Desert by Motorbike: An Interview with Jim Naughten
Christine Mitchell Adams
Photographer Jim Naughten first visited Africa when he set off to motorbike across the continent after leaving college. During his trip, he came across the Herero tribe in Namibia and became enchanted by the country’s desert landscape and the tribe’s extraordinary costumes. Naughten knew that he had to return and photograph the Herero people. The image of their colorful Victorian- style costumes set against the bleak desert had been ingrained in his mind.
Years later, Naughten returned and made a collection of portraits of the tribe’s members. The body of work is considered a huge success in documenting the cultural and historical symbolism of their traditional costumes. Zady chats with Naughten about his creative process in creating the series and why he feels it was an important project to complete.
Zady: First, thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this interview. We know you’re incredibly busy. Can you share with us some of the projects you’re currently working on?
Jim Naughten: I am knee-deep in a great project here in the UK. I can’t talk about it until I get to exhibition stage, but it involves animals and natural history from around the turn of the last century. It should be ready in a couple of months’ time.
Z: We were first introduced to your work when we saw the photographs of the Herero people of Namibia. What inspired you to create this collection, and what were some of the difficulties you encountered when creating it?
JN: I first traveled to Namibia whilst on a motorbike trip across Africa after leaving college, many years ago. I more or less stumbled across the country, and became immediately spellbound and bewitched by the desert landscapes, the incredible diversity of people who make up the population, and its strange and often troubling history. I always wanted to go back to create a body of portraits, and eventually decided on the Herero because of their extraordinary costume. It was quite physically tough working there for four months, camping every day, cleaning and charging the kit, and meeting and working with the people, but ultimately very rewarding and a great privilege to spend so much time in someone else’s culture.
Z: The style of your Herero portraits is incredibly powerful—the light, vantage point, color palette, central placement of the subject and the unforgiving Namibian landscape as the consistent background. Elements of this are similar to your previous work, but in what ways did you feel this was the most successful way of portraying the Herero people? What were you hoping to convey by photographing them in this way?
JN: I had a fairly strong idea that I wanted to make the pictures this way from my previous visit. Back then, the first Herero people I saw were just outside Swakopmund with these extraordinarily colorful dresses set against this vast desert landscape. That image was seared in my mind. The composition allows all the focus to fall on the subject and hopefully gives a sense of space and timelessness to the story. The history of the German Herero war is little known and not well documented. Most of what you hear is aural history, but you get a sense of the past from the desert, just beneath the surface.
Z: The subjects' Victoria-style and paramilitary costumes appear just as significant as the subjects themselves in your photos. Many have responded to your photos as a representation of the hardship and turbulence the Herero tribe has experienced. How do you feel the Herero costumes represent their history and their present identity?
JN: The German Herero war of 1904 to 1907 resulted in about 80 percent of the Herero being wiped out, which would have been overwhelmingly traumatic, and the collective memory is still very fresh in people’s minds. The wearing of the costumes is extremely significant and I see it as a symbolic show of defiance and survival. If you see Herero people, there’s no mistaking who they are and what they have come through.
Z: The portraits have been collected into a book called Conflict and Costume, which was published by Merrell Publishing in March 2013. The book presents your photos as an important representation of African costume history. Do you feel the publication is successful in doing so?
JN: I hope the book is fairly successful in displaying the cultural and historical significance of the traditional costumes. It has received quite a bit of press and hopefully brought some attention to the story, which is little known.
Z: And finally, why did you feel it was important for you to create this body of work?
JN: Ever since my first visit to Namibia I have been enchanted by the country and always wanted to go back and make a proper body of work there. I actually wanted to photograph all the different tribes there, but that would have been a whole lifetime’s work.