Ohemaa Dixon presents a layered critique of travel photography

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“If we continue on this path of not being aware, this kind of numbness, there’s not much hope left for society”

In Bahasa, the national language of the Republic of Indonesia, Tanpa Izin translates to “without permission”. It is also the name of Ohemaa Dixon’s first photobook: a critical response to the genre of travel photography. At first, the premise seems simple: Dixon photographed the island of Bali, Indonesia, from the back of a motorbike, capturing everyday moments, which she observed; often close-up or blurred. However, on closer inspection, the book goes much deeper. It is a challenging and layered response to the problematic nature of photographing the “other” in the context of travel photography, in Bali, and beyond it.

Taken from unconventional angles and of subjects, which often verge on the abstract, aesthetically, the publication defies conventional travel photography with its gorgeous light, spectacular vistas, and seductive details. Instead, it depicts Dixon’s views of Bali as she traversed it on the back of a motorbike; a subjective window onto the beauty of a place, which western imagery typically presents as idyllic — a far-flung paradise of blue skies, endless beaches, and soaring palms. Of course, Bali is beautiful, but it is also so much more, and Tanpa Izin acknowledges this, thereby critiquing traditional travel photography and its arrogant claim on depicting it all.

© Ohemaa Dixon.
© Ohemaa Dixon.

Where travel photography is bright and bold, Dixon’s images are quiet. She absorbs her surroundings and does not profess to understand everything about them. A blurred landscape hurtling past; small rock formations peeping upwards; the thick pony-tail of a motorbike driver in front. Tanpa Izin is a collection of snapshots; of small moments from a certain point in time. “Sometimes there is an arrogance in thinking, ‘I can approach this physically; go into these communities and completely understand’,” says Dixon. “I wanted to assume my position as a passerby. Their communities already exist; I wanted to leave that alone and work on forming this critique, which I can present on a larger scale.” 

The book itself is quiet. People are not present at its start; they appear, slowly, amid the later pages. The foreword, written by Britt Belo is lyrical and accompanied by short annotations, which occasionally punctuate the work; “specific moments to stop and think,” as Dixon describes it. There is no loud title and Dixon’s name does not appear in bold until the end: “It’s not a huge art book that you put on your table, it’s quiet; it’s a meditation, which I hope incites people to stop and reflect,” she says. 

© Ohemaa Dixon.

Belo’s foreword teases out another element of the publication. Despite its abstract prose, it hones in on the idea of invisibility as an emblem of freedom, and one that resonates with Dixon’s own experience. “As a Black woman who travels, when I think about visibility it’s through a very different lens because I am so highly visible,” says Dixon, “I’ve never really had that privilege of being invisible until I was on the back of that motorbike. And the quietness of the experience for me, was enjoyable too because it’s something I don’t get unless I am home.” Belo’s foreword should invite us to reflect on the work that follows in relation to this theme: what it means to be seen, and unseen, photographed or not, as Belo enquires: “How would things shift if we were completely invisible?” 

Dixon acknowledges that when she says “without permission” she is also speaking to the permission she took photographing Bali. Permission, which she was not given at all. But, she never envisioned the book as an answer, instead, she hopes it provokes conversations about the significance of the phrase in travel photography and outside of it. “Critique is a central part of being an active, empathetic citizen,” she says. “If we continue on this path of not being aware, this kind of numbness, there’s not much hope left for society. We are asleep. I’d like to be part of the dialogue, which wakes us.”

Tanpa Izin is published by Catastrophe Media. 

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.