Five Questions with blogger & photographer Pernille Bærendtsen

Five Questions with blogger & photographer Pernille Bærendtsen

We have been working with Pernille directly or indirectly for a couple of years now. You have probably seen her photographs on newspapers, blogs, Facebook and in galleries. In all the work that Pernille is involved with, we finally had time to get her thoughts on inner struggles, work and really… the world. All photos on this post are courtesy of her recent and ongoing blogging project, Dunia ni Duara.

1) You spent most of the year (2000) in Serbia establishing an office for the Next Stop Serbia campaign. What was it about? You stated that your stay there changed your image and eventually got you hooked on activism. Could you tell us about the transformation?

I grew up in Europe during a decade of fast changes – the Wall separating East and West Germany was torn down, Gorbatjov introduced Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (change), and the war in ex-Yugoslavia broke out. One of my first longer trips went to the USSR in 1988, in 1991 I visited Estonia, and the Czech Republic in 1993 and 1995.

I was very fascinated with Eastern Europe – the dynamics of transition, I guess. I was too curious to let it pass only on TV, and in 1996 I took part in a Danish initiative supporting Bosnian refugees, volunteered in Bosnia in 1997, and later in Croatia in 1998. When my country Denmark, as part of NATO, bombed Serbia in 1999 I was against it.

So, what do you do?

Serbs were branded the villains of Europe – but just because your country is run by a dictator it doesn’t mean citizens agree to it. For sure, bombing seldom has worked in regards of enforcing democracy. I joined a group of Danes, and we established the Next Stop Serbia Campaign where the basic idea was to bring as many Danes and Serbs together as possible – across interests and geographical borders. We wanted to support citizens of Serbia, and to create the opportunity for Danes to go and look for themselves, then make up their minds.

I was offered the opportunity to establish the Next Stop Serbia campaign in Belgrade. I took off, started out from scratch, meeting NGOs, artists and alternative universities – speaking of the idea of breaking down stereotypes. Just me, no fancy presentations or social media, but with direct access to the heart of a vibrant resistance movement (Otpor) and civil society.

During August 2000 some of Serbia’s best, young musicians joined the resistance movement touring the most remote areas of Serbia. The campaign was called ‘Vreme Je!’, meaning ‘It’s Time!’ –and was a direct message to the dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. I had the pleasure of joining the tour in Nis.

The response from the Serbs was overwhelming. And it did something to me. Here, I was talking about a rather idealistic idea to people who suffered sanctions, and were fighting a dictator from the inside while NATO had just recently bombed them. Still today when I think back, I cannot believe how massive the whole thing was. I had evidently brought my own personal stereotypes, and had for example never expected that I would make strong personal relations. But I did.

Serbs are outstanding networkers by nature, and as an outsider I had to get to know people on personal levels in order to make it all work. Not just in terms of what you do when you need to exchange 5,000 USD in cash into local currency in the black market, but also how to get an interesting private life in a new setting. I realised that you don’t always have to have a purpose, but ‘being together’ may just be what it is. In particular, I learnt how important it is to let go of my own preconceptions and my Danish righteousness. I learnt to shut my mouth (more frequently), to wait and see that there are other ways to do things, and that I don’t always have to understand every detail of another culture. I learnt to use different aspects of my personality when dealing with challenges. I realised I had competences I wasn’t aware of, i.e., I thrive on transition and plan Bs.

2) What is creative activism, or activism in the creative way? What does it really mean to you personally?

The picture is from Kilimanjaro. I have passed this sign so many times, and have always taken it as a personal message: ‘The road is yours – just go!’

In my opinion creative activism firstly has to have space for experimenting and failures. I personally like when you cross borders, either by civil disobedience, surprising actions or by using an unexpected, new method.

But it is also about having influence as an individual and to work with short distance from idea to impact. Good activism has to make sense to individuals involved, and it must give people something in return which motivates to continue.

