Photography and me

What certainly contributed to me taking up pen and paper was my own struggle with photographing. I soon realized that pictures mean something different in the villages and towns of Kaoko than they do in a Western context and even when considering that local visuality (the meaning of images and of the technology to produce them) is changing, many Kaokolanders are rather suspicious of photography. This contributed to my own discomfort in taking and showing photographs for various reasons, including a lack of talent. At the same time, I realized that what and how I photographed had changed. One of my unfinished projects, then, was to document how this shift reflected a changing theoretical horizon and research interest.

What also contributed to my discomfort was, as a Namibian colleague expressed it, “I always get a little nervous when people bring up the Ovahimba” (Martha Bannikov, Pers. Comm., March 26 2017). In the public imagination, Himba women and men are often exoticized as the inhabitants of a timeless niche carved out in the African landscape, idealized as the perfect noble savage or demonized as dated and primitive. These representations go back a long way and are themselves the product of colonialism (for a critical appraisal, see Bollig & Heinemann–Bollig 2004; Hartmann et al. 1999; Henrichsen 2000; Rizzo 2005). Women in particular are being objectified as a tourism commodity or, conversely, often seen as an object of intervention, to emancipate, convert, or develop by the urban elites in Namibia. One returning question, then, is how one can avoid that photographs, despite one’s intentions, are interpreted along the lines of an established, othering canon? These questions are obviously nothing new. It remains however a continuing source of frustration that these insights fail to percolate into the public imagination. How do you avoid that, borrowing Alma Gottlieb’s (1999, 1) words, findings are “dumbed down” when trying to reach a wider audience? Could a more narrative ethnography contribute to the dissemination of scholarly insights?

On drawing

Hyamakuma’s six circles underline that ethnography (the production of ethnographic knowledge) always is collaborative (or, at least, intersubjective). But it also forced me to look at my photographs, field drawings and notes in different ways (see, in this regard, Causey 2016; Ingold 2011). In that sense, drawing also started to function as a heuristic device. I started to wonder how, for instance, I could represent the ancestors in a way that does justice to this ageing man’s worldview. After all, Hyamakuma’s drawing visualized a form of knowing: the ancestors are real, and are as much part of society as are the living. But how do you communicate this? Taking this idea one step further: can fiction contribute to knowledge? Undoubtedly it can lead to understanding, but would this suffice to rank it along more traditional scientific output?

Drawing, obviously, is a form of fiction. It forces you to more consciously frame, add, delete, arrange and combine visual elements (which I tried to emphasize by using heavy, black frames rather than the more traditional white spacing –the “gutter”– between panels). Compared with, for instance, photography, it also allows you to bring in semantic relief (Causey 2016, 8), to highlight specific details or manipulate the background. But is this not rather a difference of degree than one of kind? After all, when photographing or filming you also frame and compose, zoom and create (an excellent and confronting example of this in the context of Kaoko is the film Authenticized, Kraak 2013). Likewise, when you insert direct speech or a diary excerpt in your text, you also select, translate and edit. Is the latter then fundamentally different from composing a fictional dialogue based on interviews and conversations you had (see, for instance, Fassin 2014; Taussig 2010; Narayan 2007; Pyne 2009)?

For the record: I do think there are significant differences, and that these come with important ethical and epistemological implications. One of the motives behind opting for drawings and behind some of the aesthetic choices in Six Circles, was then precisely to underline the fictional character of the narrative: even though perhaps I am fascinated by the “chimeras and monsters” (Pyne 2009, 33) born from the cross-breeding of fiction and non-fiction, they also frighten me.


This fear was also one of the reasons to opt for making the actors in the novella wear masks, even though people in Kaoko have no tradition in that sense. Neither do tourists or filmmakers. Inspiration I drew from a longstanding tradition in comics (say, Spider-Man, or Will Eisner’s Spirit) and graphic novels (such as Sokal’s Canardo), but also from the work by Sammy Baloji (who photographed his subjects wearing African masks) or by the Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo (who bodypaints his models with white line drawings), famous nowadays for his collaboration with Beyoncé Knowles on the video for her Lemonade album.

But these masks also serve a purpose beyond a mere aesthetic choice. First, some of my older interlocutors expressed their reservations as to them being portrayed (see Six Circles, page 2), so I needed to find of way of picturing them that would take their objections into account. At the same time, I also wanted the drawings to be somewhat realistic and not too cartoonish, also because African characters –as quite a few comics on my shelf illustrate, including a few titles set in Kaoko– are all too often presented in a rather caricatured way.

But there is more. Scott McCloud (1993) points out that what he refers to as “masking” –the iconic abstraction of figures and especially faces so common in graphic novels and (early) mangas– is a crucial feature of graphic story-telling. Abstracting facial features, especially when set against more realistic backgrounds, allows the audience get involved in the story and to identify with the characters, to “mask themselves in a character” (McCloud 1993, 43). In his words, “By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts” (McCloud 1993, 41). So as part my graphic experiment I decided to interpret this concept rather literally.  By using masks rather than faces, I wanted to invite the reader to get involved in –get drawn into– the dialogue and visual narrative. Again an afterthought: is this process of masking that different from the ways anthropologists usually introduce the persona (Narayan 2007, 134) or characters (Pyne 2009, 156) that populate their accounts?

Augmented reality

A final thought I would like to introduce here relates to the way I worked. First I made rough sketches based on the pictures I took over the years. These sketches were scanned and printed on drawing paper to be inked, which often took several attempts. While inking, I added (or left out) particular details such as the masks discussed above. The ink drawings were again scanned and imported into Photoshop as different layers. With these layers I then assembled the page, adding lettering and other graphic elements such as frames or video stills.

This process, especially then the adding of details while inking, or the montage of visual and textual elements, reminded me of the term augmented reality, usually understood as adding an additional layer of information onto a preexisting image, in real time, with the aid of technological means such as artificial intelligence and computer imaging, in order to enhance representations by making them more interactive.

Baudrillard would have loved this.

This idea of augmented reality struck me as an apt working metaphor to describe what I was doing. By, as it were, overlaying –or enhancing– more or less realist representations such as photographs and early sketches with additional layers of interpretation and representation, such as masks and horns, I wanted to break open the walls around the assemblage of meanings (see, for instance, Jeffery 2016, 57) surrounding more common, stereotypical representations of Africa and Himba. I wanted to make the reader step into the moral universe Hyamakuma had laid out when he drew his six circles.