exhibition back at the University. That exhibition eventually fell through, but the process had exposed me to the idea that I could exhibit my work. That same year, I realised I had a lot of analog images in my archive, and I continued making more until 2018. It was then that I heard about a portfolio review at the museum for photography in Berlin within the EMOP (European Month of Photography Programme) which happens every two years. I compiled my portfolio and applied and I was accepted into the review. It was the first time that I had made a portfolio, but in 2013, I had already had a photography series review at the Frankfurt Photography Forum with the spanish photographer Alberto Garcia Alix. Images from my current series Deconstructing a Place in the Sun were in the portfolio because I had photographed my home town Santos in 2015, and again in 2018. I received very good feedback at the review in Berlin and that’s when i thought, ok so i have a portfolio now, maybe i can make an exhibition with this, so i began approaching galleries.
Some photographers work on several series at the same time, others just work freely and only later see that there are storylines in their body of work. What is your approach?
It varies. I have made a series that had a very clear concept from the beginning but Deconstructing a Place in the Sun was initially a deeply personal project. My hometown Santos is very important to me even though i have been living in Germany for a very long time. and I took pictures of the beach there because that’s where I usually went to think, to dance and to relax. It was a place that I spent a lot of time with friends all year long, when it was completely empty I’d go, alone. So for the series, I took the pictures with these aspects in mind but it was only later, when looking at the results that I realised what this place actually meant for me against the backdrop of Brazil, the regions’ and my own history. I asked myself what it meant for me to be in these scenes even though I did not do self portraits or selfies. Somehow I was still part of these scenes.
Tell us about the title of the series?
Deconstructing a Place in the Sun is very multifaceted for its metaphorical nature. There is a lot to unpack from my perspective as a Black Brazilian woman. As I was analyzing the images I thought about the fact that Santos —and Brazil in general—is always depicted as colourful and accompanied by a constructed joy that is reflected in the colours of the Brazilian flag: it is a very particular construction of tropicality. However, my photos were black and white, foggy and with distant human forms. They had a kind of timelessness to them and seemed to undermine the ‘a place in the sun’ narrative by their aesthetic: They simply didn’t fulfil a postcard image of Brazil that exudes tropicality, so I took that as a metaphor and played with that narrative.
‘A place in the sun’ also references a colonial imaginary. The phrase was used in German colonial language in a way that fed German yearning for places in Latin America, on the African continent etc. So I was interrogating what it means to want ‘A place in the sun’. I wanted to deconstruct this notion not by showing a joyful place in the sun, but a melancholic one.
I am not a colonial official, but a Black woman who grew up in this ‘place in the sun’ that was not always sunny historically speaking. That’s why I play with deconstruction. But even without subverting that colonial notion, the aesthetic aspect still stood out to me. I have made other pictures using the same method because it is rich in texture. For this series I found the grainy texture to be very important because it kind of reinforced the concept behind the series.
What are you currently working on?
I have always wanted to expand my practise into the visual arts broadly speaking and maybe even installation art. My next exhibition is planned for January at ‘1882’ in Frankfurt. It will be my first solo exhibition where I plan to explore all of these aspects.
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Eric Otieno Sumba
I am a decolonial scholar working at the intersections of social justice, politics, the economy, art & culture. I enjoy reading, dancing, cycling, and cappuccinos without sugar.