Kerstin Hacker: Generation Z / Reviewed by Helen James / 07.11.18
The Pine Tree Outside
A gentle October wind swirled fallen leaves along pathways as I traced familiar routes past the college buildings around Cambridge. So often photographed it would be difficult for a photographer to reveal a new sense of place in this city; it feels like a stage where characters and authors from every book on the library shelf are wandering reassuringly nearby; some now, some then.
Every place has visitors and inhabitants who photograph obvious, forgotten and familiar aspects differently; the image of a place that has yet to be visited is unavoidably associated with the images that other keen eyes, some amateur others professional, have captured. Many images are repetitive; with each new picture underlining the previous one to encourage nostalgia and easy comparisons between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Occasionally a new body of work disturbs this pattern and nudges a new perspective into view and discussion.
Deep within the safety of the University, cocooned in the Centre of African Studies sits an exhibition that is swaddled in context. Generation Z is a new body of work by photographer Kerstin Hacker. Skilfully curated in the department’s corridors and library the photographs are research-led with important notions about the representation of the inhabitants of Lusaka, capital of Zambia.
Photographers who document want to gather more than surface visuals that conflict or complement the existing compendium of images; they want to go deeper into the stories beneath. Ultimately pictures are made to be looked at and break into this directory of perspectives: the history of photography. This project importantly branches the divide between image as illustration and image as research: artful looking applied with the eye of a subject-savvy photographer.
The words of Kerstin Hacker echoed in my mind as I considered what I knew and what I could envisage about Zambia as a specific country in the African continent. Perhaps I had browsed the wildlife in a geographical magazine or been unable to comprehend the poverty in some bygone media footage that nibbled at my empathy and failed to enrich my knowledge.
Think of Egypt, California perhaps, London even? And images spring to mind; the obvious images that push for a front-of-mind pew tend to deal with appearances, juxtapositions and seek out the iconic and emblematic – very necessary for certain image-editors and consumers, but easy photographic pickings nonetheless. Hacker lends us a sophisticated photographer’s eye that searches beyond the surface to niggle at the heart of representation in Zambia that have been represented purely by their bountiful landscapes or their horrific humanistic experiences. This exhibition brings together a series of images that document life in this capital city; pitched at British eyes but exceeding that brief.
Through the photographs in this exhibition we visit: Zambian churches, restaurants and shopping malls to peek at celebrations, grave-side celebrations and students quietly reading under the shade of leaning tree. This image oozes a normality that has been missing from our visual knowledge. A commuter enters her photograph stage right on her journey home; her path stretched out in front of her. Hacker has beautifully controlled the viewpoint to show us what she will pass by when the shutter has closed and she has left the frame. Under the clear African sky the woman will pass a shaded pink umbrella seller offering drinks to cool. Pinks, reds and earthy browns ricochet around the photograph, collated in a stylish, observant manner.
The unique backdrop to this exhibition has allowed for interesting curating: in a quiet library study space there is a large photograph of supermarket shelves disappearing into infinity with burgeoning, colourful products stacked high and packed far. The reality of the library desk with books piled at each end mimics the photograph and encourages contemplation of the image that at first glance is reminiscent of American photographs from the 1970s by photographers such as Stephen Shore who travelled around capturing ordinary everyday things and hoovering them up into deeply colourful photographs. In other images a fashion model is tweaked for a photo shoot, her vibrant style offering fresh insight into the fashions of Zambia. The richness of colour strides through every photograph to gnaw away at misconceptions and promote inquisitiveness about life in Lusaka. Ballerinas in pretty pinks, supermarket staff in proud reds and cool young men in relaxed blue jeans inhabit these compelling photographs. We don’t have time for their stories just now – but we want to know more about the lives lived in this city.
In the corner of the library seminar room sits a photograph that seems to echo what it is to photograph: the thing and its representation. Zambia is far away from here but the photographs reveal aspects of life there that are ordinary and occur every day. I look at the chairs around the table and wonder who will sit here in this library and discuss what? I peer into the photograph and wonder who will sit there and discuss what? A window cleaner in the photograph polishes the glass for the café visitors, who will come and sit to chat rather than look and contemplate.
The repetition and subtleties of every day in every life is often bypassed in the search for political, dramatic and beautiful photographic fodder but the documentation of every generation is just as important – how we all live in our various places. It takes the eye of a concerned photographer to look beyond the shouting and the drama to find new ways of seeing behind the surface of place.
As the man polishes the window in his photograph he is flanked either side by an avenue of bushy summer trees that dissolve into the car park beyond. Through the library window in Cambridge is a giant pine tree, unshapely and dangerously tall. It sways in the autumn wind proudly waving rich green needles that defy the gusts that have snapped dry, brown leaves off other trees. The green is rich and deep, just like the colours in these African photographs.
– text by Helen James
 For more information see: ‘Generation-Z: Visual Self-Governance Through Photography’ by Kerstin Hacker in Raphael, J & Lam, C (2018). Personas and Places: Negotiating Myths, Stereotypes and National Identities. Waterhill Publishing. Toronto
Below: images from ‘Generation Z’ © Kerstin Hacker
Centre of African Studies
Alison Richard Building
7 West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DT