A closer look at George Rodger's Nuba photographs

by Nanne op 't Ende
Groningen, The Netherlands
October 12, 2003

Anyone interested in the Nuba culture knows George Rodger's photo of the wrestler being carried around on his team mate's shoulders, and many may know Village of the Nubas or the original le Village des Noubas. But how many have seen the actual prints? The Noorderlicht Photography Festival in Groningen is currently showing them as part of an Homage to Photography that includes the work of seven more Magnum members.

I had imagined the prints to be large, maybe poster size. The fact that they were not, didn't make them less impressive. Masterful, strong, fascinating. Not as vivid and immediate as the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson that were shown in the same large awfully lit hall, but fascinating all the same. Signs of age- slightly folded corners, buldging paper, small scretches on the surface - suddenly brought Rodger very close; his hand holding these photos, his eyes looking for irregularities in the total black surrounding the keyhole entrance to a hut. The wrestlers are there, the stickfighters, the bracelet fighters, the dancing girls. A few domestic scenes: men and women cultivating - they look as though they have all the time in the world - a girl on a rock, some kids, a village.

Many photos look familiar and then again something is different. The more I look at the prints the more I feel a certain distance that I never felt looking at the pictures in Village of the Nubas. There seems to be so much space surrounding the people that it creates an atmosphere of detachment. The photos give no indication that there had been any close contact between Rodger and the Nuba. The girl on the rock is smiling at the camera, the wrestler's team mate is looking at the lens, some bystanders take notice of the photographer: that's it. "These images are timeless," a visitor comments to his friend and I tend to disagree with him. It's something else - but what? I walk around for a while, absorbing the images, and then continue to see the rest of the Homage. I take another quick look at the Nuba photos befor I leave, slightly disturbed: this distance is bothering me.

As soon as I got home I took Village of the Nubas from the shelve to compare the photos with the ones I had just seen. It immediately became clear why the prints in the exhibition made such a different impression: nearly every image in the book had been cut. Top, bottom, left, right: hardly a photo has been left untouched. Take a look for example at the photos on pages 20 and 25. They show someone entering and later leaving a room through a narrow hole; in the first photo a man stands to the left of the opening, in the second photo another man stands to the right. But in the full frames not only are both men present in both photos, there is also a lot more space around them. The full photos are more spacious, more static; they even look staged. So it's quite understandible why Rodger chose to focus more on the central action, like he did in many other photos. The pictures attain more drama, more directness, more intimacy too. But why did they lack these qualities in the original shots?

At first I just thought George Rodger wasn't really all that interested in the Nuba as people. He was on a trip through Africa to get rid of the horrors of WW II, looking for communities that had been untouched by civilization. He wanted to document what was left of tribal Africa and the Nuba Mountains were just another stop on the way. Friendly Meks, beautiful people, fascinating sports and great pictures, but Rodger also had other things to care about: his wife was pregnant and it was time to go home. In his introduction to Village of the Nubas Peter Hamilton describes the background to this trip to Southern Kordofan. He points out that the idea to travel to the Mountains came from Magnum in Paris. He also writes: 'It is evident that Rodger was fascinated by the Nuba people, at once so remote and yet remarkably friendly.' Does he refer to this remoteness because he too senses the distance in Rodgers photos?

Rodger's own text in Village of the Nubas seem to support the impression that he didn't get very close with the Nuba themselves. Most of his dealings were with the Meks and: 'Though the position of under-chief was often held by a Nuba, the chief was usually an Arab.' Rodger seems to assume without any reflection that the Mek's hospitality was the Nuba's. After describing in detail how the Mek of Masakin Qsar delicately goes about inviting his guests to a Sibr, he concludes: 'For such was the nature of traditional hospitality among the Nubas.' Meanwhile the Nubas are always primitives, giants; the emphasis is on their physical presence, their superb posture, their nakedness. Rodger does click fingers with the locals of Masakin Tiwal and he is certainly very sympathetic towards the Nuba in general, but there is little evidence of further interaction. Rodger's description of a meeting with the Aulad Hemeid Baqqara also provides various clues to his remoteness from the people he photographed.

