Passion Points: Learning
Photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have dedicated their lives to capturing the ceremonies and rituals of the African continent. After meeting in 1978 (Beckwith hails from the U.S., Fisher from Australia), the two women immediately recognized a joint passion for African culture; today, they have spent more than thirty years documenting the disappearing traditions and rituals of such tribes as the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania, the Wodaabe of Niger and the Dinka of Sudan.
The stories from their trips, many of which capture ceremonies that had never been seen in the outside world, are legendary: they have fearlessly traveled into remote areas by whatever means available (foot, donkey, camel, prop plane); spent years living with some tribes, learning the languages and making lifelong connections with the people; and have more than once found themselves in dicey situations, like the time they were arrested as supposed spies for Qaddafi while working in Niger. Part social anthropology, part fine art photography, their extraordinary work has been showcased in fourteen books, most notably the two-volume African Ceremonies, which appeared in 1999.
They collaborated on their new book, Lamu (Rizzoli, $65) with a team of two other photographers, David Coulson and Nigel Pavitt, as well as writers George and Lorna Abunga, poet Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany and researcher Linda Donley Reid. The book features a place that the photographers have visited since mid seventies: the island of Lamu, in the Lamu archipelago off the coast of Kenya. A Unesco World Heritage site and one of the oldest Swahili settlements in the world, the island offers a wealth of well-preserved history and exquisite craftsmanship, from intricate coral architecture to fine jewelry—the ideal combination for a Beckwith-Fisher project. Says Fisher: “Lamu is one of the most beautiful tropical paradises in the world, with an ancient culture and a romantic flavor that is reminiscent of Arabian Nights.” The photographers spoke to Indagare about the new book and about the legacy they wish to leave for Africa.
What is your own connection with Lamu?
Fisher: We both began traveling to Lamu in the early 1970s, initially working on separate projects but both on subjects that pertained to women. I was studying jewelry across the African continent and Lamu was a stronghold of very beautiful gold and coral jewelry. Historically, the archipelago had an incredible link to the outside world thanks to the sea trade, so Indian, Persian and Arabic influences can be seen in the jewelry.
Beckwith: I started working at the museum in Lamu to help develop exhibitions and collections. I worked under the direction of Linda Donley-Reid, who worked with us on the book. I had a passion for Swahili culture, which goes back over 1,000 years, and Lamu is the heartland of the Swahili ethnic group. Both Angela and I ended up living in Lamu for periods of time and this helped us gain entrée into the private lives of the Swahili people, particularly women, which is not something easily done for an outsider, since it’s a guarded Muslim society.
Was it difficult to get access to photograph the women of Lamu?
Beckwith: In the early days, it was forbidden for women to be photographed or recorded in any way. The first small break came when the Lamu museum decided to have a Henna competition. This ancient art is a lengthy process of applying dye in several layers, resulting in gorgeous designs on the women’s hands. The question presented itself how the women were to be judged if no photographs were allowed. They were only permitted to expose their hands to another woman in the privacy of a small tent. Finally, we came up with the solution: I would sit and draw every single woman’s hand and the henna patterns on it. The competition was judged by these drawings and to me, this was a first step towards photography. Today, the drawings are displayed in a small room in the museum.
In the book, you have many images that showcase incredibly private and intimate moments. How do you get access to your subjects?
Fisher: Carol and I have always been interested in capturing images behind the scenes. The strength of the two of us working in a female society, in this case, a traditional Islamic society, is that we can bypass boundaries. As females, by spending time and getting to know the women in the community we were given access to intimate and private moments that have always been inaccessible to men.
Beckwith: Over the years in Lamu, when traditions began dying, the women realized they wanted their children and grandchildren to know who they were as Swahili women embodying this rich ancient culture. So the process of taking photographs to remember and preserve started very slowly. We wouldn’t publish anything unless we had the family’s permission, and many of the early photographs we took just for them. In Lamu, there is one picture of a bride in her traditional attire which was taken 25 years ago. To our amazement, the family approached us as we were completing Lamu now and said that the last thirty years had proven how committed we were to the Swahili culture. They gave us permission to publish the image, and it’s the first time a photographic record of the ancient Ntazanyao ritual, which is no longer practiced, exists.
This was the first time, you collaborated with a group of other artists on a book. What was this experience like?
Beckwith: It was wonderful. As a team, we were all passionate about Lamu and committed to the recording its rich culture and history over the last 30 years. David and Nigel are brilliant scenic and people photographers who contributed strongly to the male side of the book, whereas Angela and I focussed more on the female side. On the text side it was invaluable to have George and Lorna Abungu, with their deep knowledge of the Swahili people and World Heritage sites, as well as Linda Donley Reid contributing on research. And the poetry of Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany, one of Kenya’s most celebrated poets added so much to the overall sensibility of the book.