The South African musician, Thandiswa, who performed at the Sauti za Busara in Zanzibar in 2010. Obviously one cannot talk activism in Africa without referring to the South African anti-apartheid struggle, and how artists played a role in creating a strong cultural identity.

Imagine what Tanzania would look like if the Dar es Salaam-based decision-makers, donors and opinion leaders actually spend more time among the majority of Tanzanians in the rural areas? Photo from Kalinzi in Kigoma Kaskazini.

Serbia back in 2000 had a heavily compelling ambiance that anything could and would happen but not knowing when exactly. All talking about revolution and doing something actively. I have subsequently lived for 5 years in East Africa, amongst others working with civil society actors, and when I compare my experience from ex-Yugoslavia with Tanzania I can’t help noting that in i.e. Tanzania many people love to talk about future change, but at the same time also indulge in what and who once was instead of focusing on what can be done now and here, by themselves.
Also, creative activism has a real hard time in a ‘posho-driven’ culture, partly supported by international donors, where you can’t gather people for a meeting if it lasts longer than three hours – because you then need to budget for food, drinks and transport. I find it really challenging how international donors institutionalize their concept of change when they support civil society in East Africa, and how the situation on the ground often is out of balance with the thinking in the headquarters.

We should never forget that we ourselves actually can make change in our daily lives by

Picture from Kigoma Kaskazini.

starting with small things instead of waiting for leaders or donors to organise it. Some people do get around to act in new ways and with passion – here’s some of my favorites:

Take the recent Walk to Work protests in Uganda, which was covered by the Ugandan photographer Edward Echwalu, whom I believe to be practicing extraordinarily courageous, creative activism in his photography.

The French photographer JR’s work is another interesting way of involving communities and making people look at known, daily challenges from a new, surprising angle.

The Icelandic are phenomenal in regard creative solutions in general – look at how they crowd sourced their new constitution.

Or it could be a simple thing like the Tanzanian MP, Zitto Kabwe, who has started collecting receipts when he says no to sitting allowances, publishing them on his blog.

I am deeply fascinated by people who think in possibilities instead of limitations.

Basically, it could also be what the late Danish author Jakob Ejersbo did when he wrote three outstanding novels about Tanzania (soon to be translated into English). As the novels became bestsellers in Denmark (2009-2010), people who’d never before thought of Tanzania, now take an interest.

3) A lot of citizen-led initiatives today rely on crowdsourcing, Ushahidi being an example we in East Africa know very well. What do you think about the possibility of crowdsourcing photography, and perhaps using it for different areas such as the news, documentaries, case studies, etc?

I have followed how crowd sourcing and photography i.e. has been used by museums and cultural projects trying to involve the population in Europe. And, yes, it has great potential in general, especially where visuals play a strong role in communication and community.

It could be used to document and debate many topics as it would allow many people to share and add. It would give an opportunity to learn. I personally would love to see an activity motivating people to share much more and exchange – especially in such a diverse country as Tanzania.

I have a huge collection of kangas. This is my favorite: ‘Say it all!’

Actually, the media does already ‘crowd source’ pictures, i.e., look at how the Zanzibar boat accident was covered by both newspapers and social media – with wrong images. Thus, using crowdsourcing seriously – for whatever purpose – one has so make sure information is verified and that copyright is respected. It is a huge challenge in Tanzania already when looking at media in general.

4) You have stated that: “Tanzania is the place I’ve felt the most at home in Africa. However, also a place where I’ve understood that Africa changed me much more than I’m ever going to change in Africa.” Can you tell us a bit more about what you mean?

I came straight to Dar es Salaam after 26 months of working with Sudanese refugees.

Coming to Africa should be about what you gain.

I came straight to Dar es Salaam after 26 months of driving along and across the Ugandan border to South Sudan working with Sudanese refugees. Hence, Dar es Salaam provided a solid base. However, to me it goes way beyond that – it is about people, time, perseverance and understanding. It is about going beyond the clichés.

