Interview with Jack Picone

by Nanne op 't Ende
August 12, 2006

Jack Picone, born in Australia, based in Bangkok, is an editorial and documentary photographer with a great CV (see his website He made two trips to the Nuba Mountains, in 1994 and in 1996. In an email interview he tells more about his experiences in the Nuba Mountains, about his own work and about the role of photographers in general.

Girl from Tochjo (courtesy Jack Picone)

I became fascinated by the Nuba after seeing Leni Riefenstahl's photos. My research led me to SPLA commander Yousif Kuwa Mekki and we struck a friendship. In 1994 he was ready to give me permission to go in to the Mountains, but he wanted me to take guns for him. We would have these clandestine meeting in Thorntree Hotel and he would be in his room with his armed guards and he kept saying 'but you have chartered a big aeroplane (DC-3); I have given YOU access: why won't you take the guns for ME?!'

After explaining to him that this was compromising and leaning just a little to the side of unethical for me as a photojournalist, I suggested to him that I could take medicine for his people… When he finally agreed I was relieved, and at the same time I was a little disappointed that my first chance as a gun runner would not to get off the ground. Several days later on the apron of the airport my plane was ready to go but no shipment of medicine had arrived. I was forced to fly without it.

What did you expect to find when you went in?

My expectations of what I might see were a mixture of images from the past (by Leni Riefenstahl and George Rodger), and a more contemporary idea of what it would be like in 1994. I researched the area fairly thoroughly but it was still a 'locked' expanse of geography and had been for approximately fifteen years. There was a dearth of accurate information from inside the mountains.

In a story telling sense: the idea that this noble group of people living in a very remote region, that had been a closed door to the rest of the world, fuelled my imagination. It gave me a powerful desire to go there; document their lives and tell their story. I so much wanted to see how their world had changed in the time that eclipsed since Riefenstahl and Rodger had been there.

George Rodger was in the Nuba Mountains in 1949; Leni Riefenstahl first came there in 1966. Both felt they were documenting a vanishing world. Did you have a similar feeling in 1994?

Absolutely. I knew things were changing at a hyperbolic rate in the Sudan and in the Nuba Mountains. And even though I would only be able to spend an insignificant amount of time there, it would be valuable in terms of making a visual record of things as they were at that precise time and as they actually changed. It can be arrogant to act as an ethnographer, but it is several generations later, when people are trying to remember what the actual cultural norms of a particular ethnic group were, that photographs with accurate text and captioning become an invaluable resource for the current and future generations. I call them visual footsteps.

I appreciate the intimacy of your Nuba photos: you are close to the people and they are all right with that.

Your observation is correct: I was close to the people I photographed - as much as someone like me, from a completely different world and culture, could be. I took a lot of time with the people, and in general worked hard at getting a rapport with the elders of the tribe, and showing the appropriate respect. I enjoyed sitting down and talking to the people and hearing their stories. Mind you, some of it got lost going from English to Arabic to their tribal dialect, and back again!

I went very slowly with them. Each trip was for a month and on each trip I was ill. The first time with infections on my feet, so I could not walk and hence quite a few images are shot from a low angle. The Nuba made some wooden crutches to get around and some days they would just take me out and plop me down in the middle of the village, where I would shoot images of daily life.

On the second trip I got malaria really bad, high up in the mountains, and I believe I almost died. I was delirious for a week and incredibly ill. I had all the right anti-malarial drugs but sadly none worked.

I did not have to pay anyone to take their photographs. Most of the images were just gentle, subtle scenes of them going about their daily
life. The shots of the girls dancing, was a rain dance, or at least this was what they told me.

What was really interesting was how Islamic the Nuba were in the lowlands. But the higher I trekked up the mountains the more, 'original' they became. The Tochjo were particularly original and quite high. They said that they had not seen a white man ever before. There were some funny scenes at first, like the young girls with their elaborate tattoos who ran away screaming when they first saw me. When I spoke to the elders it transpired that they had said to them: ''where did you find him in the river?", because to them I had no pigment in my skin.

Another thing that was interesting was that they had never seen a camera before. They were not frightened by me taking a picture; they just saw me putting this black box in front of my face, and could not understand why I would do this?

You were fascinated by Riefenstahl's photos of the Nuba. What do you make of her iconography in her relationship to her work as a film maker for Hitler?

There are similarities between the two. Photography is very subjective, so it is open to individual interpretation, but in both bodies of work I feel that there is an iconographic style imposed by Riefenstahl. I don't feel her pictures are reflective of the Nuba and their unique way of life. The images can be beautiful at times, but they are almost sculptural, and seem heavily romanticized in composition; turning the Nuba into an artwork, an object of curiosity.

