Book Review: Southern Sudan
By Ashley Yu
As talented as George Rodger was as a photojournalist of WWII, his collection Southern Sudan is very problematic. The hamartia of ethnographic photography is that of dehumanizing fascination. It is condescending towards the native subjects, as if they are inexplicably mysterious creatures who refuse to assimilate to Western standards of modernity. The fascination often comes off as a reluctance to understand the Other. This is compounded by publishing companies, who release and re-release, in different combinations of packaging and covers, ethnographers from decades ago. Most of us cannot imagine Sudan past deserts and mud huts.
Authorized by the Sudanese government in 1945, British photographer George Rodger was the first to be allowed to document the indigenous people of the Nuba mountains and other tribes of Southern Sudan. Indeed, he was a pioneer in creating historically significant images of sub-Saharan Africa in the 20th century. We must not forget that his work is produced under constraints of his time, and was far more sensitive than his successors, including Leni Riefenstahl’s The Last of the Nuba (1973). However, we cannot ignore some of the problematic effects of his photographs, simply because there are worse things out there.
Rodger’s monochromatic photographs evoke a tenderness tinged with genuine curiosity as he explores tribal life with a more humanizing gaze. One of his first photographs depicts three dancers of the Kao on a hill overlooking the village houses. As one of the girls sit comfortably with her companions, they seem to be mid-conversation. The beautiful candid is simply of three women quietly enjoying the comfortable company of each other. In his portrait of a young Latuka girl, the natural sunlight gracing her features makes her almost ethereal, as she gazes confidently past the camera. Indeed, his images are influential by infusing tenderness with the portrayal of the tribal women to reject the regressive perception of the “noble savage.”
However, Rodger’s focus on indigenous rituals seems to overly sensationalize their tradition, accentuating the difference between the Southern Sudanese and his European demographic. There is no section within the book that contextualizes, for instance, why Latukan girls engage in particular body modifications. It very much carries the sentiment of : “Come look! They are so abnormal! Aren’t you glad we are more cultured than they are?”
Considering that the British occupied Sudan from 1896 to 1955, Rodger was visiting the Nuba with the connotations of being part of a colonial regime, creating even more ethical quagmires around his images. However, I do wish to reiterate that Rodger was a pioneer of visual anthropology and his desire to enter into Sudan for photographic documentation was of genuine curiosity, creating space in his images to recognize the existence of the Nubas. Yes, Southern Sudan is ethically dubious, but we owe current discourse on ethnography to Rodgers himself, the one of the first to at least attempt to talk about the people of sub-Saharan Africa.