Reviewed by Madhu Joseph-John •
This is what you might first see when you have Pradip Malde’s photo book in your hand: women, young and old, some with head covers, some with razor blade in hand, others grinding a clay like mass with stones, girls with their legs splayed and being held down by women, acacia trees, boulders and tools of various shapes and sizes – all in exquisitely composed monochrome. Yet coming to the end, you wonder what it is all about, just as I did, having approached the book with no preconceived idea or notion about the subject matter or the author of this book.
So, you then go back to page one and start reading the text adjacent to each image. And suddenly everything falls into place. “From Where Less Comes” is about female genital mutilation – or the acronym FGM to make it sound less malevolent if you will. But mutilation it is, because female circumcision as practiced in most countries involves a lot more of the female genitalia, its physical and psychological effects far more troublesome.
We are now informed that the razor blade that figures prominently in the book is the instrument of choice for FGM. The other tools depicted are hand-forged cutting tools (kigundu). The women photographed are either the cutters, or circumcisers (ngariba), retired or currently enabling or performing the procedure, or females who are victims of FGM and a few who have been spared. The acacia trees and boulders with vulvic cupules (artificial depressions) on the bark of trees or the surface of rocks are “sacred” sites where FGM is undertaken. Other images are simulations of the actual procedure and the ritual act of grinding the excised flesh into the ground or a dry river bed. And finally, you make sense of the brilliant book cover with the embedded golden razor blade, engulfed in a sea of crimson red.
“From Where Less Comes” is an example of a photobook where text and image are a perfect combine, where photos or text in isolation would probably leave you confounded. Malde writes with a distinctive voice, with verve, with feeling. His images speak with restrained passion. The amalgam of the two is what stamps this book as being different, authentic and powerful.
I suspect that like me, most readers have a vague notion of female circumcision with no knowledge of the extent or prevalence of this practice and its debilitating, morbid and even fatal effects on girls and women. This book makes you seek more information. For example, who knew that the practice originated around 150 BC in Egypt, that the average age of females undergoing FGM was seven, that the Quran (the holy book of our villain du jour and the last few decades: the radical Muslim) does not even mention FGM or male circumcision for that matter, that in some countries the practice of FGM is equally prevalent among Catholic, Protestants, Coptic Christians and animists as among Muslims.
WHO estimates 200 million females in 31 countries largely in sub-Saharan Africa have undergone FGM. The practice appears to be imposed in many cases by mothers on their daughters, an intergenerational and cultural hand me down as well as by a few “holy” men. Many scholars of this subject call it a manifest of gender inequality. Malde should be commended for his courage in venturing into an almost taboo subject. The combination of his skills and passion, the Jesse Lenz design and the Charcoal Press production has culminated in a beauty of a book.
But the question remains as to who would want to engage with such an unpleasant subject. The possibilities are varied. Two contemporary classic photobooks come to mind: James Natchwey’s Inferno which covers wars and conflicts all over the world and Donna Ferrato’s Holy which highlights the various facets and consequences of domestic violence. The readers who appreciated these two books would likely resonate with Malde’s book as well. Others would include health organizations, social scientists, historians of theology and culture and curators of university libraries particularly in parts of the world where FGM is prevalent
I would venture to say that one other group whose interest might be piqued by Malde’s book is that peculiar assortment of people who (for reasons unknown) cannot resist getting their hands on a well-crafted, original photobook.
Madhu Joseph-John is a Southern California photographer
From Where Loss Comes, Pradip Malde
Photographer: Pradip Malde, born in Tanzania, currently residing in Sewanee, Tennessee, USA
Essays: Pradip Malde
Text: English and Swahili
Publisher: Charcoal Press, copyright 2022
Hardcover, embossed linen, with slipcase, swiss binding. 10” x 14” 92 pages, 60 black and white images, Printed in China, ISBN 978-1-7362345-0-1
Book designed: Jesse Lenz
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.