Hamilton points out another explanation, quoting Rodger's friend Tom Hopkinson: "The photographer never comes between subject and viewer: it is, in a sense, his absence which allows the scene to happen." and adding: 'In Rodger's best work, the photographer is a witness, there on behalf of the reader, and as such, his pictures are always infused with a profound humanism.' Rodger's view of photography didn't allow him to become closely involved with his subject: he believed he owed his public a certain distance, an objectivity which would allow the viewer to feel as if he were looking directly at the scene, uncounscious of the photographers eye. Such an effect can only be reached by a very conscious effort of the photographer, who in doing so defines objectivity for his viewers. How much this applied to Rodger is clearly expressed in a short biography on www.eyestorm.com:

Rodger's philosophy lay in his need to convey to the uninitiated the force of a perceived reality. By simply recording what he witnessed and not mediating it through 'staged effects', Rodger believed he could avert falsity and achieve the integrity he desired. The dividing line, however, between being an objective witness and a professional perfectionist (or even an ardent propagandist) is a narrow one. At the end of the War, when Rodger realized that he was mentally arranging the emaciated corpses at Belsen into a most persuasive composition, he decided to abandon war photography forever.

There is little reason to believe Rodger changed his philisophy or his way of looking at the world when he left Europe. Although he never staged his Nuba photographs (much unlike Leni Riefenstahl for example), he definitly had a talent for assembling reality from reality. In Hamilton's words: 'All of his pictures have a spare and elegant composition, as if the shutter was only clicked when all of their elements had fallen into place in the viewfnder.' Rodger also readily accepted that the Meks were at least partly staging the gatherings. The Mek of Masakin Qsar 'would arrange for a ceremony of the utmost pomp' and 'since he did not want to be outdone in hospitality by the Mek of Masakin Qsar, the Mek of Masakin Tiwal invited us to a display of the stick fighting characteristic of his tribe.' (Remeber that the Mek of Masakin Tiwal is an Arab!) The Sheihk of Kau-Nyaro 'told us that during the night he had summoned the fighters from the neighbouting villages of Nyaro and Fungor, and they were ready now to challenge the fighters of Kau'. Nothing suggests that Rodger objected to it that pleasing him became a matter of prestige for the Meks.

All this being as it may, it doesn't quite justify my discomfort with the distance in the photos. To give this discomfort some solid ground, I want to refer to James C. Faris. He is known for two things: for his study of the body decorations among the people of Kau, Nyaro and fungor, and for his fierce criticism of Leni Riefenstahl. In an essay written for a conference on Photography in Cape Town, 1999, he first '...rhetorically [situates] Leni Riefenstahl so that no one [...] is prepared to like her. Then [argues] against any axiomatic "fascist aesthetics," [because] to dismiss it as "fascist aesthetics" actually inhibits a closer and more careful examination. Finally he situates her work in a broader context of Western photography. And this is an interesting part:

These representations are always stubbornly Western, and the subjects of the photography people of lesser power. It can be of the humanist sort, which it mostly is these days - grand, often color examples of their beauty, their potential contribution, their genius, or alternatively: their misery, their fall from grace, their victimhood, their loss - a resurrection of their totalities in distortions we have frequently seen, commonly after the physical destruction of them by the West.

But it is the West that so defines and hails such beauty and contribution or such misery, somehow as if subject peoples cannot be aware of it, living, as they do, outside the West’s time and space and consciousness. They are necessary fodder in some distinct way, for Western functionalist consumption. Indeed, such judgements are often of phenomena not appropriately considered ‘beautiful’ or ‘impoverished’ in indigenous tradition, but as part of a belief system grossly violated by the severance of its attributes for Western appreciation. It is as if we (the West) are to be admired and lauded for having appreciated them, or for having felt sorry for them or for empathizing with them, or for having rescued them, almost an anxiety if they are not ordered or preserved on our terms. We will not leave them alone, not take their own positions at face value—their histories become myth, their totalities severed for our reductions. In short, their subjecthood is reinforced, reproduced; their abjection is assumed natural, timeless, and outside discourse.

