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?