Parasomnia is a dissociated sleep state during which abnormal behaviours, perceptions and emotions occur. It's a fascinating, insightful, and even witty allegory that Viviane Sassen chose as the title for her latest book. After spending three years of her childhood in Kenya, she returned to Africa when she was 16, and she often talks of the difficulty of constructing an identity when you have been raised in two vastly different cultures; you don't belong to either, yet they both feel like home. It's like sitting on two different chairs at once; you are never entirely comfortable, highly aware of the parts of yourself that don't fit in, and of what you can't comprehend of your surroundings. Like parasomnia, expatriation triggers a certain feeling of disjointedness.
These dichotomy and lack of cohesion are often reflected in her work. She likes to play with linear or leafy shadows, like the expression of an incomplete vision; sometimes even leaving her model's face almost completely dark - who are they, who is she? She also has no qualms about using frontal flash, flattening all light, like only a powerful African sun could. She is thousands of miles away from the slanted lights of Amsterdam, and her unmistakable style, documentary-like, is laden with the raw colors of direct sunlight.
What also transpires in Sassen's photography is a richness of vision, an acute sense of observation, and a search for the normal and familiar that is never fully sated. There is something quite still about her work; something staged and posed, not entirely natural, as if she were trying to appropriate her surroundings by capturing them.
Parasomnia is a weird and incohesive collection - striking candid portraits sit by careless snapshots of inanimate objects, followed by semi surrealistic posed scenes. Nothing seems to take the reader from the boy lying down in a bright green net to the tomb covered in paper flowers. Is this book aching for a story, one that would give all these apparently innocuous photographs a place?
The book starts with a short story by Moses Isegawa. His words are not only as colorful as Sassen's photographs, but he also engulfs the reader in the thickness of his characters; he offers the mysteries of a good story. This leaves a stark contrast with Sassen's imagery, but also exposes the different ways in which we experience and make sense of our roots. Some find the narration; some gather a vast mosaic of vivid memories.
Reviewed by Marie-Charlotte Pezé