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?


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?