The images to me are not intimate; I don't see a personal connection between her and the Nuba; I don't see this empathy, which is usually evident when a photographer has established a rapport with his/her subject. On both trips I had some confirmation of this from different older Nuba, who were expressing unhappiness about the way Riefenstahl had got them to do things over and over again, until it looked perfect in the lens. One elder said she had made the entire village go out and do a 'rain dance' in the wrong season, because she would not be there at the time it was usually performed.

Photographers tend to be divided into two camps about this practice: those who don't see an issue with - as Susan Sontag put it - 'falsifying reality", and those who consider it deeply unethical. I fall into the latter group.

Several years later Riefenstahl, after seeing my images published, sent me a letter inviting me to Germany, so I could meet her and tell her about my experience with the Nuba. I declined the invitation, much to the confusion of journalist friends of mine, who were saying it would be such a great chance to be in dialogue with the woman who was said to be Hitler's lover. I just felt uneasy of being in the same orbit of a woman who was that close to Hitler… in retrospect it was probably a mistake not to go.

In your brief accounts of your trips you mention seeing a lot of violence, wounded people, burnt huts etc. I have not seen many images capturing this reality; at least you haven't selected any for your web galleries. Why?

There are several reasons for this, but the one which was of greatest importance to me was that I really wanted to photograph the extraordinary culture of the Nuba, i.e. stick fighting, wrestling, body scarification, tribal dancing, music and animist practices. I knew these cultural practices were changing for a raft of reasons. One of the most obvious at the time, was that the Islamic Khartoum government found the culturally complex practices of the Nuba primitive and barbaric. They were on a fast track to Islamize them and modernize them. I wanted to see how far they had got with this policy, and record what the Nuba were still doing within this context of cultural practice, as a record for posterity - as idealistic and ambitious as this may sound.

The policies that the Khartoum government was imposing at the time, were implemented through intimidation: attacks by the Khartoum government soldiers; burning down of villages; raping women and sending men to 'peace camps'. In my opinion it was tantamount to genocide.

On a pragmatic level: when I was trekking into the Nuba Mountains, we moved between the warring sides of the Khartoum government troops in the north and the SPLA forces mostly in the south. In a practical way, if we wanted to make it into the mountains we had to avoid the fighting in the lowlands. We achieved it, although at times we walked through villages that had been destroyed, and in darkness in the early hours of the morning we were forced to flee, when one village was riddled with gunfire.

The last reason there are few images of death and destruction, I am afraid, is a more personal and indulgent one. I had spent years covering war in different countries in former Yugoslavia, Africa, and Soviet Central Asia. I had seen too much death of local populations; friends I had worked with. I was very disillusioned, especially about African wars were mostly things never got better. I would see corrupt dictatorships get toppled, and for a fleeting time there would be hope, but soon the previous sadistic dictator would be replaced by the next corrupt dictator and the ordinary people would continue to suffer.

I really wanted to photograph something positive about Africans and Africa. And even though the Nuba were in a hard place, I saw this amazing resilience and beauty in them. I wanted to photograph them that way, to illustrate their extraordinary ability to endure and strive to survive under such diabolical circumstances. In my opinion they have a unparalleled spirit of perseverance. In short I wanted to photograph hope - not very objective but I believe in hope.

In 1997 a German doctor, when asked what he thought of the situation in the Nuba, just said, "Goma was worse". You have been to so many areas of conflict what did you think about the situation in the Nuba Mountains?

'Goma was worse': what does that mean? Every area of conflict is different, with its own inherent pathos; destruction; danger; political and social complexity. How does one measure which one is worse? Should I say: 'when I was in Rwanda when the genocide was actually taking place: that was worse then the Nuba Mountains?' Is a short dramatic war with great human cost and suffering worse then a long forgotten insidious war as was taking place in Sudan?

It seems to be pornographic to make that comparison in the first place; it is almost suggesting it is a competition. In either situation I would not like to hazard a guess. I just feel in either situation that on a micro level, the suffering and human loss for the ordinary person, especially for women and children, is immeasurable and is not quantifiable in human terms.

You often document violence, death, poverty, disease…did you ever feel that you couldn't take it anymore - that you had to quit?

All the time… Photographers and journalists go to areas of war zones for a raft of reasons. When I first went to a war zone, it was because I had read too many novels about war. One book by the author Laurie Lee, was the final catalyst for me going; it was a true story about the Spanish civil war, called: 'I walked out one mid summers morning'. The way he wrote about his experience seemed so essentially romantic in terms of adventure and experience.

