PICTORIAL STORY

October 21, 2022

INTO AFRICA

A PICTORIAL PURSUIT OF PERSONAL AND GLOBAL CONSCIOUSNESS

Photography by Jelisa Peterson
Words by Jelisa Peterson and Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico

One might wonder how a twenty-something woman born in Ogden, Utah, would find her way to the African continent. Jelisa’s journey began in high school when she dreamt about doing volunteer work in Africa. Jelisa’s work began to take on a more concrete form when as a junior in college studying Anthropology and Women’ Studies, she began looking for opportunities to work with women and children in places she’d seen in National Geographic and heard about from her grandmother who had spent time traveling in Tanzania and Kenya. Upon graduating university in 1993, Jelisa found an opportunity to work as a volunteer intern in Harare, Zimbabwe. Her new job took her all over the country, to villages, small towns, as well as larger cities as Information Officer for the largest indigenous women’s organization in Zimbabwe, Jekesa Pfungwa (which translated from the Shona means “open your mind”). This idea became crucial to her life and work. During her first month, Jelisa began working in a small village in central Zimbabwe. Her responsibility was to write grant proposals in support of famine relief for a severely drought ridden area. As she wrote in her journal on the first evening in the village, she found that she was struggling to find the right words to describe the vivid scenes she had witnessed. While thinking about this, Jelisa realized that making photos would not only be better to show people at home but it could give her a better way to describe the dire circumstances of the people with whom she was tasked with helping. She’d held a camera in her hands since childhood, but it was creating portraits of women and children for Jekesa Pfungwa where she started to build her visual storytelling skills. Her respect and love for her new communities gave her this inspiration.

“While photographing Zimbabweans' daily life for grant proposals, my passion for photography intensified dramatically. It was through capturing the beauty of the women of Zimbabwe, I began to see photography as a way to connect and communicate with people. When I returned home to attend my sister’s wedding after nine months there, so many of my friends and family were taken back with my images. I remember being surprised but soon after very inspired by their appreciation. I began to dream about ideas for my life which previously wouldn’t wouldn’t have occurred to me. I was excited to return to Zimbabwe to concentrate more on my work. Portraits of people weren’t going to be just for Jekesa Pfungwa but a way for me to work to open many more minds about Africans. I became devoted to my new dream.”

2023 will mark 30 years of making documentary photographs in African countries and elsewhere, primarily in a developing country context. It has become Jelisa’s lifelong passion. Most important to her is providing a visual language to inform and nurture different ideas than what is the western media. By sharing more positive, sensitive and faithful images as widely as possible to counter such discriminatory and racist ideas, she works to dispel long held myths and untruths. Jelisa’s first photography exhibition was a solo one in 1994 at her alma mater, the University of Utah. The response was so positive that she was determined to return to Africa to continue making images to document her experiences and connections with African people. The title of her most recent solo exhibition this past month at A. Smith Gallery speaks proudly and definitively of the many people she has connected with over the years, LIGHT OUT OF AFRICA. "I am filled with pride to know I had the tenacity and determination to never give up on my dreams," says Jelisa.

Jelisa's path of exploration through Eastern and Southern Africa would develop organically over time. In 1996, Jelisa backpacked solo across the African continent. Beginning in Egypt, she traveled by bus, minibus, lorry, ferry, tuk tuks and in the backs of large trucks in the company of chickens. She traveled like this through Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe staying for two years, Swaziland, Lesotho and lastly to Mozambique for four years. In doing so, Jelisa embraced and lived the travel dreams of her grandfather — her first mentor in photography — thereby making both their dreams come true.

Throughout her career as a photographer, Jelisa has traveled the world, adding Rwanda, Namibia, and South Africa for five years in Africa as well as Argentina for two years, Bolivia, Brazil, Belize, Guatemala and Mexico in the Americas with aims of gaining and spreading cultural understanding and appreciation. For almost three decades, Jelisa has focused her work on the people, especially children, the cultures and environments she has witnessed and experienced while living in and visiting these communities while absorbing more of their cultures. Learning from the people she has grown to love and trust, Jelisa is a master at creating images by uniting her viewers with her photographic 'subjects' resulting in resonant images that are true examples of love and inspiration. Jelisa shares her mission with us in her own words:

“So many of the images of Africans we see in first world settings are based on negative stereotypes of people devastated by poverty, disease and war; showing people who come from a place that is dangerous and insecure. This results in a very distorted vision of an entire continent of people with diverse lives and circumstances. I believe that these characterizations tend to limit our understanding of the very humanity of African people. With my work from Mozambique, I want to resist these one dimensional characterizations to express what I see and have experienced over the years. It is the Mozambicans themselves who are my inspiration to create photography to be shared as widely as I am able. There is nothing more motivating to me than starting my day before the sun rises to walk, to meet and talk with people, interacting with them in their natural environments carrying out their daily activities. What is always remarkable to me as the day passes is not the invalidating distortions of actual lives but the curiosity, beauty and easy generosity of the people. My desire as an artist is to challenge the viewer to be more conscious of what they see and conclude when they consume images of Africans, like Mozambicans. My images advance a more positive and sensitive vision of people who are worthy of more insightful representation.” She is grateful to them for giving her so much love and purpose in life.

We would like to give Jelisa a shout-out for her achievements in the field of photography this year. Jelisa has exhibited in close to 40 exhibitions in 2022. It was a great honor for her to be invited to exhibit at A Smith Gallery, in Johnson City, Texas. There her images of Mozambican life were included in the ‘Lights Out of Africa’ exhibition. In October Jelisa will be presenting one of her images at Jadite Gallery, in Manhattan as part of the “Your Best Shot 10th Anniversary” call for entry, jurored by Elizabeth Avedon. Jelisa has also received the honors of first place at The Cultural Center of Cape Cod, and the Marin Society of Artists. Also Jelisa's images will be part of the exhibitions “Photo Rodeo” at Si Gallery in Austin, Texas until 20th November, 2022; “Parallax” at Gormley Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland until 18th November 2022; 2nd Place Award at the 8th International Juried Phone-ography Competition at the Foto Foto Gallery in New York until November 12th, 2022; “Focus: A Biennial Celebration of Photography” At Delaplaine Arts Center in Frederick, Maryland, November 5th to 27th, 2022; and upcoming in 2023, a solo exhibition at the Firehouse Gallery in Del Rio, Texas, April 5th-30th. And also the recent purchase of Jelisa’s awarded photograph, from the Alexandria Museum of Art in Louisiana for their permanent collection. This is awarded after the exhibition by museum staff and the collections committee.

Congratulations Jelisa! Well done!

Jelisa's photography has been featured in galleries all over the United States, and her images have been published in magazines and journals. Now Jelisa is a published member of The Pictorial List, Welcome Jelisa! We take this time to thank you for your dedication to the communities you embrace and for sharing your intimate and inspirational journey with us.

For more inspiration and exhibition information please visit Jelisa's portfolio page with links to her website and instagram.

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The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.

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