How do you establish a trust between yourselves and your subjects?
Beckwith: We spend time with them. When we go into a remote area, we sit with the chief of the village, meet his family, visit the village and bond with people. We also try to learn, if not a language then at least fifty words in the language of the people we are photographing. We stay with them, or very close by, share meals, and over a period of time, a level of trust and friendship grows. Only then do we unpack our cameras.
If you could revisit one ceremony or project you have worked on, which one would it be?
Fisher: The Dinka in the Sudan. This extraordinary group spends the dry season grazing their cattle in a swampland by the Nile, and one of the most amazing experience we’ve had in Africa was to record the courtship season. The Dinka are between 6’5 and 7 feet tall and are often powdered in ash, which is how they came to be know as the “gentle” or “ghostly giants” to Western explorers. When a Dinka male reaches puberty, he receives a namesake ox, which is believed to be the completion of his personality. When the courting begins at a cattle camp, the young man goes to the woman he loves and courts her with poetry and song. He praises her beauty but also addresses the beauty of the namesake ox, that is, the magnificence of himself. It’s a wonderful communion between animal and man. I found the Dinka cattle camps and the Dinka themselves to be utterly otherworldly.
Beckwith: Another group we visited for many years are the Wodaabe nomads of Niger. They live in the Sahel, which is on the fringe of the Sahara. They are an extremely refined group of desert nomads: very tall and thin, wearing beautiful robes and embroidered dresses. They herd cattle with long lyre-shaped horns in a place where it doesn’t rain ten months out of the year. No one else would even attempt to live there, but it is their homeland, and they survived with their traditions intact for a very long time. We spent two years living with them and learning their language, and have visited them for the last 25 years.
How do you travel to a place like the Sahel?
Beckwith: Today, you can catch a flight from Paris to Niger’s capital of Niamey, then travel on with a 4-wheel vehicle about 1000 miles north into the Sahel. In the early days, Angela and I would catch a produce or furniture truck, and more than once, we sat on top of piles and piles of stuff, one thing tied to the next, riding deep into the Sahel. The first time we traveled with the Wodaabe, to capture their courtship ceremony, we began walking with them on what we had been told would be a few days of journey. It turned out to be six weeks.
Fisher: This was a great example of how well we work as a team. Whenever one of us would get tired or impatient, the other would function as the cheerleader. Whenever we asked the chief if we were close, he would say: “She who can’t bear the smoke will never get to the fire.” And that pretty much became our battle cry for the rest of our careers.
Was the arduous journey worth it?
Beckwith: Absolutely. The Wodaabe courtship ceremony involves the men performing a series of mesmerizing charm and beauty dances, competitively vying one against the other, while hundreds of Wodaabe women watch their every move, picking out their boyfriends or lovers or husbands. The men wear make-up and beautiful long tunics and they perform in long lines, moving up and down on tip-toes, making hissing and clicking sounds, and rolling their eyes. That first time we witnessed it, there were maybe 3,000 Wodaabe and the two of us.
Fisher: The positive thing about our six-week trek, during which we had almost become nomads ourselves, we learned a tremendous amount and really bonded with the Wodaabe. By the time the ceremony arrived, we were allowed into everything. Everyone was embracing us because we had gone through this tremendous hardship to get there.
Beckwith: Plus, thanks to all the walking and an all-milk diet, we were as trim, slim and svelte as we had ever been.
Can traditions like these courtship dances survive in the modern world?
Beckwith: Traditional cultures are fast disappearing. About 40% of what we have recorded in the last 35 years no longer exists. It’s a shocking statistic: in a relatively short period of time, these age-old traditions have simply disappeared. The young generation wants very much to be part of the global world; they are moving into cities and are no longer interested in maintaining the ancestral values. And the elders see this as a real tragedy: they see the next generation as lacking direction and fear that they will go astray. For us, we can see the pluses and minuses of the global world and what it offers to the younger generation. But our work is focused on tradition, not the current transition, and we are determined to complete that story. We have three more books in the work, but the bigger and final study will be covering the 14 African countries in which we have not yet worked and capturing their traditional cultures. We feel a big urgency with our work.
When you think of your photographic legacy, what are your hopes?
Fisher: Our archive now comprises some half a million transparencies, 400 hours of video, 200 illustrations and travel diaries, plus Carol’s drawings and our own extensive library of books. Our greatest desire is for this archive to be put in a place where it can be digitalized, preserved and made available to the public. We have a huge chance in giving back to Africa by making the recordings of the continent’s heritages available to the younger generations as well as to the outside world. We have dedicated our lives to this unique record of Africa, to the continent’s creativity and traditions. We are now trying to find the right home for this archive.
Read Indagare’s destination reports on Kenya
Read Indagare’s destination report on Tanzania
Read a Q&A with Kenya’s Anna Trzebinski
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