Ovahimba Youth Self Portraits
This series of eighteen Ovahimba youth self-portraits was produced over a three-year period from 2012 to 2014 during multiple visits to the Kunene Region of Northern Namibia. They are part of the 30 self-portraits that form the complete “Ovahimba Youth Self Portrait” series.
Over the course of those years I had started by taking studio portraits of people in this area, and soon came to focus the project on young Himba men.
When I had previously photographed Himba people, I had inadvertently adopted a kind of fleeting, unfiltered touristic eye, characterized by the search for visual difference. I recognized that images of this culture were incredibly prolific, but that none that I had seen were contributing in any way to the documentation of their contemporary cultural identity. The rift between the representation and realities of these people became profoundly apparent.
Considering my position as the photographer, and the implicit power dynamic in portrait photography, I set out to create a series of portraits in which that dynamic was mitigated and shifted in favour of the sitters. By giving the young men the shutter release, I facilitated the opportunity for expression through self-portraiture, reducing my influence over the resulting images and allowing the men to construct their own identities for the camera.
Furthermore, in carefully regulating the ages of the sitters, I was attempting to narrow the societal and cultural difference between myself, a young white Namibian male, arguably Western, and them, as young, black traditional Namibian men. Moreover, this shared common ground allowed for a heightened sense of relation and interaction during the photographic process, which resulted in more natural performativity by the young men.
Much like west imagining and reimagining themselves and their identity in today’s ubiquitous selfie culture, these men performed for the camera, practicing the fluidity and fabricated nature of their identity on both an individual and cultural level.
In doing so we get to see these young men, as they want to be seen: traditional, contemporary and proud of whom they are. It calls for an end to preconceived visual assumptions, as the hybridization of their culture no longer facilitates such a clear-cut distinction between traditional and contemporary cultural identity.
I realised that these men, like other of their age, portray similar complexities and nuances of young adulthood. In the case of the young Himba men, their growing intrigue with Western society, as well as the desire to distance themselves from the purely traditional, comes in the form of appropriating Western dress, and their ability to perform, so freely, the various poses and identities that are evident in the work.