Iconic Photos

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Posts Tagged ‘George Rodger

Nuba Wrestlers | Leni Riefenstahl

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In my previous post, I wrote how the Kordofan and the Nuba that Rodger visited is no more.  Arabs and Nuba no longer live as happy neighbours. Directly or indirectly, Rodger’s photos played a minor role.

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Among many admirers of Rodger’s photos was Leni Riefenstahl, who had already been infamous for two films she made for Hitler when she was still in her early 30s.  For a film project she was planning, Riefenstahl had offered Rodger £1,000 to tell her where he had found the Nuba. With the memories of Belsen-Bergen still fresh in his mind, Rodger refused, but she embarked on the project anyway, which left Rodger extremely bitter.

In Farewell to the Nubas he wrote: “The gradual deterioration of the Nuba tribes began with the publication of Leni Riefenstahl’s glossy and misleading books in glaring colour which attracted tourists and travel operators to the area. In their seclusion, the million or so Nuba people might have remained unmolested by the world. But revealed in coffee-table books in their uncircumcised nudity, that was more than the Islamic fundamentalists could accept.”

Nevertheless, a note on the dustjacket of Riefenstahl’s first book, The Last of The Nuba (1973) credits Rodger’s work for inspiring her: “The author was so fascinated by this photograph taken by the famous English photographer George Rodger [he was a Scot] that for years she tried to find the Nuba in order to study the life of these primitive people.” A personal note followed: “Without the influence of your picture . . . this book would be never [sic] printed. Now we both are friends of ‘our’ Nuba People.”

This dedication further enraged Rodger: “There is an awful lot of tongue-in-cheek in that because I did not help her at all. Mind you, I think her pictures were very highly professional. They were certainly good pictures but there was no warmth in them. My pictures were very much part of the family and the people themselves.” This criticism was shared by Susan Sontag. In her 1974 essay Fascinating Fascism, Sontag wrote that the Nuba photos were “continuous with her Nazi work”.

Unhappily, Riefenstahl’s portrayal of Nuba lifestyle certainly opened up Kordofan to anthropologists, photographers, and documentary filmmakers. It also provoked a clampdown by Sudan’s predominantly Muslim authorities, for whom the Nuba way of life was either an embarrassment or an affront to their religious sensibilities. Successive governments in Khartoum have tried to clothe the Nuba and do away with their ‘primitive’ ways. They also accused the Nuba of supporting the southern Sudanese rebels, and supported the Baggara — whose nomadic lifestyle has been battered by years of drought and the growth of mechanised farming which has taken over vast tracts of land — with arms to take over the fertile Nuba villages.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 20, 2012 at 5:44 pm

Nuba Wrestlers | George Rodger

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In 1947, the same year he co-founded Magnum, George Rodger off across Africa on an assignment for National Geographic. While travelling in the Kordofan region of the Sudan, Rodger and his wife Cicely learnt of the Nubas, a people who lived as their ancestors had lived millennia before.

Rodger was granted permission by the Sudanese government to document the tribe. Fording rivers, skirting herds of elephants, and crossing a treacherous bush trail, he finally reached the Nuba Mountains in 1949, becoming the first ever Westerner to photograph the Nubas’ rituals and way of life. For six weeks, communicating only with their hands and smiles, the couple lived among the tribesmen.

His contact sheets show how he and Cicely carefully posed the tribesmen and women, but his most remembered photos were of simultaneous athletic events, tribal ceremonies and dances; his iconic image from the assignment was that of a victorious Nuba wrestler, ashen, ghostlike, naked and invincible astride the shoulders of another man. It had been reproduced everywhere from postcards and posters to textbooks. For many years, it was a definitive portrait of Africa.

When the photos first appeared in National Geographic in 1952, they caused a sensation, even after the magazine had order its photo-department to generously airbrush out exposed male genitalia and blood stains from wrestling matches. Three years later, the photos were published in Le Village de Noubas, an instant classic.

For Rodger, who took on the assignment to escape the devastation in Europe he saw at the end of the war, it marked the end of a emotional period. His wife Cicely died not soon afterwards in childbirth. In a melancholic short recollection of that trip, Farewell to the Nubas, Rodger wrote: ‘Although we had already trekked through 20,000 miles of tribal Africa, it was not until Kordofan that we found real peace and tranquillity. It seemed the good nature of the Nubas was contagious . . . it affected also the Baggara Arabs who grazed their herds in the flatlands below the jebels (hills). Nubas and Arabs lived contentedly side-by-side.’

This Kordofan and this comity Rodger saw is no more. But that is the story for another post.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 13, 2012 at 9:58 am

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