Atong Atem’s debut photobook is a homage to family photos

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In Surat, Atong Atem restages her family album, celebrating the visual language of family photographs, and photography as an extension of our traditions

“I came to photography through an interest in ethnography and ethnographic photography,” says Atong Atem. “I couldn’t see the camera as anything other than a weapon. Then eventually, tracking the history of photography, I came across African photography and specifically African studio photography. These photographers saw something that had been used against them, to redefine and dehumanise them, and decided ‘I’m gonna take this’. To me, that didn’t feel very different to guerrilla soldiers taking literal weapons. Political power has always been at the centre of my interest in photography.”

It’s an unusual take on photography, but then Atem has an unusual relationship with the medium. She was born in Ethiopia in 1991 after her parents, who were part of the South Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, were forced to flee their home country. Just a few weeks after Atem was born, civil war broke out and the family had to move on again. They walked to Kenya on foot and once there, the family of five had to live in a refugee camp. In 1997, they emigrated to Australia. This dramatic story is not conveyed in the Atem family photographs, however, which were kept by Atem’s mother, Abul Malual, and some of which are reproduced in her first book, Surat, co-published by Photo Australia and Perimeter Editions. 

Like many family photographs, the images instead present a happy version of domestic events, but unusually for a Western eye, they often show the family members posing without smiling. “Photography was always documentation for us and if I’m just standing I’m not smiling,” says Atem. “But I found that really interesting because, when we moved to Australia, the norm was to smile in a photograph.”

© Atong Atem.

She says it’s a cultural difference, specific to South Sudanese people but also to others who have experienced mass migration. As with many in the diaspora, the Atem family album included plenty of shots sent by relatives who had been forced to settle elsewhere; often both they and the immediate family didn’t have their own cameras, but took the images to send on to others elsewhere. “It wasn’t something frivolous, these images would have a very different function,” Atem explains. “And you’d often have to go to someone with a camera or to a studio to get your photograph taken. A lot of the photographs were done at a special moment, when you’ve got a nice outfit and there’s an air of seriousness.”

Now Atem has used these photographs as the basis for her own work, dressing up as family members and restaging images, or setting up similar shots with characters she’s invented. The images are convincing but also clearly constructed, with Atem playing both characters – male and female – in shots of couples, and including a shot of herself apparently levitating. She also makes the contingent nature of her props obvious, including cello-taped joins on some of her backdrops and separate close-up images of many of the fabrics she’s shown wearing. Family albums are constructions, her work suggests, as much as any other photographic narratives. 

© Atong Atem.
© Atong Atem.

And that’s relevant in another way too, because Atem’s relationship with photography is also influenced by her father, Atem Yaak Atem. A journalist in the 1970s and 80s, he worked for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement then later became Minister of Information for the South Sudanese government; his career included shooting images which directly contributed to the campaign for independence. 

Well aware of his importance to her own work, Atem asked him to contribute a text to Surat and, writing about “the strength of images as a form of communication”, he titled his essay Photographs as records that don’t lie. “There’s always been that interesting dynamic for me, about showing the truth through photography, but questioning whose truth that is,” comments Atem. “I’m interested in this idea of the camera as a medium of truth, because it’s so malleable.”

Surat by Atong Atem is a co-publication by Photo Australia and Perimeter Editions.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy