Tanpa Izin by Ohemaa Dixon is an intriguing book, both in terms of the physical object itself and the themes which it opens for discussion. The title, which translates from Indonesian to “without permission”, hints at the act of “taking” pictures without the explicit consent of a subject or subjects. The book offers several points for contemplation about otherness, the nature and subjectivity of identity, and the act of photographing. Where the book succeeds is in its potential as a departure point for asking oneself questions and opening discussions about these issues.
The book comes enmeshed in a green elastic band, which the reader must stretch apart and remove in order to open the book, symbolizing an act of discovery, or if considered from a different angle, an almost voyeuristic act of peering through something to gain access to what is hidden behind or underneath. This design element is one of the book’s strengths, encouraging the reader to ask themselves from the outset why this must be done.
The images show scenes of Bali, Indonesia, taken from the perspective of a tourist on the back of a motorbike. Dense, green and lush landscapes are seen throughout, as well as images of native Indonesians going about their lives, often seen in a blur, at a passing glance, their faces and identities obscured.
Travel photography, or any form of documentary photography done by a stranger in a strange place, has always been tricky to navigate. On one hand, one might be able to see a place, people, or culture with fresh and unbiased eyes. On the other, it can be difficult to penetrate the true essence of a place, or to be truly let in by the people there, when one is constantly and unmistakably recognized as an outsider.
Further complicating the issue of otherness is Dixon’s personal identity: the fact that she is a black woman. Whiteness, as well as maleness, have been used throughout history as a defense, excuse, or reason to obtain or conquer something, whether it be a photograph or an entire country from its native people. Dixon, while making this work, did not have the luxury of being yet another white man coming to a foreign country and taking what they feel entitled to. Rather, her identity adds a further level of complexity to the sociological structures and mechanisms that surround the seemingly simple act of photographing a place while on holiday.
This sense of otherness is the overarching context that permeates the work. There is a feeling of quiet uneasiness in the pictures, as if one is tiptoeing around subjects or clandestinely pressing the shutter at opportune moments in order to remain unnoticed. Perhaps in making the work, Dixon felt the opposite, that as a black woman, she was gaining unique access through her otherness and using this “gaze of the other” to her advantage, thus opening a new dialogue between non-traditional travel photography and the roles that identity and otherness play in the making of such images. Either way, the crucial questions to ask oneself are: Is it more valuable to be noticed or unnoticed? To “make” pictures or to “take” pictures? To use one’s otherness as a crutch, or as armor?
The crucial questions to ask oneself are: Is it more valuable to be noticed or unnoticed? To “make” pictures or to “take” pictures? To use one’s otherness as a crutch, or as armor?
Not only does Dixon undoubtedly face unique obstacles in her home country of America as a result of her gender and skin color, but she also must add the label of “foreign tourist” when traveling and photographing in a distant land. These multiple layers of otherness and identity create an interesting dynamic for the photographer to navigate. However, one’s status as an outsider, when taken alone, does not necessarily translate to a unique credential for making images that are disparate from the idealized and ubiquitous type of commercial travel photography. It certainly gives the photographer a different starting point and a unique perspective, but in the end the images still must speak for themselves.
How these nuances of identity and layers of otherness ultimately affect the pictures in Tanpa Izin is perhaps left to the individual viewer to decide. To me, there is a natural yet worthy struggle between maintaining a sense of openness as an outsider making photographs, while reconciling a feeling of uneasiness or dread from the internal conflict between the desire to document, and the difficulty in documenting what will ultimately and likely remain entirely unknowable.