Interview with Devin Tepleski on short film “Mango Driftwood”

Written by Inna Yasinska December 10, 2011

Photographer and Documentary Short Film Artist, Devin Tepleski, brings us a documentary called “Mango Driftwood” about a community in Bui, Ghana, that will be affected by the construction of a Hydro Electric Dam. 2500 Homes will be lost for this project and the community will be relocated and displaced from important resources such as the river, their memories and sense of “home”, and the landscape which provided them with physical, emotional, and spiritual security. I had a chance to interview Mr. Tepleski via e-mail and asked him questions about his goals in releasing the film and his experience in Bui, Ghana. Check out the Documentary and Interview below:

“Mango Driftwood” by Devin Tepleski

1.Where did you first hear about this situation in Bui, Ghana? What inspired you to make a documentary about this community and the outcome these people face?

I first heard of the situation in Bui through my university. The
chair of my department, Dr. Ann Stahl, had been working in Bui and the
Banda region for about thirty years. She was asked by the Bui people
to help raise awareness as well as document this tumultuous time for
their own historical purposes. I was in a lot of visual anthropology
and anthropology of art classes at the time, as well as being quite
active with my photography. One of my professors who had seen some of
my work through those classes introduced me to the chair. The next
thing I knew I was on a plane to Accra.

2. You have documented the effects a hydraulic dam has on the people who live in the village Bui through two different mediums: photography and film making. How does each medium differ in capturing your subject and making your artistic statement?

They are different mediums and I was using them for very
different reasons. The photographs came out of a need for more funds
in the community — funds we are using to develop new cooperatively
run agricultural projects like a grinding mill. It is a bit easier to
raise those funds with photography. Since the photographic print is
less ephemeral than video it also is easier to market. It is a product
that people can hold in their hands and are literally connected to it.
The photographs also rely on some very easy tricks that encourage a
increased sense of physical connection — a gaze that requires the
viewer, is meant for the viewer; an emphasis on the subject, another
human being just like you.

Video is a lot more difficult for me, but I enjoy it more the more I
work with it. It doesn’t allow for the same purity of vision and it is
harder to balance. It does allow you to capture the rhythm of life. It
gives you a better sense of place — the types of relationships the
subjects have to their environment and each other — but at the expense
of the relationship between subject and viewer.

I think it has a lot to do with a sense of shared experience built
into the interface. With the photographs both viewer and viewed are
still, linked through physical mimesis, like looking in a mirror. The
viewer of the film is limited. They can sense more of life in the
film, but they can’t be anything more than point of view phenomenon. If they
feel the rhythm, they aren’t allowed to dance.

3. How did the community react to you filming them and their situation? Were they hopeful that maybe your documentary can help them in some way?

The community was very receptive, but I think this has a lot to do
with their relationship with Dr. Ann Stahl. I was extremely lucky to
walk into a situation where the rapport was already developed.

They were hopeful that the documentary film would make a difference,
unfortunately I haven’t had as much time to push the film as I would
like since I was so busy with promoting ‘Sena’, the series of
photographs. Hopefully this gets the film out there to a few more

4. You say that you are not trying to create an “outright moral condemnation of the effects of hydroelectric dams” with your Sena work. Does this mean that you have no political statement within the work, or are you more considered with a different statement, one that is far more artistic or one that is supposed to be a reflection of humanity? How did you hope the audience would react?

I think there are better ways to explore the political more directly
than I did with ‘Sena’, that doesn’t mean that their isn’t a political
reading. Everything is political. At their core, I designed the images
for a humanistic reading — a reading that will hopefully unite the
viewer and viewed. Solidarity, in a more political sense, is only a
natural next step. The politics are there, but I think it exists on
the periphery of the image. I intended to present these photos in the
same way they were shot, simple clean, and unobstructed. If I wanted
to address the political more directly I would have gone with a more
journalistic, less tampered approach, probably presented in a photo essay.

5. Have you thought of returning to the village of Bui many years later to record the aftereffects of the hydraulic dam?

I returned to Bui last summer to visit the recently relocated
communities. I worked on some follow up interviews and environmental
shots, but I would like to go back to do more. Right now I need to
start applying for some grants that would allow me to start working on
the massive amount of footage I have right now.

6. Is black and white your favourite method of working within photography or do you experiment a lot with different colours and filters before you have found the right way to take pictures of your subject?

I actually do a lot of color photography, but my website doesn’t represent that right now. I need to update it.

There were two reasons for shooting black and white with ‘Sena’. First was the color the of the river. Tonally it just looked awful. With a few of the portraits the color played strangely with the undertones of their skin and caused their facial features to flatten out. The lighting technique involved using the river and a series of reflectors to the side of the camera to bounce light back at the subjects and blow out the water. With black and white I could apply a filter to blow it out even further to the point of pure white instead of an ugly marble of light yellow and blocked highlights.The second reason is simple and is the reason a lot of photographers shoot black and white whether or not they like to admit it; it provided continuity to the collection.(Left: Image from collection “Sena”)


Images from Bui, Ghana:

Check out Devin Tepleski’s Website for more information:



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