Andrea Gjestvang has done a stunning thing: put faces and wounds together with the stories of the survivors of Utøya. She has just won the L’Iris D’Or for her project; many more awards are sure to follow. But she took time out of her celebrations to send us her portrait of Rustam Daudov, which now accompanies our interview with him. He was the Chechen boy who, along with two fellow Chechen refugees, tried to fight off the heavily armed Anders Breivik. His story, in his own words, here.
Natela Grigalashvili’s Raw, Rural Georgia
The Georgians, while famously expansive as hosts, also have ancient customs that no man wants to cross. A wiry, smiling Georgian explained this on the first day of my first visit ever to the country years ago: “For example,” he said, “if you said something bad about my sister, I would have to kill you. Or at least try. I don’t know if I could kill you, but I would definitely try.”
And yet there is an unalloyed charm to these customs. Georgia, for all its faults and sorrows, has kept its culture alive, in part because of the vibrant and intact agrarian life that is the heart of Georgia. That’s why Europeans and Americans who visit Georgia often fall so deeply for the place: its rural traditions remind us of who we used to be.
Very few photographers out there tell the story of rural Georgia in as raw and intimate a way as Natela Grigalashvili. She is from the countryside herself, and after a pioneering start as the first female photojournalist in post-Soviet Georgia, she has turned her eye toward the villages. Her stunning new project is called Georgian ABC, and she is currently funding it on Kisskissbankbank, a European Kickstarter of sorts. Go pitch in your bit there. It’s a book that deserves to be published.
I was honored to have the chance to speak with Grigalashvili from Tbilisi on Skype recently. Our conversation is now up on Roads & Kingdoms
I reached photographer Xenia Nikolskaya in Moscow while she was on an assignment for her new job as director for education and exhibition projects at Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency. She gamely answered questions from her iPad while on a break, but the topic was far from mid-winter Moscow. It was, instead, about her extraordinary book DUST: Egypt’s Forgotten Architecture. The book documents the abandoned palaces and salons of an Egypt you don’t often see in the headlines: the golden age of Cairene opulence.
But Nikolskaya’s interiors, shot from Esna in the south to Port Said in the northeast, largely with an old Horseman 6×9 camera, say as much about the decay of modern Egypt as about the luster of the country’s early years. Nasser may have kicked the wealthy owners of these mansions out of Egypt, but it was Mubarak who oversaw the political and financial rot that allowed a country to let its own history fall into such disrepair. And Mohamed Morsi’s new government doesn’t seem to value its cultural patrimony any more than its predecessors.
An exhibition of Nikolskaya’s work opened this weekend at the Medelhavsmuseet in Stockholm. If you, like me, won’t be making it to Sweden in the next little while, you might instead enjoy this (slightly) edited version of our conversation.
The indelible West African studio portraiture of Malick Sidibé, in a slideshow on Roads & Kingdoms today.
I was a journalist, but that wasn’t all. I was a journalist with a long-held admiration for Karim’s father. The reason I knew about Mali was largely because of his father, and because I knew about Mali, I also knew about Senegal, and there I had spent more than a decade of my life living. Senegal was the spinning top around which everything else in my life was balanced, and in part I owed that to Malick.
When I was at university in London, Malick Sidibe and another Malian portrait photographer, Seydou Keita, had an exhibition, and Sidibe came to speak about the collection. The exhibition had this amazing name: ‘You look beautiful like that’. The title came from a Bambara saying, but it also perfectly described the photographers’ ethic. Looking beautiful was the entire aim of their work, but it wasn’t shallow beauty. In their moment of history, beauty was political. It meant taking a people who had been, up until then, presented by the white man as savages, and showing them on their own terms, in their own style.
And what style! Gone were the photo postcards that inspired Picasso’s nudes, of young girls with glossy breasts, braided hair, intricately tattooed stomachs and beads twisted around every limb. Here instead were photos of a young man in a sailor’s outfit, a studded belt hung low around his waist, dark glasses, a wry smile, a pot of fake flowers at his feet, posing, proud and elegant. Or a trio of young friends, wide creased flares, loud shirts with wide collars, denim jacket and cigarette hanging out of the mouth, afros, cameras slung around their necks. Or a lady lying on a day-bed, a grand embroidered boubou, a matching headpiece, her shoes laid out demurely beneath the bed, a slight smile, inviting.
There were people posing with their children on the handlebars of a motorbike; there were whole families poised with the family sheep. There was a group of friends in sombreros; there is one, quite simply, sitting with his back to the lens, his wide-brimmed hat so vivid that you feel you can reach out and touch it. These were the photos that showed the world that the free people of west Africa were as modern as you. That they know more about looking lovely than you ever will. And that they, they know how to have fun with it.
From Rose Skelton’s story about her chance encounter with the son and the studio of a West African photography legend: Malick Sidibé
Louise te Poele The first photos from the series are my neighbours and their guests, who came from the Achterhoek region, and my father. And to complete my series I went out looking for people who could fit in, but nothing is posed.
The last two photos were made from two farmers in Amsterdam. I had gone to horse markets in the early morning together with my father and friends, but the people from the market were too damaged, they smoked too much and they ate too much fat. I was looking for the farmers I remembered from my childhood.
R&K So you had an idealized farmer in mind?
LtP I guess so… I wanted to show the beauty of these people, and I think it’s more personal. No one is going to take over the farm of my father, so for me this is maybe the last generation of farmers.
R&K What is happening with your father’s farm?
LtP My father is still running it so it’s still there, but I don’t think my brother or sister will take it over.
R&K And you?
LtP Ha ha no, maybe to build my photo studio in one of the sheds.
It could also be that when I went to art school, and my whole farmers’ background was gone. so when I came back there on that 50th party, I realized that they still were there. A part of what I want to say in this series is that these people are what they do: you see the land in their hands and in their faces.
R&K What’s your answer to critics who say this is demeaning to the farmers?
LtP I photographed these people as how I see them, and they are the most beautiful people I know.
R&K Is there an ethical problem with drawing on the pictures and otherwise manipulating them?
LtP No. My photos are my personal work, they are not pretending to tell the truth. I see my photos as paintings. The photo is the starting point, and I’m painting on it to enlarge the things which are triggering me.
R&K Last question, asked without judgement: How drunk were these farmers?
LtP I shot most of them at parties, [but] they could all walk straight.
Dutch photographer Louise te Poele interviewed, with slideshow, by Roads & Kingdoms