We spoke to the photographer who documented a red light district going strong in the face of draconian anti-sex laws.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK
There's a lot that you can't officially do in Uganda. You can't legally fuck people of the same gender. You can't "promote" weed smoking. You can't "promote porn"—and that can mean images or videos featuring women in miniskirts, or ones where you can see thighs, boobs, or bums, whether or not people look like they're having sex.
The east African country's restrictive laws are great for convincing outsiders that repression is the norm in a part of the world still largely associated with negative stories. Every time news of this conservatism dominates coverage of Uganda, it does little to help us understand what life is actually like there.
But stifling people who want to have a good time may not be working out that well. Italian photographer Michele Sibiloni moved to Uganda about six years ago, started documenting the nightlife in capital city Kampala, and found a bunch of people willing to party in the face of restrictive laws. From the night guards who watch over people getting pissed beyond their limits to the pasty ex-pats, sex workers, and wasters who fill the city's bars, he pointed his lens at scenes that would look familiar to anyone who's been blackout drunk, but may not be what first comes to mind when someone says "Uganda."
Some of Michele's favorite photos from the project are collected in book 'Fuck It,' out this month. We asked him about spending most of his waking hours in the part of Kampala once apparently described as "Tijuana on acid," and what it taught him about sex, class, and stereotypes.
VICE: Hi, Michele. You seem to thrive out on the streets, as your hard news reporting on drug use and armed rebel groups shows. But how did you transition from covering heavier stuff to parties?
Michele Sibiloni: After a couple of years in Uganda, covering news in the Great Lakes region—including DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi—I had quite good pictures and I was happy that I was learning, but something was missing. I wasn't always satisfied with my pictures and I wanted to add something personal, and more related to my life, into my work. I realised that one of the reasons I loved living here was to have the chance to be out at night.
How did the nightlife series take shape, then?
It all stemmed from one photo I took of a night guard, which is also the first picture inside the book. From that picture, I decided to do a series of portraits of these night guards. I was taking my camera out with me here and there, but not in as obsessed a way as this.
How were people reacting to your camera when you were out? Club photography's pretty normalized, but not everyone loves having a flash gun in their face at 1AM.
It depends. Some people didn't mind much, some asked for an explanation. Others also got pissed off—it was all different. But the more I did it, the more I got comfortable with it, and started to believe that it was my right to take pictures. I had to hide my camera a lot, because they check you at the door and once you're in and have taken a photo or two, people may come over and ask you to leave. Sometimes I'd have to wait, find that moment for a good picture, then take it and see whether I was going to get asked to leave.
After doing my night guard series I started to go out a lot, to bars, to parties, and out onto the streets to capture every aspect related to Ugandan society at night. The more I did it, the more interested I became, because I started to get new kinds of photos that I hadn't taken before. I didn't have a book in mind or anything. I just wanted to go out and document that part of Ugandan society, and one aspect of my life here.
What kind of places were you going to? Was that affecting your access?
It was every different place, from house parties with ex-pats to bars and clubs in Kabalagala—sort of Kampala's red light district. There are bars and clubs there, people cooking in the streets, small hotels where people would take their girls to have sex. And in a few of those bars you'd find the middle-aged white men looking for younger girls. There were smaller, more local bars too, in areas that would be considered more like slums or ghettos. By now it feels as though I've been to every pat of Kampala—maybe not every bar, but every part of town.
What was that like? What sort of people did you encounter?
I found that the special thing about Kampala is that in certain places you can find every sort of person inside a bar, from rich to poor. It's unique; there isn't that much class-based discrimination. I mean, of course, if a beer costs £1 in one bar or 75p in another, then people may tend to go to the cheaper place. But there aren't strictly places "just for rich people." Also, the same sex workers tend to go to the fancy places as to the poorer places. When I was moving around, I found that at night there was a sort of democracy where social classes didn't matter that much anymore, and people were mixing and using each other in different ways. It wasn't like what I've seen in Kenya, where there were places for rich people and others for poorer people.
You met a lot of people along the way, who have turned into characters in your photos. Tell me more about Sandra, whose tattoo of a dick (below) gave your book its name.
She's a person I know, who I've filmed and interviewed. She wrote a couple of stories for the book for me, about being a prostitute and working in Kabalagala, about HIV/AIDS. The stories were very interesting, but I didn't feel comfortable putting them in the book because I wanted the viewer to have his or her own journey through the photos. I didn't want to focus their attention on the matters of HIV or prostitutes or whatever.
The book isn't just about that, but is something that I don't want to be attached to any stereotype. When I first arrived in Africa, I had so many stereotypes in my mind that had been lodged there by news reports or stories I read in the media, and I wanted to make Fuck It feel completely different. That's why I wanted to mix as many people in the book as I could: my friends, ex-pats, sex workers, every sort of person I was encountering.
Do you think the average European consumer, who hasn't left the continent before, will understand that message, with captions or information to guide them?
I don't know... I hope so. I believe it's quite a unique story. When they saw the book, some of my friends here in Uganda even asked me when I started to hang out with "these sorts" of people. It was something new for them, too.
Did it feel weird photographing people who were wasted? Do you have pictures that you wouldn't use?
Of course. For a couple of the pictures I had to ask people if they'd be alright with being published looking a bit worse for wear. Maybe it wouldn't be one of their best moments ... but they understood the project, and agreed. And I did the edit after choosing the book title, so some pictures that I took wouldn't fit that certain attitude. A lot of people living here are maybe running away from something, and going out at night to forget about their responsibilities—they say "fuck it," and live a little recklessly. That's why the edit's turned out like this.
What were the best parties?
It wasn't about the parties for me. Or even when it was a good party, I was always just passing through on my way somewhere else. I was on a different type of journey—but of course I was partying, too. I was more comfortable being out in certain places, because when I was younger—18, 20—I raved a lot. But I wasn't in it for the parties, I just wanted the encounters and the pictures that came from them the parties. One of my goals when I started this project was to see my experience—I wanted to do something personal, like personal documentary.
Of course, it'll reflect on aspects of society, but sometimes the more you try to tell, the less you convey. So I think this tells you about one part of Ugandan society at night in Kampala. It's a politically repressed and traditionally conservative society—with anti-gay laws, a recent anti-pornography bill and laws pushed by American evangelical churches feeding people lies about sexuality—but behind closed doors, people don't really care. They party here the way they would in London, Paris, or New York.
Fuck It is out on Thursday March 10, via Edition Patrick Frey.
Follow Tshepo on Twitter