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Off the Grid


June 15, 2011

A photographer and former Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana observes the beauty of the dark and the politics of electricity. (With video.)

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Photography is a record of light, so how does one photographer capture images without it? And for the 1.4 billion people who currently live without electricity, what does it mean to be without light?

As a Peace Corps volunteer in northern Ghana from 2006 to 2008, Peter DiCampo lived in a village where fires and flashlights were the only source of light after nightfall. A decade-old plan to bring power to the area had brought power lines but no electricity.

By day, as a Peace Corps volunteer, he worked on water and sanitation issues, with a focus on the water-borne parasite known as Guinea worm. By night, DiCampo—a Massachusetts native who studied photojournalism at Boston University—would explore the villages of northern Ghana and document what he saw. The results are lyrical photos that do something unusual: they show you what isn’t there.

By photographing in the dark, DiCampo illustrates what life is like without electricity. And life is vibrant: people dance, watch movies, read the Koran, and hang out. His flashlight portraits would be striking on their own. With the theme of energy poverty as a context, the photographs document the tenacity of their subjects.

His series, “Life Without Lights,” has since expanded into a much larger project, with DiCampo documenting energy poverty in Iraqi Kurdistan, New Mexico, and elsewhere in Ghana. For the next phase of his work, DiCampo plans to focus on solutions as well as on the health consequences of living without lights.

DiCampo, who is now twenty-seven, is part of VII’s mentor program, and his work is on view at VII Gallery in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood until July 12, 2011. DiCampo has been awarded grants from the Pulitzer Center, recognized by the British Journal of Photography, PDN Photo Annual and other prestigious prizes.

After several years travelling around West Africa, DiCampo is now stateside, living in Michigan, where his fiancée, a medical student, is doing a hospital rotation. I reached him there several days after the opening of his Brooklyn show. As for his travel schedule, he said: “I’m not quite sure where I end up next!”

—Glenna Gordon for Guernica

Guernica: Tell me how your “Life Without Lights” project began.

Peter DiCampo: I was a Peace Corps volunteer in northern Ghana in a small village called Wantugu. Wantugu has had power lines since the late 1990s, but at the time there was no electricity running through those lines—almost ten years later. For the first few months that I lived there, I didn’t go out in the night all that often.

As I became more comfortable, I started to check out how the village was different at night. I was kind of just wandering around at night, and there was this scene at the mosque with these kids kind of bent over the Koran with flashlights to study. I made a few pictures, and I was not at the time thinking about anything wider. I was just kind of caught up in how enchanting this moment was—the way they were reciting the passages in the Koran and there was this glow of flashlights all over the place. But I eventually realized that this was a great way to illustrate the problem that these people have—a lack of electricity. They feel like they’ve been overlooked. I was a Peace Corps volunteer at the time, and that was really my primary responsibility.

A couple of years later I was encouraged by a couple of photographer friends to go back and continue it. The bulk of the Ghana work is from a trip in February of last year. And I just kind of extended it into the entirety of the northern region of Ghana, where something like 70 percent of villages are not connected to the national grid, and do not have electricity.

Guernica: How was it different to be in Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer, versus being there to take these photos?

Peter DiCampo: To go back, it was incredible. The Peace Corps really forced me to learn a language and learn a lifestyle that was on the village level. Usually when you move to a new country, you’re in the capital. I’ll never really experience that in any other place, unless I really pick up and move to another culture again, and especially to another rural culture again. And so, when I went back, it was so easy for me to work in northern Ghana, much easier than anywhere else I’ve been. They love it that there’s this foreigner who can kind of communicate in the language—I mean, I’m not fluent—and who knows some of the customs, and can talk about the geography.

How often do you see video or any other form of interview that, for really a very lengthy period, that allows African people to talk in their own language and describe how they feel the issue affects them?

Guernica: So have you seen any changes from when you first were there compared to the most recent time you were there?

Peter DiCampo: Yeah, so getting back to electricity specifically, the village I started all of this in, the village where I was a Peace Corps volunteer, now does have electricity. But no other village that I photographed for the project does, and a vast majority of the north is still not connected.

Life Without Lights from Peter DiCampo on Vimeo.

Guernica: How did that come about?

Peter DiCampo: In the fall of 2008—it was an election year—and the government kind of picks up and makes this big show of trying to increase development in the region, to get votes. So it was in 2000 that they put the poles up, in 2004 they put the lines up, and in 2008, they finally connected a small handful of villages to electricity. This village just happened to be one of them. So it’s a great step forward for them, but it’s not an indication of any widespread change.

Guernica: I’m curious, has anyone in the Ghanaian government seen your work?

Peter DiCampo: Not to my knowledge, and it took quite a bit of work to get anyone to talk to us to get basic percentages on how much of the country is electrified. They were hesitant to talk, and very defensive.

Guernica: There is a big NGO push to bring renewable energy to places without electricity, most of which seems to be bypassing existing national grids, and is focusing on solar panels and lamps and other smaller solutions. Do you think this is the right way to go, or should there be a greater push for rural areas to be brought into a grid?