The word 'abjection' is out of place, but on the whole Faris has a strong point. Any photographer who goes out to satisfy a public's desire for exotic images turns the people he photographs into subjects of a westerner's view, no matter how good the intentions. That this even applies to George Rodger is illustrated by a curiosity signalled by Günther Dabitz in Geschichte der Erforschung der Nuba-Berge (history of the exploration of the Nuba Mountains): 'Remarcable is that Rodger in the text repeatedly speaks of the Nuba's perfect and proud nakedness, while in some photos the genitals of naked men had to be touched up'. If you put the 1955 le Vilages des Noubas next to the 1999 Village of the Nubas, you will see the differences, for example on pages 20, 40 and 60. (Quite a funny game: find the missing penis.) This emasculation is probably a concession to French publishing laws - which would underline Faris' argument. If it is something else... well, I simply refuse to speculate on it.

There's more to Faris interpretation. He discerns two possible positions towards the indigenous people: admiration and pitty, which are equally false because they both refuse to take their reality into account. Rodger, looking for the noble savage, admired the Nuba. Believing that their culture was about to be eradicated, he also pittied them. I believe he was aware of the disturbance created by his presence as a western photographer. This would explain completely why he kept his distance and why this distance is disturbing me. On the one hand he tried to limit his presence to a minimum, both to give an objective view of what was happening and because he was afraid to influence the Nuba by being there taking photographs. On the other hand he tried to capture the Nuba at a certain moment in time; to preserve them as a glorious memory of something that was about to vanish. Rodger knew he couldn't protect them from their fate as he imagined it, so he captured their life before it was gone. But how did the Nuba perceive their situation? Did they consider themselves to be primitive but friendly giants? This is what should make us alert: the space around the Nuba serves as a reservation, but the people photographed by Rodger are not timeless: they are trapped in nostalgia and a nead for innocence.

And where does that leave the Nuba of today? They were more or less forgotten after Riefenstahl's visits and it took a devestating civil war to bring them back to the centre of attention for a while. Again their cultural heritage was highlighted, this time by members of a Nuba elite who, themselves long accustomed to a modern lifestyle in Nairobi, London, Amsterdam or Cairo, presented the war against the government as a struggle for 'the right to be Nuba'. Journalists and relief workers were welcomed by singing and dancing people, specially dressed up for the occasion. How well this public relations strategy succeeded can be verified by reading just about any major news article from the archive. Meanwhile the leading Nuba, fully aware that the traditional way of life would be gone within a generation or two, were busy recording anything left of the old customs on audio and video tape, in order to present future tourists with more authentic looking folklore.

I am not saying that the Nuba fought for nothing. The reasons why many Nuba joined or supported the SPLA was the increasing pressure on their land by cattle herds and mechanised farming, the Arab militia that were raiding their village, combined with discontent over discrimiation and very poor public services. For most of the Nuba their culture itself wasn't the issue, but the fact that the Arab Sudanese completely disregarded their rights because they were 'mere Nuba'. In 1997 Yousif Kuwa pointed out to me - and I think he was right - that even when much of the Nuba culture disappears, at least the people have regained their dignity. To a certain extent they will be able to take matters into their own hands.

As to the illusions we might still cherish about the Nuba: a few years ago, when the SPLA force in the Mountains was about to collapse and the people of Korongo were forced out of their villages by the government army, I heard a western photographer praise the Nuba for their pureness, their happyness, their unity with nature, their kindness and their hospitality. The displaced people around him were laughing at him, saying to eachother that this man was definitively the most ridiculous of all the strangers they had ever seen.

George Rodger: Le Village des Noubas, France 1955
George Rodger: Village of the Nubas, London 1999
Eyestorm: http://www.eyestorm.com/magnum/bio_rodger.asp
James C. Faris: Photographic encounters: Leni Riefenstahl in Africa, Cape Town 1999
Günther Dabitz: Geschichte der Erforschung der Nuba-Berge, Stuttgart 1985