The Faces of the Kotokuraba: Exploring Portrait Photography & Visual Anthropology in Cape Coast, Ghana

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient Arianna King hosted New Orleans-based visual anthropologist and photographer, Aubrey Edwards for a month-long apprenticeship in Cape Coast, Ghana to help produce a collaborative portrait project called, Faces of the Kotokuraba. Arianna is PhD candidate in Urban Studies in the interdisciplinary City, Culture, and Community Doctoral Program and holds a graduate certificate in Community-Engaged Scholarship through Tulane’s Mellon Graduate Program in Community-Engaged Scholarship.

With a folded paper sign tucked beneath my arm, I swung my legs from the cramped rear seat of a bright red taxi and begged the driver to wait there while I quickly grabbed my guest. A warm harmattan breeze blew over me as my smile grew wide and chills of excitement rolled down my spine. It was a rare gift to be able to host people during my extended stays in Ghana. I was overjoyed to be meeting a beloved mentor to embark on a journey of collaborative learning and discovery that would undoubtedly improve my skills as a researcher and storyteller.

I had arrived in Ghana almost a year earlier (Summer 2019) thanks to generous support from a Fulbright Grant to complete ethnographic research for my dissertation “Beyond the Market Walls: An Ethnography of Market Modernization in Cape Coast, Ghana”, which considers the human impact of the recent redevelopment of the Kotokuraba Market, an historic public market in the center of Cape Coast. This, however, was not my first visit to Ghana. I had visited the West African nation consistently since 2009 when initially I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer not 20 miles from what was now my home. While I had grown tremendously in my language skills, in my cultural understandings, and research in the 10 years since I’d first step foot in Ghana, my experiences taught me that there was no shame in asking for guidance when guidance was needed. Despite months of fruitful ethnographic research under my belt, I had finally reached a point where I knew training from a skilled visual anthropologist and photographer would bolster my ability to give back to the friends and collaborators involved in my dissertation research. Photographs carry enormous weight in Ghanaian culture and as a result the opportunity to apprentice with a master photographer and co-produce a portrait series had the added benefit of not only expanding my visual storytelling toolkit but also allowing me to offer many of my trusted interlocutors a prized token of our time together, a collection of photographs. For this reason, I sought support from a Changemaker Catalyst Award to host Aubrey Edwards—New Orleans-based photographer, visual anthropologist, and storyteller—to show me first-hand how to better capture and represent the people and spaces of the Kotokuraba Market.

Having spent the better part of a year devoting my full attention to building an understanding of the socio-spatial character of the market, it was an invigorating experience when Aubrey arrived. With only three weeks to complete our apprenticeship, our plan and pace was ambitious. I began by orienting Aubrey to the market, sharing the history of its redevelopment, and reviewing some of the photos I had taken over the years past of the old market, so she could get a sense of the underlying feelings of displacement and disruption that haunted the new space. It was a joyful and affirming experience to introduce Aubrey to the many interlocutors with whom I had spent countless hours sitting, waiting, and watching market life pass. With each introduction—in the months before the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic arrived—hugs and handshakes ensued. These interactions forced me to better articulate to my research community my core aspirations for my dissertation project and also inspired a new levels of dialogue about the destruction, development, and memorialization of shared urban spaces. Together, Aubrey and I heard stories about everyday struggles in the market and heard comparative perspectives about why life and work in the old market seemed better. While the new market was loathed by many, the opportunity to take stunning portraits of people in their places of work had the added benefit of cultivating a renewed pride of place allowing vendors to see their own beauty and resiliency through our eyes.

Behind the scenes
Arianna (left) and Aubrey (right) work with a shoe vendor to set up a portrait of him in his outdoor shoe stall.

For three weeks Aubrey and I gathered our equipment: notebooks, pens, cameras, portable lights, water bottles, snacks, and powerpacks each morning and walked to the market to spend the day with our favorite vendors. When the moment was right, Aubrey would leap into action, showing me the inner workings of her trade, carefully describing the specifics of things like: how to control lighting, how to pick the best background, and of course, the invaluable social skills of making subjects feel comfortable and relaxed throughout the process.

By the end of Aubrey’s stay, we co-produced and edited a collection of 26 portraits of vendors in the Kotokuraba Market. We printed, framed, and returned these portraits to vendors. We were overwhelmed by their reactions as we returned their printed and framed portraits. It was immediately clear that the photos provided vendors with the opportunity to see themselves through our eyes—as strong, grounded, powerful, and especially resilient in the wake of the market’s chaotic redevelopment that left so many feeling dislocated, disenfranchised, and unseen.

Framed Portraits
Getting some of the framed portraits ready to deliver to vendors.

I am now in the next phase of this project, using these portraits to create a poster series called Faces of the Kotokuraba: Urban Change & Resilience, which I hope to publish, display, and distribute among vendors to memorialize their current placemaking efforts and remind them of the strength and resilience of the market community. Without support from the Changemaker Catalyst Award, I would have never had the opportunity to produce these photos and these posters with Ms. Edwards. The photos and the experience as a whole, in the wake of my sudden evacuation from Ghana due to the COVID-19 crisis shortly after this project, now serve not only as a memorial to the Kotokuraba Market’s transformation, but also to the value of seeking mentorship and expanding one’s storytelling toolkit.

Faces of the Kotokuraba Poster Draft
A first draft of the Faces of the Kotokuraba Poster series now underway.