The Design Observer Group


Posted 09.27.12


Mark Robbins & Nancy Levinson

Student/Teacher


To photograph is to confer importance. 
— Susan Sontag, On Photography 



John and Mother with lilies, Kigali, 2011

In the summer of 2011, Mark Robbins, then dean of architecture at Syracuse University, traveled from upstate New York to Kigali, Rwanda, where a faculty colleague, Yutaka Sho, was teaching at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. The photo portfolio shown here is one of the results of that transcontinental trip. Yet it would be a misperception to view the images — depicting some of Sho's students in their houses, sometimes with Sho, sometimes with a parent or guardian — simply as a record of travel; the deeper catalyst is not the geographic setting, the visit to Africa, but instead a photography project that Robbins, now director of the International Center of Photography, has been pursuing for years.


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Student/Teacher continues an investigation into what Robbins describes as "questions of culture, space, decor and the body." [1] In one series, Moonlight: Highland Park, Texas, the setting is a wealthy suburb of Dallas. We see images of the exteriors of substantial and elaborately landscaped houses, all in the tradition of the new striving to resemble the old. The time is night, the lighting is atmospheric, the residences seem secure and serene. In one photograph we see a man walking along the sidewalk; in khakis and a polo shirt, he could be a homeowner out for a stroll; but in the next photo, the man, whom we view from behind, has dropped his pants and removed his shirt. In another series, Households, the locations are diverse; Robbins show us people in domestic settings — houses, cottages, apartments — ranging from Nashville, Washington, suburban Boston and eastern Long Island to social housing in Amsterdam. In an essay for a book on the project, which appeared in Design Observer, Julie Lasky describes Households as a "collection of portraits in which the sitters are sometimes sitting rooms (or kitchens or bedrooms), and the people are polished, draped, and arrayed like furniture.... Flesh, bone, brick, stone, contoured torsos, and varnished chairs assume equal status." As Robbins says, "I've been fascinated with the process of taking the anthropological gaze and turning it on ourselves."

It is illuminating to view Robbins's Rwanda portfolio in the larger context of his earlier depictions of men and women in their homes, and of various kinds of self-presentation, from clothing and personal accoutrements to objects, furniture and dwellings. There are obvious differences, of course; to some extent opportunities for personal expression correspond  with per capita income. (And the differences are significant: less than $600 annually in Rwanda, compared with more than $40,000 in the U.S.) Inevitably we note the relative austerity of these rooms in East Africa, especially the absence of the media technology and gadgets — from computers to flat-screens — that are so ubiquitous in America.

But ultimately these kinds of comparisons recede. The focus of the images — some taken in residences in Kigali, others in a cooperative association in a village near the capital — is equally on persons and places, and the mood seems to me notably open, non-didactic, curious and warm. The disposition here is not ethnographic or documentarian but rather personal and domestic. As with the earlier series, Student/Teacher is interested in the ways in which we shape and inhabit our environs. It's not surprising to learn that Robbins spent time with the students and their parents or guardians (in some households the biological parents had been killed in the 1994 genocide), carefully explaining why he wanted to take their pictures in their houses; he understood the necessity of earning their trust. As he says, "Naturally they were curious about me — about why an American white guy was there with his camera."

— Nancy Levinson