Born in 1957, Donnette Ingrid Zacca, MFA, is a highly regarded artist and premier photographer in Jamaica. She is an alumnus of the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, where she currently lectures in Photography. Our Arts & Culture Editor, Elton Johnson, speaks to her about her work.
BY ELTON JOHNSON — “A rural Jamaican existence offers nothing less than extreme solitude to minds rearing and fully-charged with artistic tendencies,” says Donette Zacca, an artist who hails from the rural western end of Jamaica.
“With no conscious influences, no affirmed ideas, no distinct places or people and only one major event my life, I became moulded into an appreciative substance of the outdoors.”
Zacca’s artworks consist largely of images taken from the observation of her external surroundings, in addition to more experimental collage-type photography and double-exposure portraits. Her photographs typically espouse the theme of feminism with most of her images speaking to the issues and concerns of women.
Her work has been featured in numerous publications (Small Axe Magazine; The Best of Sky Writings; Fifty Years, Fifty Artists), received countless awards (National Gallery of Jamaica Purchase Award; National Heritage Trust Photography Competition Awards) and featured in international and local exhibitions. To date, one of her most famous bodies of work stands as her Issues of Fertility display, which exhibited at Jamaica’s Mutual Gallery in 2008.
We interviewed Zacca on her achievements as an artist, and her outlook on photography in Jamaica, given increased funding and support for the creative industries in recent years.
AMG: Describe your art.
DZ: As an artist, I have experimented and explored a number of art forms. My latest indulgence is stone carving. I have done some paintings and drawings, sculpting and assemblages – but most of all I prefer photography in all forms.
Out of many years of working in the darkroom, working with analogue cameras and alternative photographic processes, I can confidentially say photography is my primary process for expressing all kinds of ideas. My expressions are said to be romantic.
AMG: How did you get started as a photographer?
DZ: Just around Third Form (age 13-14) of my high school years, one of my uncles visited Jamaica from the United States, and brought me a gift of a Kodak Instamatic Camera.At the time the camera was considered state of the art because of its size and flexibility. It was a point and shoot camera that used a small cartridge, and only had a maximum of twenty-four exposures.
AMG: What do you think makes your work different from other photographers?
DZ: In the practice of art, individuals bring to their production parts of what is innate. So personalities, experiences, influences, beliefs and skills are elements we transport and infuse in what we do. Who we really are is mainly what we can express, and by extension what our work is likely to exhibit.
I embrace the outdoors. I am an observer of natural light, an explorer of new places —I embrace valuable and energetic companionship and I grasp what I can of life. My work is all from my personal experiences which makes them an extension of who I am as a person.
AMG: Who are your mentors and inspirations in photography?
DZ: I am inspired not so much by people, but what I see and process. During my years as an art student, I was captivated by the works of Ansel Adams, an American photographer. I liked the exquisite details and colours of the photographic images he was able to capture. He was a perfectionist. Adams added life to his photos, he studied and developed all the necessary applications he needed to be exceptional. I always thought ‘I’d like to be like Adams when I grow up’.
Later on in years I enjoyed Aaron Siskind for his eye for textural details. I also enjoyed Andy Goldsworthy for this gift and exercise of patience. From Goldsworthy I learned that nothing will happen on its own.
I have somehow taken from the world just what I need. My exposure to a variety of art has given me great sensibility.
AMG: Have you ever experienced any setbacks or discriminatory treatment in your career, being a woman and/or Jamaican?
DZ: In 1988 I was granted a scholarship to attend the University of Cincinnati. Ohio, USA. I studied Advanced Black and White Processes, Advanced Colour and Alternative Processes in Photography.
I welcomed the opportunity and worked really hard to impress my sponsors, the college and my family.
Unfortunately, during my duration at the university, I had setbacks with discrimination. Some of these incidences time will not allow me to forget.
Living away from home was difficult, and living and working with people who never saw you as their equal was even harder.
One morning, I returned to my studio after a long night of hard work to see all my works destroyed and stuffed into a bin. It would only have been a few hours before a major critique and grading. One member of the student body admitted to having destroyed my work that morning and was expelled from the class.
I was discriminated against because I was black and a no nonsense woman.
In year 1999, I migrated to the USA. I first settled in Orlando, hoping I would find a place to show my work or get a job. Nothing happened so I went on to Baltimore. In Baltimore, I enquired in the city for small space where I could exhibit my work. One afternoon, a white gentleman told me I was enquiring in the wrong places, and that I need to find the black galleries.
AMG: When did you realize you could have a career in photography? What was your journey as a career photographer?
DZ: I was convinced I could have a career in photography after I graduated from the Cultural Training Centre, now the Edna Manley College. I studied Graphic Design and Art Education. I excelled in the Photographic Department, which at the time was an arm of the Graphic Design Department. Soon after graduation, I gained all the confidence I needed by showing my works and attracting patrons and photography enthusiasts.
I entered competitions and became a part of group shows. The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) was instrumental in putting me on the map of other artists in Jamaica. I was becoming recognized and I had to work hard to keep the craft in a good and wholesome position, while I taught at the art college and did freelance photography.
Higher learning, additional photographic experiences like solo and group exhibitions also brought me well-deserved credits.
Teaching has been an unforgettable experience. I have learned to be giving, patient and sensitive.
AMG: How lucrative is photography in Jamaica?
DZ: Far more than we think. Many of my past students have made their names in the industry either as photographers for the advertising industry; as artists; fashion and glamour photographers; journalists and sports photographers. I have personally done well and would do it all again.
I have been able to live comfortably, at least for now, as someone who earns enough from the craft. More and more youngsters are investing in high-end cameras in an effort to find better photographic jobs. Organizations are also employing photographers for in-house operations, which requires the kind of specialist skills necessary for advertising production.
AMG: What is your favourite photograph ever taken? What made it special?
DZ: My favorite image is one done in the mid-nineties in St. Thomas, Jamaica, of the hydroelectric waterfall located in Hillside. Done in black and white, the print bore ideas of an ideal image. It was detailed, having enough light to identify the textures of every last rock. The width of the river bed was captured with a slow-moving waterfall in the background. The area behind the water from the falls appeared black, which gave a contrast to the splendid smooth effects of movement and the rough edges of rocks along the downward streaming of the water.
I value the images because it’s a constant reminder of what a perfect day feels like. Having to capture anything in the outdoors is always an embraceable challenge.
AMG: What do you hope to achieve with your photography that you haven’t as yet?
DZ: I expect that, with all the images I have acquired, to be able to publish at least two books one day soon. There are, in fact, many objectives that I have achieved – being able to give back as a teacher being one of many.
AMG: What is your dream photography project?
DZ: Projecting the lives of females in all forms is still a dream project of mine. I have begun to look at the lives of women in Northern Nigeria and the daily atrocities they encounter. In Jamaican the deconstructed ideas of beauty have become an extraordinary fad. I seek to one day highlight those trends.
AMG: What project are you currently working on?
DZ: ‘Female Atrocities’, triggered by the [Boko Haram incidents] out of Northern Nigeria. I am bombarded with thoughts of young women being gunned down before adulthood.
AMG: What are some of the young Jamaican photographers that you have on your must-watch list?
Copyright of all images is strictly held by Donnette Zacca.