Posts Tagged ‘Sudan’
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.
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.
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.
In 1998, yielding to the international pressure, the Sudanese government allowed good aid to be distributed to the south. British photojournalist Tom Stoddart travelled with Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to a camp in Ajiep, where more than 100 people were dying every day. There he took the above photo of a crippled boy who had queued hours for food, only to find it robbed away from him by a fit man who strides confidently away.
Stoddart received overwhelming criticism for his image, people demanding why he did not intervene. He responded, “I am a photographer, not a policeman or an aid worker. All I can do is try to tell the truth as I see it with my camera.” However, Stoddart requested that the papers that print his Sudan photos run the credit card hotlines of aid agencies next to the photos. On the day the above photo appeared in the Guardian, MSF had 700 calls and £40,000 was pledged. The Daily Express raised £500,000. Le Figaro ran 10 pages of his pictures, Stern magazine nine pages.
On a deeper level, the photo is a symbol of Africa’s continuing problem — the big man with the stick rules. Large amount of food aid disappears from the camps in much needed areas and appears for sale in the market places in neighboring countries. Not to be anecdotal but I once volunteered in an African country that should remain nameless. Food and medical aid that Western governments sent there were regularly pilfered by corrupt bureaucrats and sometimes aid is withheld or rediverted to areas that don’t need them because the governments there like to use foreign aid as a bargaining chip to subdue/cleanse tribes and ethnicities they don’t like. Yet, Western governments and aid agencies continue sending aid because sometimes getting a little aid to affected areas is better than cutting off aid.
I put some links to donation webpages of some international organization helping aid efforts in Africa. Just click on their logos:
In March 1993, photographer Kevin Carter made a trip to southern Sudan, where he took now iconic photo of a vulture preying upon an emaciated Sudanese toddler near the village of Ayod. Carter said he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn’t. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. (The parents of the girl were busy taking food from the same UN plane Carter took to Ayod).
The photograph was sold to The New York Times where it appeared for the first time on March 26, 1993 as ‘metaphor for Africa’s despair’. Practically overnight hundreds of people contacted the newspaper to ask whether the child had survived, leading the newspaper to run an unusual special editor’s note saying the girl had enough strength to walk away from the vulture, but that her ultimate fate was unknown. Journalists in the Sudan were told not to touch the famine victims, because of the risk of transmitting disease, but Carter came under criticism for not helping the girl. “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene,” read one editorial.
Carter eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for this photo, but he couldn’t enjoy it. “I’m really, really sorry I didn’t pick the child up,” he confided in a friend. Consumed with the violence he’d witnessed, and haunted by the questions as to the little girl’s fate, he committed suicide three months later.