JELISA PETERSON'S interest in photography began on her seventh birthday when she received a camera and several rolls of film. She's been "snapping" pictures ever since. And while she's never been preoccupied with becoming a great photographer (she's never even taken a photography class), Peterson's exhibit, "Light Out of Africa," at the Oasis Cafe through June 14, clearly demonstrates her ability to capture decisive moments on film.
A series of black and white and color photographs of Africans at work and play, the exhibit manifests Peterson's obvious affection for her subject."Most of what I see on the news and in print is a portrayal of Africa that is negative," said Peterson in a recent interview. "Genocide, warfare, famine, poverty, under-development, these issues do exist. But there is also a tremendous amount of generosity, joy, zestfulness for life and real dignity, even in the poorest villages."
In 1993, with a degree in anthropology from the University of Utah - and several classes in African studies - Peterson joined 10 other interns in Harare, Zimbabwe, as part of a yearlong volunteer program called "Visions of Action." Peterson's fascination with the African people resulted in her shooting 40 rolls of film in the first week.
"I ended up working with the largest women's organization in Zimbabwe," Peterson said. "That allowed me to travel all over the country. That's where a lot of these photos in the exhibit come from. I was able to go places where a lot of white people don't get to go." The volunteer experience was so enjoyable she signed on for another year.
After she returned to America, several people were bowled over by Peterson's images. "I thought some of them were OK, but I wasn't really paying that much attention. I was doing them for work and my own pleasure." Because of her photographs' reception, Peterson bought a new camera and began to seriously work at becoming a better photographer.
"In 1996 I decided to backpack from Egypt to South Africa." Already familiar with most of the countries in Eastern Africa, Peterson traveled alone, taking pictures. Her photograph "Jose" (Mozambique, 1996) is only one of several examples of the joy she has captured on children's faces.
"The children are poorer than most American children by far, but they're still little kids." After the initial fear of the camera subsides, the children are "generally my easiest subject because they're natural. They stop paying attention to me and just play."
In "Kumirira" (To Wait - Shona), Peterson shows us a working woman standing patiently with her broom. For a self-taught photographer, Peterson has a good grasp of positive and negative space. The contrast between the woman's black skin and her white clothes, the white broom and the blackness of the opened door makes for vigorous, stimulating composition.
In her artist statement for the exhibit, Peterson writes that her goal has been to produce visual statements that are more than mere art. "And though, hopefully, the pieces are compelling to the eye, my aim has been to raise the consciousness of viewers to sociopolitical issues, especially ones that have regularly been overlooked when others have photographed Africa."
"Light Out of Africa" serves her purpose well.
Peterson lives and works in San Diego where she is represented by the Spruce Street Forum gallery.
The Oasis Cafe is located at 151 S. 500 East. For more information on the exhibit call 322-1162.