Dana Lixenberg: Imperial Courts

The Dutch photographer explains how portraits became stories in her Deutsche Börse Prize-nominated series

In 1992, Dana Lixenberg travelled to Los Angeles for a magazine story on the race riots that broke out after the Rodney King trial. Outrage had spread through the local community after King, an African American taxi driver, was filmed being savagely beaten by several policemen who were later acquitted. 

After witnessing the one-dimensional reporting that seemed to reduce the complex and cultural situation to simplified gangland stereotypes, Lixenberg returned the following year to photograph residents of the Imperial Courts housing estate in Watts. The people there went on to become the focus of her 22-year project, Imperial Courts. Taken between 1993 and 2015, the series of portraits and its publication has earned the Dutch photographer a nomination in this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.

The project began with her introduction to OG Tony Bogard, leader of the Imperial Courts Crips faction and unofficial “godfather” of the community. ‘When I was introduced to him, he was very reluctant to trust me, or even work with me,’ Lixenberg recalls. ‘I kept showing up at his house and, eventually, he relented. Tony introduced me to his friend Andre who had just gotten out of jail, needed work and was interested in photography. I would meet him everyday at the playground with my camera, and we would hang out and he would make the introductions,which was very important. Tony had given his approval.’

‘Freeway – 1993’ © Dana Lixenberg

Despite Bogard’s approval, Lixenberg was still met with wariness. ‘A lot of people didn’t want to have their picture taken,’ she continues. ‘I was seen as a negative. There was a lot of media attention due to a fear of new riots following the retrial of the four officers.’ In the end, Lixenberg’s slow, patient approach set her apart from the media frenzy. ‘When I showed them the polaroids, they started to come around.’

The direct style of Lixenberg’s portraits is a defining quality throughout her work. ‘I like it when people don’t perform too much, when you try and create a space where someone just is,’ she says. ‘For me it’s all about the person, looking at each individual and tuning into the mood and the moment. Whether the beauty is shown through a tilt of the head, the body language, or the texture and light, there’s a genuine exchange between me and the subject when I’m photographing them.’

‘Tish’s Baby Shower – 2008’ © Dana Lixenberg

The 1993 photographs were exhibited in the Netherlands, and published in Vibe magazine, after which the work was shelved for fifteen years. ‘I didn’t feel compelled to do a follow-up,’ says Lixenberg. ‘That was never my intention when I did the first series but I’d given people prints and had stayed in touch over the years, and then, as more time passed, the responses became more powerful, and the residents would ask when I was coming back.’

‘Dee Dee with her son Emir – 2013’ © Dana Lixenberg

Lixenberg returned to Imperial Courts in 2008, but quickly found that it wouldn’t be enough to simply produce new versions of the portraits she took in the 90s. She wanted to take the project further, and portray the community in all of its complexity. ‘I wanted to photograph new people and new generations, and make group shots and landscapes. I used sound recordings to document the residents’ reactions to the portraits so they could tell their stories in their own words, and video to show the movement and soundtrack of the area.’

Despite a few cosmetic changes, the social conditions of Imperial Courts had not improved. She found that the project, however, had become less political and more personal. It had become about memory and family, and the bonds that make up a community. ‘People had passed away or were spending time in prison. New generations were born, and the pictures started to carry more weight. The more time passed, the more stories the pictures held. The pictures became stories.’

Dana Lixenberg’s Imperial Courts 1993-2015 is on show at the Photographers’ Gallery in London until 11 June

Behind the Frame: Siberian Playground

Russian photographer Elena Anosova shares the story behind her image of a frozen playground on an isolated Siberian island

Elena Anosova, Playground on the Bank of Baikal on the Edge of the Island of Olkhon, Lake Baikal, Siberia, 2015. From the series 'Sagaan Sag' (White time). Photography – Elena Anosova
Elena Anosova, Playground on the Bank of Baikal on the Edge of the Island of Olkhon, Lake Baikal, Siberia, 2015. From the series ‘Sagaan Sag’ (White time). Photography – Elena Anosova

This photo is part of a work called ‘Sagaan Sag’, which in the Buryat language means White Time. I grew up in this region and spent most of my youth on Olkhon island, where this photograph was taken. Olkhon is the only inhabited island of Lake Baikal, and is the tourist centre of Siberia in the summer period. The region’s unique, vast and beautiful landscape makes one understand the slightness of human scale.

I often spent days in the East Sayan mountains and by Lake Baikhal to have the chance to be on my own, meditate, make art, and enjoy the harmonic sounds of nature. With the development of digital photography, I began to capture the space around me, noticing the process of urbanisation, which increasingly manifested in areas where I used to walk.

The playground in this photograph is situated on the bank of Olkhon island; I still remember when it was built five to six years ago. My good friend, a local, insisted the playground was built near the Orthodox Church, situated at the same altitude. From there, one can witness a spectacular view over the lake. The playground was only realised thanks to sponsorship donations and volunteers who levelled the ground.

The island has a population of about 800 people, and is a sacred place for a number of religions, including buddhists, shamans and Orthodox communities. For several years, I have been documenting the life of the local people – the objects of ancient tradition, their history, and the yet undiscovered symbiotic and harmonious structure of human life in the ancient territory.

In December and January, Olkhon becomes hardly accessible from mainland. Ice formation separates the island from tourists and the outside world. The coldness and vast expanse of water in winter creates a unique atmospheric cloudiness; the island is considered as one of the sunniest places in Russia, there are about only 50 cloudy days per year on the island.

During the past year, I have been working on a project entitled OUT-OF-THE-WAY, focused on the ecology surrounding the lake Baikal and the Olkhon Island. There, I am continuing to investigate the different boundaries that are important in my work, and the state of isolation.

Elena Anasova will be showcasing her work as part of ‘Grow-Conserve’, the third instalment of the Syngenta Photography Award exhibition, open from March 9–28 at Somerset House, London

Behind the Frame: Stories from the Indus Delta

Eritrean-Swedish photographer Malin Fezehai tells us how she captured this stunning image of a young village girl in Pakistan

Photo by Malin Fezehai
Photo by Malin Fezehai

In order to document the effects of water scarcity and climate change on the lives of schoolchildren living in the Indus Delta, I travelled to southeastern Pakistan through villages in the Thatta region. WaterAid, who commissioned this trip, had to arrange a driver and government escorts to transport me. Large vehicles and men in uniforms took me to a school in the village of Muhammad Ali Bharj—a location, where WaterAid had decided to build taps and bathroom facilities.

That day, the school was closed but the children from the village still came out to greet us. With her small voice, a Pakistani girl in an elaborate dress invited me into her home to meet her family. The opening of this door presented the opportunity for a series of revealing portraits; women scurried around the house, preparing for a wedding to be held that day. Like the girl, they all wore vivid traditional dresses covered in beading.

The soft-spoken girl with embroidery dripping off her, was stunningly illuminated when she stepped into a shaft of window light. Faced with those moments, it is important to be calm, to match the energy of a little girl eager to show off her fancy dress, and to remember myself as a little girl in those rare occasions of being dressed up. To accept it in the camera sweetly, as part of the ritual of showing off. Yes the light was right, but more than that the spirit of the moment was right.

She’d never been to school— perhaps because in this village, school was only starting to become a priority for young girls like her. But there, in her wedding best, she was undoubtedly seen as a shining star in her community.

Noori Tales: ‘Stories from the Indus Delta’ featuring photographs by Malin Fezehai in collaboration with WaterAid and the H&M Foundation, will run at Kungsträdgården, Stockholm, from 15 August – 4 September 2016