Written by: Debrani Das
Kolkata, India: There is something extraordinary about coffins that look far too livelier than the very purpose they are is made for.
Swiss art historian turned photographer – Regula Tschumi initially started capturing images of Ghana’s standalone tradition of charting dead bodies for her Ph.D. fieldwork, but later those images went on to get featured in art exhibitions.
Just recently, she won the Italian Street Photography Festival in Rome 2020 and lately is a third-prize holder of the Miami Street Photography Festival, 2019.
Based in Berne, Regula Tschumi has a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology and she works as a cultural mediator and photographer in the field of arts.
Regula says she developed her passion for photography during her research in Ghana where she used to document her fieldwork from 2005 until 2013.
But her penchant for street photography came later, which, she says, has nothing to do with her profession.
Since 2006, Regula has kept photographing the funeral rituals in Ghana – a subject good enough to fetch her critical recognition.
Her images have been shown in many museum exhibitions in Europe and in the US, and they were published in numerous books, international magazines, and newspapers.
Since 2018, she also got some recognition for her street photography as well.
She had images featured in group shows like Street Sans Frontières, Womeninstreet, and Double Trouble, to mention only a few.
Ghana’s Fantasy coffins
In Ghana’s Greater Accra region fantasy coffins, also called figurative coffins, are a thing.
These are painstakingly crafted coffins that look more like a rich kid’s toy; big, gaudy, and often colorful, and the upper portion is glamourous.
In short, they look like anything but a coffin.
Much like the Egyptians with their pyramids (and many other cultures), faith in the afterlife prompts the Ghanaians to craft these creative art pieces — generations after generation — that go in the burial.
The ‘Ga people’ is an ethnic group in the Greater Accra region who believe in the afterlife and for them, death is not the end, but a new beginning for the deceased.
The fantasy coffins ideally reflect the job of the deceased, which can look like anything from a ship to a sewing machine, and even a bulldozer.
There are class-based reservations for the artful burials and people with significant social standing are only allowed to be buried in these proverbial coffins.
Here’s the textual interview with WeTheWorld Magazine, as Tschumi talks about her days in Ghana back in 2005, where she was photographing the amazing Ghanian funerals.
Many Congratulations Regula for your achievements. Your work on Ghana is now all over social media. This is a very obvious question I am going to ask you, why Ghana? Documenting funeral rituals is not a very common sight in photography. What makes you document that?
Regula: I first traveled to Ghana for three months in 2002 because I wanted to know more about the figurative coffins of the Ga people.
At that year I was a student at the university in Berne and I intended to write my thesis in social anthropology about the Ghanaian coffin art.
For this, I needed to understand how these coffins were created and how they were used at funerals. But when I was in Ghana I soon realized that I would not be able to resolve my many questions in only three months.
So I wrote my theses but returned to Ghana already in 2004 to continue my research. At that time I also needed better photos from funerals because I got an opportunity to publish my thesis in 2006 in the form of a text and photo book.
Later, between 2007 and 2013, I spent again many months doing field research in Ghana, this time as part of my dissertation which was still dealing with these figurative coffins.
In those years I had also several exhibition projects with Ghanaian artists. I finally ended up getting stuck in Ghana again and again, even after finishing my dissertation in 2013.
This is fantastic. Very unique project I must say. Seems like your profession plays a big role in your photography journey. Is not it?
Regula: My work as a social anthropologist has of course played an important role in my photographic development because I have started photography during my anthropological fieldwork.
But later I did some photo workshops to improve my photographic skills. I learned more about different genres and approaches, and about street photography. So my street photography is surely less influenced by my profession.
I am keen to know, how difficult it is being a woman photographer to document life and rituals especially funeral rituals in Ghana?
Regula: In Ghana photography is a male domain, I have never seen women shooting an event. Of course, I stand out there, not only because I am a woman holding a camera, but also because I am white.
I can’t hide when I photograph, everybody sees me. But when I photograph funerals, nobody disturbs me, people are only surprised. But photographing funerals can be a tough job.
Ghanaian cameramen are not only used to the hot climate, but they are also stronger than women like me. Every funeral is different, I never know what to expect. Only when I go to a chief or priest’s funeral, I know that the event will be several days long and pretty wild.
In their funerals animals are sacrificed, men shoot with their guns in the air, people get possessed, and on the way to the cemetery, huge crowds of people push you from all sides. Alcohol is also involved, which can degenerate into violent arguments.
When taking photos on such occasions, I must keep an eye on all this, so as not to get in anyone’s way. But even ordinary funerals are sometimes quite exhausting for me, especially when I am exposed to the sun for many hours. Still, I keep going to funerals whenever somebody invites me and I expect an interesting event.