A month later I was lying in a ditch high on a mountain in Armenia during the civil war, with a sniper on an opposing ridge doing his best to kill me. I remember being face down in a concave hole on the side of a mountain, listening to the sickening whirl of well placed high velocity bullets. I thought I was going to die any second now, and felt oddly calm. I escaped and felt invincible, and went on to cover that war and a further eight wars several times over, but had other near death experiences in far away places and lost friends along the way.

I later developed a more passionate belief in wanting to document the cost of war; the innocents of war: women and children. This still remains important to me today; to keep telling their stories and giving them a voice, seems imperative. I don't believe photographers or journalists can change or stop wars, but they can create awareness of the people caught up in wars. We still have the ability to remind society that these people are in distress and in need of help. People are fragile, human fragility concerns me.

It seems to me that your appreciation of human resilience is growing with the years. Is there some sort of turning point, a moment when people cease to be victims?

I think my appreciation of human resilience has always been there; it is probably just a little more evolved now then before. I have always been completely humbled by the way many people in unimaginable circumstances in conflict zones, show such extraordinary courage, stoicism, adoption and resilience. I often thought that with my privileged middle class background, if I would be able to behave in such a dignified and comparable way - and sadly the answer is quite clearly 'no'. It takes a special courage and fortitude that I know I don't have.

I think the turning point, where people stop being victims, is when, because of the extreme situation they are in, the only choice left is an instinct to survive. To be a victim in an extreme situation of upheaval, conflict or oppression, is confirmation of resignation and defeat. Giving up is paramount to dying.

Is a photographer ever more than a witness?

I feel it would be delusional and naive if a photographer thought his or her photographs would or could change the world. But to have an impact at times: I believe this is still alive and well. I have many stories on a micro level where my images/reportage have had a positive impact on people, both in the short term and the long term. One of them is the result of my trips to the Nuba Mountains.

After several weeks of living with the Nuba, and documenting their lives, I was forced to leave, because I had contracted malaria. The Nuba had been driven into extreme poverty by the Khartoum government, who oppressed them. They were living in a very original way: no roads, no electricity. On my one hundred and twenty mile walk out, I passed village after village with poverty stricken people who had also contracted malaria; many where dying of the disease.

Back in Nariobi I went to see various NGO's, one of whom was Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF), and told them of the dire circumstances the Nuba people where in. This resulted in MSF flying emergency supplies (especially anti-malarial drugs) into the area, and soon after they started implementing a long term project in the region.

There is a lot that can be done on a micro level to have impact, indeed a positive and rewarding impact on people we photograph that can be profound. Everybody looks at the top of the mountain but at times it is good to look at the foot of the mountain, things can be found there as well.

Anyone who has gone to the Nuba Mountains agrees that it is a special place, with special people. How are the Nuba special to you?

I first learnt about the Nuba because they are depicted in hieroglyphics on tombs in Egypt. They were taken there as slaves, and were guards to the pharos in life and death (they protected the pyramids that the pharos were interned in). Although there are fifty-odd different sub groups, who vary physically, they tend be aesthetically striking people. Their customs and folklore are varied; elaborate and complex. They are proud and noble people, with a strong sense of community, and they have a natural affinity with the land that they inhabit.

On a personal level: they were warm, curious, generous (although they had little) and caring. I witnessed their stick fighting, wrestling, dancing, scarification, harvest festivals. But probably my most enchanting experience was an old woman explaining the elaborate tattooing of women, and why it was they did it. She said the tattoos were made at three stages: when a woman forms breasts (on her arms); when she first menstruates (on the back and shoulders), and finally when she gives birth (on her stomach). For me, just that this idea exists is extraordinary, and that its importance is confirmed in such an elaborate ritual, suggests a complex and special culture in the first place. Each woman was tattooed differently, which was a statement of adornment as well. Each woman was a walking, living, breathing canvas of abstract art.

You said you would like to return to the Nuba Mountains; is it an unfinished story?

Yes, I would like to return. I felt an affinity with the people there. I have friends there and I would like to take images back to them to see and have. I felt an affinity with the landscape, the light and space. In many ways it felt like a very spiritual place. From the point of view as a documentary photographer it is very important to keep going back to groups of people you are documenting, delving deeper into their lives; trying to understand their concerns, their needs and their hopes.

The Nuba Mountains was a very difficult place to access on a regular basis, so it is still an enigma for me. I want to learn more. The story is very much unfinished; my visits were only the beginning of the story. There is so much more to be told about the Nuba.

To see more of Jacks work please visit his website:



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