Many NGOs promise jobs where you will be able to ‘make change’. I once applied on one of these adverts and found myself in northern Uganda six months later where I eventually had to admit that I’d been a waste of space had the Sudanese refugees in return not offered me patience to learn. I learnt that Africa was never made to flex for me. Africa, per definition, is bound to make a bigger impact than any individual ever will.

I keep meeting expats to whom Tanzania is only a period in their lives, people who could have been anywhere else. Some romanticize

Over the years I have had the pleasure of taking photos of very different people. Some of my Tanzanian favorites are Zitto Kabwe, MP for Kigoma Kaskazini (above), the musician Malfred (below), and the fashion designer, Kemi Kalikawe’s design (below). All photos improvised on the spot.

their relationship with the country and the continent, and some take the other direction and start complaining about everything. I have listened to European business men who

argue that Africa isn’t creative enough, development workers complaining that they gave up a good life in Europe, and young volunteers who think that standards are not high enough. Many forget how little they know of a country which is made up by contrasts, and which often may not be measured according to European logic.

I believe you waste your time if you believe that coming to Africa is about giving up things in Europe, instead you should focus on what you gain. I’m a very rational person, and I can’t say I’ve reached a status of unconditional love when it comes to my relationship with Tanzania. Tanzania does on occasion come on as a very generous lover – persuasive, and full of hakuna matata promises. But – when the fun part is over – and you begin to think you finally know what it’s all about, you have to be very real about your limitations, qualifications and what you want to gain.

This is far from easy, but I’ve managed to connect across a variety of very different Tanzanians, and I’m very fortunate to know and work with inspiring personalities who make it possible for me to do what I love to do. Thus, Tanzania is the place where I have realised that I’ve got potentials I could never unfold in Denmark – i.e. in terms in expressing myself in photography, writing and social media. In bad or good – Tanzania inspires and motivates me more than any other place I’ve ever lived.

Malfred

Upendo posing to Kemi Kalikawe's designs

5) We are sure you have been involved in some heated discussions, but that did not stop you from blogging and expressing your views. What is your advice to young and aspiring bloggers out there, especially in Tanzania?

OK, some very concrete, basic advice:

Just because you can open a blog, a Twitter profile and a Facebook profile it doesn’t mean you have to. Just because everybody else is active on social media it doesn’t mean you should. Just because it is technically easy, the hardest part is still to produce good content.

Think about what you have to say to the world.

Think about what you have to say to the world and what you want to get in return. Social media is like real life: In order to run meaningful conversations with interesting people on social media, you must CONTRIBUTE.

Pick QUALITY over quantity – there is little idea in many followers if they don’t engage in what you are on about.

Be HONEST – don’t pretend to be something you are not. Don’t say things you wouldn’t be able to say to people in person.

EXPRESS yourself clearly, run your text through the spelling control! If in doubt about the topic you write about and the reactions it may cause, seek advice. In general - make up your own OPINION, but if in doubt about publishing it online, have it challenged by a friend.

Be ORIGINAL– produce your own stuff and make up YOUR style– do what you are best at, and do it well. Don’t imitate, and don’t copy/paste other people’s material!

Take notes from REAL LIFE. It is easy to re-post material already on-line, harder and more interesting to produce stuff from scratch.

Do use other people’s materials if you can add a new perspective to it. Just remember to CREDIT correctly: if you use another person’s photo or text you should link back to where you grabbed it and add a caption recognizing his/her copyright. It is unethical not to credit, and it diminishes your blogging and your online authority.

EXPERIMENT– and know that when mistakes happen, and they will, admit and correct it, and move on.

EXPRESS yourself clearly, run your text through the spelling control! If in doubt about the topic you write about and the reactions it may cause, seek advice. In general – make up your own OPINION, but if in doubt about publishing it online, have it challenged by a friend.

Vijana FM thanks Pernille for sharing her insightful views and her photographs here; we look forward to seeing more of your photographs! A big thanks also goes to our editor, SN, for contributing to these questions.

AK does work in civil society, web development and audio production. He currently resides in Dar-es-Salaam.