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DEVIN JOHN TEPLESKI
Sena
by Paola Signorelli
“Everyone has the right to own property alone
as well as in association with others. No one
shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”
Juxtaposed to these words written in black-and-
white in Article 17 of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights are the black-and-white
photographs by Devin John Tepleski.
This Canadian photographer takes portraits of
the faces of the Bui people in the Banda region
where a number of Ghanaian communities were
evacuated following construction of the Bui
Hydroelectric Dam. Work on the dam was begun
long before those affected were told of any plan
to deal with the social impacts from the change
in water flow and flooding of the area. In 2009
most knew they would be relocated with some
government assistance, but were anxiously
awaiting the finalization of a plan. In 2011 they
had been moved and many were concerned the
compensation they were to receive would not be
enough to provide for their families until they
could reestablish their farms and livelihoods.
The surreal portraits shown here are part of the
“Sena” series. In the local Nafanaraa language,
sena means “where”, and the subjects in the
photos, with their legs immersed in water, look
viewers straight in the eye and recount what is
happening.
All around them there is nothing—everything is
empty and white. The water which flooded their
homes now seems to submerge them, almost
cancelling them out and making them disappear
into an undefined, white and unknown space.
Through this visual language, the photographer
creates a relationship between the landscape,
the Bui people and the river. There is no action
in these photographs, but the changes and shifts
currently underway are depicted. In fact, we see
the removal of an environment to which the Bui
people were tied for centuries in a delicate man/
river relationship that is now cancelled, wiped
away. The river is still present, but only as a
reflection, as a memory. And now, following
the cancellation of this relationship, even the
people seem to disappear into nothing.
The creator of this delicate project is a
Canadian photographer, filmmaker, researcher
and founder of the “Friends of Bui Society”.
During his photographic career he has received
a number of prestigious awards. After having
won the Portrait category of the International
Photography Awards in 2010, in the same
year he was also nominated the International
Photography Awards Discovery of the Year.
Last year, in New York, he was named winner
of the Hearst 8x10 Biennial. He is represented
by Luz Gallery in Victoria and a selection of his
work is also available from the Bonni Benrubi
Gallery in New York.
In terms of the “Sena” project specifically,
Devin tells us that during his anthropology
studies at the University of Victoria (Canada)
he met archeology professor Dr. Ann Stahl
who had been working with the Bui people in
the Banda region for about thirty years. Devin
became involved in a larger research project
with Dr. Stahl and immediately after (“The next
thing I knew I was on a plane to Accra.”) began
his mission to document and contribute through
the sale of his photographs to collecting funds
for the creation of a mill.
The purpose of this project was not only to
guarantee a tangible profitable activity for the
people of Bui and free the women and children
from the load of grinding by hand, it was also
meant to lessen existing conflicts between the
different ethnic groups. In fact, three of the
communities involved—Bui, Akenyakope and
Dokochina—were relocated without a precise
plan for organization and integration into a single
settlement not far from the original village. These
three villages, comprised of different ethnic
groups that speak different languages, are the
protagonists in the heightening conflicts. Devin
tells us: “They were all placed on the same land
out of convenience. It offers some benefits in that
the government and hydroelectric company have
promised more services like a clinic and a larger
school as the new village is populous enough to
make it economical, but there haven’t been many
attempts by government to bring the communities
together in any substantial way.”
Friends of Bui wanted to provide a constructive
response to this situation, and to run the mill, a
committee comprised of two representatives—a
man and a woman—from each of the three
villages was formed. This is an attempt to foster
integration and create a positive and favorable
environment for dialogue, also involving young
people as much as possible. Tepleski is optimistic:
“I am confident the challenges that the new
village have faced will improve over time.” In
line with his deep commitment to the power of
photography, Devin is planning a new project
and is currently seeking funding for a larger
documentary film on the Bui Dam relocation
experience on the social impact of the Canadian
Oil Sands.
He also explains that his choice to communicate
through video and still photography was the result
of specific needs. In fact, video allows him to have
a precise point-of-view, a shared experience and
the possibility of placing his subject in relation
to the environment: “Video is a lot more difficult
for me, but I enjoy it more the more I work with
it. It doesn’t allow for the same purity of vision
(or maybe it does and I’m not very good at it
yet). It does allow you to capture the rhythm of
life. It gives you a better sense of place — the
types of relationships the subjects have to their
environment and each other.”
On the other hand, he affirms that it is easier
to raise money with still photography—the
photos are easier to sell because a print is less-
ephemeral than a video. A printed photo is a
tangible product that people can hold in their
hands thanks and offers direct physical contact.
“With the photographs both viewer and viewed
are still, linked through physical mimesis, like
looking in a mirror.” And the eyes of the Bui
people are there, in our hands, staring up at us ...