In New Mexico, you’ve got some people out there just struggling to find enough money to put fuel in their generators, and you’ve got other people who have taught themselves to hook up solar and wind solutions, and are completely self-sustaining. It’s incredible.

Peter DiCampo: I don’t see any reason for a grid if you can be self-sustaining, if another renewable source provides enough energy. Pajarito Mesa, just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico—that is a community that has never been connected. And you’ve got some people out there just struggling to find enough money to put fuel in their generators, and you’ve got other people who have taught themselves to hook up solar and wind solutions, and are completely self-sustaining. It’s incredible. They have no reason to go on the grid and be connected, paying their energy bill and have the uncertainty of someone hanging prices over their heads. Right now, I’m in Michigan, and here you have tons of people who cannot pay their bills because there’s one company and they can jack the prices up as much as they want. And if there are people who can’t pay, they shut them off, and they live through the winter like that. People in the Detroit area die from the cold because of that. Being self-sufficient with energy is just one more step towards being an independent person.

Guernica: Well, there’s an interesting political dimension for all of this. If you’re pursing a solution in Ghana that is off the grid, you’re saying to the government, we don’t have any confidence in you to provide us electricity. Whereas in Detroit and New Mexico, there is a government that could provide electricity but maybe it isn’t accessible to people. So it means different things in different places. Is this ultimately about a government failing people in all these different places?

Peter DiCampo: I think so. Having spent the time out in New Mexico, it was amazing that I kept encountering situations and this language in the States that I’ve encountered and that inhibit development in Africa. The power lines stopped down the road and the government was kind of complaining about not being able to find the money to put new poles up there. It was a very similar situation.

Guernica: I’m wondering about how political agitation figures into this. If your emphasis is going towards solar lamps, maybe it’s not going towards pushing for rural areas to be connected to a larger electricity system. How much is it government’s problem, and how much is it up to individuals to say, we’re not waiting for the government and we’re going to just do this?

Peter DiCampo: It would be interesting to pose the question to the Ghanaian ministry of energy and say, What do you think would happen if all these villages that you haven’t connected, if they took matters into their own hands? I’ll put that on my to-do list.

This is not really a project about electricity. It’s a project about a government denying people something.

Guernica: Let’s switch gears a little bit. A lot of photography of Africa is labeled “poverty porn.” You obviously are working in a very different aesthetic and tackling the issue of poverty. Is this something that you’re thinking about when you’re shooting?

Peter DiCampo: Well, what I think has been the biggest thing for me getting around this is to use so-called multimedia—which, speaking of terms I’m not crazy about, that’s another one. How often do you see video or any other form of interview that, for really a very lengthy period, that allows African people to talk in their own language and kind of describe in an in-depth way how they feel the issue affects them. That was an extremely important thing for me to do, and I’m really glad I did it. It’s still my favorite way or viewing the project—this five-minute photo film or short film that has three people sitting down and discussing not only the things that the lack of electricity prevents them from doing, but it also has them saying, It’s true that we’re happy anyway, it’s true that there are a lot of things that we’re able to do anyway, which I think shows a certain strength which is very present in African culture that a lot of photojournalism overlooks because it’s so kind of victim-oriented.

Guernica: Do you prefer multimedia for that reason?

Peter DiCampo: I don’t know that I was thinking of all this ahead of time. I was just kind of focused on this new way of telling a story—I was like, oh yeah, I’ve got a video camera now. I quickly realized that this was very important, and they were saying some very interesting things. So, I was thrilled to be able to put that to use. You know, a friend of mine in the Peace Corps pointed out to me that this is not really a project about electricity. It’s a project about a government denying people something. But the actual visuals, what you’re actually looking at, is people living in the same way that they’ve always lived. The visuals are not one group of people subjugating another group of people. The visuals are just, this is what daily life has been like for people forever. The information behind it is about the lack of electricity. But the visuals are more of a positive—this is what they do, this is what life is like.

Guernica: So, on this project, you’ve worked in Ghana, Iraqi Kurdistan and New Mexico. Where’s next?

Peter DiCampo: The next big things I want to be working on are, first, solutions. New Mexico was really the start of all that, and there are some really, really interesting solution projects. For instance, in Benin—which is of course very close to Ghana—in northern Benin, where the climate is very much like in northern Ghana—very dry, sub-Saharan—there is an organization called Solar Electric Light Fund that has used solar to give a whole bunch of villages water irrigation systems so they can farm year-round. In northern Ghana, the biggest problem is that they have a very short farming season and then, that’s it. That’s their income for the year. That’s one thing I want to focus on. And the other thing is on the opposite side of the spectrum: I think I need to show some of the more dire aspects of this situation, which would be health. Cooking indoors with an open fire is one of the top ten killers in the world, especially for women and children, because it causes all sorts of lung disease. Another thing is refrigeration with medicine. People with HIV can’t access the antiretroviral drugs if they don’t have refrigeration.

These types of things are not typical for photojournalism because, once again, they focus on the absence of things. But it just has to be done. To know that so-called energy poverty contributes to one of the top ten killers in the world, and there aren’t many visuals of this, I think that’s the next step.

G

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