While Visiting Uganda, Photographer Stumbles Upon A Bizarre Set Of Faceless Portraits

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While visiting the town of Gulu in Northern Uganda, Italian photographer Martina Bacigalupo discovered a very unusual set of studio portraits. Despite being perfectly composed, none of them featured a subject’s face as they were all cut out leaving blank rectangles in the photograph. Oddly enough, it appeared to be a common practice in Gulu for taking ID photos.

Bacigalupo visited Uganda searching for ways to document this community, which was suffering from violent conflicts. The first faceless photograph she had stumbled upon lead her to meet Obal Denis, the owner of the oldest photography studio in town, the Gulu Real Art Studio (est. 1973).

“The portraits were well composed, with subjects seated on a chair or on a bench, with a blue, white or red curtain behind them, in various poses and modes of dress. Obal <…> told me the secret behind those pictures: he only had a machine that would make four ID photos at a time, and since most of his clients didn’t need four pictures, he therefore preferred to take an ordinary photograph and cut an ID photo out of it.”

For Bacigalupo, these ‘leftover’ images were the purest form of representation of Gulu’s society. She gathered the unused prints and interviewed clients of Obal’s studio. To most Ugandans, who suffered from more than two decades of war, taking new ID photos marked important changes in their lives: getting a driver’s license, starting a new job or applying for a loan. The value of such events is perfectly conveyed through the subject’s pose, gesture, clothing and other subtle details.

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