The Face of Madagascar
Project info

I first went to Madagascar in the summer of 1992. I was traveling on a fellowship, studying the effects of family planning in the developing world. This large island , located off island off the southeast coast of Africa, experienced a doubling of their population after gaining independence from the French in 1960. On a map it looked so remote. I had to go. I was quickly captivated by the extraordinary beauty of the landscape and the openness of the people. I returned five more times. I traveled extensively all over the island, photographing my impressions of the island and her people.

On my first visit, I went to the impoverished, drought ravished south. There, French photojournalists from the neighboring island of Reunion were singling out starving children to feature on the front pages of their newspapers. When an emaciated woman at a feeding center thrust her sick baby in my face demanding I take a picture, I fled. This is not what I wanted to say about Madagascar.

I headed for Ranomafana, which means "hot water," home of a natural hot spring and National Park, and spent the remainder of my trip hiking in the rain forest
counting different species of lemurs and learning as much as I could about Malagasy culture. When I returned the following year for a three month stay I knew I wanted to focus my photography on every day life. As the pictures emerged I wanted to insure they captured the spirit of the Malagasy people. While at the Ranomafana Park I had hiked to remote villages where I had listened to village elders recount stories of their pasts. With the help of an interpreter, I understood these accounts were elaborately woven together with proverbs.

For the Malagasy, proverbs are a form of poetry and literature. Through the use of this style of metaphor, they address ideas about all aspects of life. Choosing the appropriate proverb for a particular situation is an indication of great wisdom. Constructing a speech using proverbs is a skill that is much admired and respected. When asking for a women's hand in marriage, a young man will prepare a proverb laden speech to present to the woman's father. If the young man speaks eloquently, he is likely to win the father's approval. If a suitor possesses no such skill, he might ask another to do it for him (rather than risk losing his intended). I decided it would be appropriate to have the elders assign proverbs to go with my photographs. That way, the project would be a collaboration: my vision of
their multifaceted country, and their distinctly Malagasy interpretation of my vision.

Listening to the elders was mesmerizing: the proverbs expressed intuitively and eloquently many essential aspects of the culture I had tried to capture in the photographs. In 1995 , I spent several weeks consulting with the elders. Often fueled by Coca-Cola and occasionally rum, the old men would engage in lively debate about the meaning of a particular proverb and its relevance to the photograph in front of them. Translating the proverbs from Malagasy to French and then to English proved a challenge. Maintaining the spirit of the language, what it hid and what it revealed, as well as a sense of the cadence, while having the words make sense to an English speaking audience was critical if the poetry of the language was to be maintained. After much work by many, I think we prevailed, (which sounds like a proverb)!

In the series presented here, I have presented photographs with the proverbs assigned to them by the elders. There are roughly 150 photographs in this project. They were shot between 1992 and 2001. When I returned in 2001 I began "Out of Place" using color film and a Mamiya 6x7 camera. These were made with a Canon F-1 and 35mm black and white film.