Winfried Bullinger is a German photographer known for his work photographing nomads in Central and Eastern Africa since the 1990s. His photobook At The Edges of Power is out now via Hatje Cantz.
Lia Marie Hillers
Lia Marie Hillers is an independent writer and organizer in fine arts and cultural sciences. Hillers holds degrees in art history from Freie Universität Berlin and contemporary art theory from the Edinburgh College of Art.
At the Edges of Power
Compiled by photographer Winfried Bullinger, At the Edges of Power is a photobook featuring portraits taken over ten years across six countries in Western Africa. Shot with a large-format camera, the photographs explore the complex relations between individuals, their tribe, their livelihood and the juxtaposing, encroaching influence of Western power.
What began as a fascination with remote, rural communities, necessarily evolved into a greater conversation about modernization and tradition for documentary photographer Winfried Bullinger. His forthcoming photobook, At the Edges of Power, concentrates 10 years of Bullinger’s portrait work in Western Africa, each taken with a large-frame camera. The photos, which at surface showcase individual personalities and tribal affinities, bear strong undertones of Western influence and the appreciable hardship of being a rural nomad in an increasingly modern world.
Bullinger, by trade a documentary and portrait photographer, has become an inadvertent scholar and spokesperson for his subjects. The unsettling discord between contemporary laws and development, climate change and the livelihood of nomadic peoples in Western Africa emerges in each of his photographs. Moreover, he manages to look backwards at the individual, peering into a history of tradition and survival in the face of mounting change. Bullinger speaks about these layers of humanity, referencing modern day conditions and tribal concerns, and about the interpersonal perspective informing each of his portraits.
Lia Marie Hillers: Hatje Cantz just published At the Edges of Power, a collection of portraits you took within the last ten years, depicting nomads in central and eastern Africa. The fascination with the subject matter seems obvious, looking at the broad range of these bold black and white photographs. But what made you return so very often?
Winfried Bullinger: I started taking pictures in the 1990s. The remote, rural life, far aside from most news coverage, caught my attention. The self-organization of nomadic or semi-nomadic life, their autonomy on the one hand and their dependencies on the other hand, were fascinating to me from the beginning. It soon became obvious, however, that there is a growing complexity to nomadic life. For example, there is a rather problematic concurrence of local codes and Western influence. The more I explored such relations and their setting, the more compelling it became to immerse myself in the subject matter, of course.
At the Edges of Power features photographs of, among others, the Beja, Afar, Nuer, Nyangatom, the Karamojong and the Turkana. The Bejar, for example, live in Sudan, Eritrea and Egypt. Their natural habitat encompasses three states. Returning to certain areas, gave me the ability to detect changes and gain a somewhat holistic impression of these vast areas of land.
“With the personal engagement came the urge to portray this great variety of each protagonist’s individual presence and yet to produce a cohesive body of work.”
— Winfried Bullinger
LMH: You take analogue black and white pictures with a large format camera. The negatives are developed in large-scale so that the person depicted typically appears in almost one-to-one. Despite their sculptural quality, the pictures feature something deeply individual. They are taken during the initial contact, picturing a brief encounter with the person vis-à-vis. How did these parameters evolve?
WB: There is a very concentrated nature to how most of the tribes sustain their culture, while their nomadic life meets an increasing amount of difficulties. The more I returned the more obvious it became that the serial aspect of my work played a substantial role. Whereas in the early years I would document landscape and architectures, my work soon concentrated on the portrayal of the people I encountered. With the personal engagement came the urge to portray this great variety of each protagonist’s individual presence and yet to produce a cohesive body of work. I wanted to create strong pictures of autarkic life, so the aim was to accentuate the graphic qualities immanent to their contrasts. The photographs are taken with daylight only and while I have eye contact with the person portrayed.
“I portray nomads far aside from the rapidly modernising African urban life, marginalized by their respective states and organized independently in the periphery… They prove exemplary for the complexity of progress management and the great unbalance between rural and urban development.”
— Winfried Bullinger
LMH: A number of the regions depicted are in economical and political crises. Civil war is raging in South Sudan. The publication creates a distinctive panorama of African life, widely neglected by European attention. How do these conflicts inhabit your portraits? Is there a pictorial significance in Edges of Power?