Sometimes funerals take place in remote villages, far away from Accra, in another Region. Then I try to take the opportunity to travel there.
That is often an adventure, but it gives me a chance to discover not only a new area or a new village, but I also learn how certain families and ethnic groups perform their funeral rites differently from what I had seen in other places.
Such an inspiring story. Is there any particular incident that left a mark on your mind and heart? We would be happy to know that.
Regula: There was indeed someone in Ghana who changed my life profoundly. In December 2002 I met by chance Ataa Oko, an 83-year-old retired coffin maker. He told me about his figurative coffins that he had made already around 1945.
At first, I didn’t believe him, because at that time in the Western Art World it was assumed that these amazing figurative coffins had been invented by the artist Kane Kwei from Teshie around 1960.
But back in Switzerland, I had more and more doubts about that story of Kane Kwei’s invention, and I reproached myself for not having taken Ataa Oko more seriously.
So I returned in 2004 to Ghana, because I wanted to find out more about Ataa Oko and his early coffins. What I then learned from this man was so interesting that until Oko died in 2012 I dealt intensively with him, with the history of his and other people’s coffins, and during my dissertation, I made a research about their previous history.
During all these years of research, Ataa Oko kept being my most important source and inspiration. He had helped me to get in contact with some traditional Ga priests and priestesses who helped me tremendously in my work. And to better understand the stories Ataa Oko was telling me, I let him draw them on paper.
That was another adventure because the carpenter turned in only a few years in an excellent visual artist.
Today he is recognized as the pioneer of Ghanaian coffin art, and his drawings are shown in some major art museums.
I am glad that you have shared this story with us. Great to know about master Ataa Oko. Regula, what does photography mean to you, and who/what inspires you the most as a photographer?
Regula: Photography is an expression of art, and art has always played an important role in my life, that is why I also studied art history.
I also used to draw a lot and since my childhood, I had always seen paintings hanging in my family house. As in painting, also in photography, I’m not only interested in the beauty of a work, but also in the content.
I also look at the composition, the light and the colors, all this is important for me in painting and photography. I love most to photograph when I see people in motion, or when I am drawn to special light or color.
There are of course many photographers who interest me for different reasons, depending on the type of photography and the subject matter they are dealing with.
When it comes to photographing religious rituals I like some of Christina Garcìa Rodero’s images a lot, or the African photographers Santu Mofokeng and Fabrice Monteiro, to mention only a few. They are all big sources of inspiration for me.
Is there any message you want to portray to the world through your works?
Regula: I photograph everything that is visually interesting for me, very often without knowing why I am taking the images and what kind of message I might be giving with them. However, it is very important for me to show respect to all the people I photograph and to always photograph everything with good intentions.
Some images may also become important documents over time, but at the moment I make them I am not yet aware. For example, the festivals and rituals that I photographed in Ghana keep changing every year, and now my big photo archive helps me to recognize these changes.
What is your take on Social Media? is this helping photographers to reach more viewers?
Regula: Participation in social media is almost a must these days. I’m not very active there, but I post regularly on Instagram. It’s hard for me to judge whether I’m “better known” because of Instagram and FB.
I think I don’t have many followers and I don’t care much about it. Instagram is a kind of portfolio where someone can quickly get an overview of my photography.
I believe that working continuously on a personal project and looking at quality photo books is a better strategy than wasting too much time on social media.
As the environment is a very crucial subject these days, are your photographs related to environmental issues in any manner?
Regula: We are struggling with environmental pollution all over the world. Air, water, and soil pollution is also a major problem in the places I go to.
Accra’s electronic waste dump Agbogbloshie alone is sadly famous because it is one of the most polluted places in the world. Photojournalists, but also tourists go regularly there to take photos.
But I don’t see any point in photographing such terrible garbage dumps unless somebody works as a photojournalist with a certain mission.
I feel me photographing such places wouldn’t help the people there, I believe that such images are not resolving any problems. I also believe that if I wanted to deal with this issue, I should first point the finger at my own country.
I am glad that you have unfolded so many untold stories about your work with us. Last but not the least, few words to the aspiring women photographers from your side
Regula: I think it’s important to have a vision and understand why we want to photograph. Then we can consistently pursue our goal, work on a topic and develop something of our own. I find long-term projects more useful than repeatedly changing subjects and locations. And it is certainly also important that we take photos for ourselves and not for the social media.
You have shown ‘Ghana’ in your own unique style of photography. I wish you all the luck for your future endeavour Regula. This is great knowing you as a person.
Did you know about this type of tradition of burial existed in Ghana? What do you think about it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
We The World Magazine obtained permission to feature the images. This story has been updated on Sat, Jul 3, 2021; 10:35 PM (IST)