The Danakil Depression
The Danakil Depression is the name for the northern portion of the Afar Triangle, also known as the Afar Depression, in Ethiopia. It is a geological concavity resulting from the triple junction of three tectonic plates and has developed as a result of Africa and Asia’s moving apart. Volcanic activity, erosion, inundation by the sea and the rising and falling of the ground have all contributed to the formation of the Danakil Depression.
WB: The nomads depicted live according to premises that know no national borders. Communities can, on the one hand, form alliances and on the other hand produce rivalry causing so-called “cattle raids,” that is the stealing of livestock, or even deaths. Most of the indigenous tribes have a language of their own, not understood by their neighboring groups. Bearing testimony to territorial laws, the changing anthroposphere faces an increasing amount of natural modification.
Most of the nomads are herdsmen. Very few of them, such as the Hadza, are still hunters. They are dependent on ecological factors that can hardly be satisfied anymore. Herdsmen need to reduce their herds in order to survive the droughts, such as in the Danakil Depression in the Afar Triangle. The effects of globalisation and global warming, of social inequality and warfare have an immense impact on the people’s natural habitat.
I portray nomads far aside from the rapidly modernising African urban life, marginalized by their respective states and organized independently in the periphery. Hunters are being banned from their lands, because the traditional hunt—that they are dependent on—does not comply with current standards of wildlife and nature conservation. The clash of local codes and the state law, such as the prohibition of nomadic life as experienced by the Batwa, can lead to violent conflicts of many kinds. They prove exemplary for the complexity of progress management and the great unbalance between rural and urban development.
Hubertus von Amelunxen
Philosopher, art historian, editor curator, photography critic and professor for philosophy of photography and cultural studies, Hubertus von Amelunxen is the author of several books regarding the history and theory of photography. Amelunxen has curated several international photography exhibitions and currently serves as president and provost at the European Graduate School.
Wilhelm Hausenstein was a German historical writer, art critic, cultural historian, journalist and diplomat. He campaigned against national socialism and anti-Semitism prior to World War II and thereafter devoted himself to the Franco-German friendship as Germany’s first ambassador to France.
People of the 20th Century
People of the 20th Century is a multi-volume work created by German portrait and documentary photographer August Sander. Conceived in the 1920s and never completed by Sanders, Sanders spent the remainder of his life working on what he envisioned as a complete typological portrait of contemporary society in Germany, his goal being to document German people in a way that rejected his era’s social divisions. By 1945, Sander’s archive for People of the Twentieth Century included over 40,000 images.
“Observing Western influences, such as the Samsung labeled jersey by the Chelsea Football Club which the armed Dassanech wears in combination with a traditional chitenge, became a late favorite focus of mine.”
— Winfried Bullinger
LHM: In the text accompanying At the Edges of Power, Hubertus von Amelunxen quotes the art historian Wilhelm Hausenstein referring to August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century, explaining that, here, photography had understood its role in earnestly exploring the contemporarily essential by creating documents. Does that ability of photography—to differentiate and create visual outcome, conscious of its timely relevance—play an active role in your work?
WB: I don’t necessarily think that it plays a role consciously, but passively, over the years. A sort of topography of the nomadic life I depict emerged. Revisiting, as well as exploring, further regions within those vast lands allows for structural comparisons and yields interrelations. Putting into perspective what is being depicted, observing Western influences, such as the Samsung labeled jersey by the Chelsea Football Club which the armed Dassanech wears in combination with a traditional chitenge, became a late favorite focus of mine.
LMH: While we perceive, we reflect on what inhabits the nature of how we see. How is it possible to encourage dialogue regarding the global impact of our everyday conduct?
WB: How we see through a camera is of another nature than what we see with our own eyes, of course. Depicting how global conflicts are being fought locally, without directly illustrating the respective conflicts, is a practice I grew accustomed to naturally over time. Observing poverty as an absolute standard, being confronted with infrastructural difficulties and the day-to-day life in current areas of conflict soon became intrinsic to that practice. It was never the initial motivation, however.
Essentially, the experience relevant to me centers on the interpersonal encounter, on the portrayal of nomadic people in rural central and eastern Africa. It is through that direct encounter, I believe, that we can learn how to continuously reevaluate our own perception and thereby learn how to differentiate more knowledgeably.