Friday, 31 December 2010

Cattle Camp Sartorialists

The weekend before I left Sudan (I am now in England), a friend took me to visit a cattle camp where his brother was looking after their cattle. I am getting really interested in how people who live in towns organise their herds and their relationships with rural kin…this was a perfect opportunity to ask a long line of questions. Although the real reason for visiting was to bring vaccinations to the cattle and for the brothers to meet before the cattle camps move further out into the toic (flood plains) and become difficult to access.

It was an early start, and our motorbike got a flat tyre so we had to walk the last bit, made it fine in the end. Some time after we arrived a large crowd formed around us. The reason for this crowd, it emerged, was a desire for ‘sura’ – photos.

I (not so secretly) really love it when people ask me to take their photo.  It’s just so fun. I love how, with a digital camera you can show the photos to people afterwards and it’s always a good reaction. How dull the photography experience must have been in the days before digital cameras. Just, snap, that’s it, all mine. But, I also enjoy taking photos because I am fascinated by the way that people choose to present themselves and compose the shot. Image and beauty are important everywhere and being photographed just makes people pay attention to the details and ensure everything is just right.  And how people make themselves beautiful is just so interesting. In the process of arranging clothes, people and props the “subjects” are often the most active in creating the image.

Most requests for photos came from young men who wanted photos of themselves with their display oxen. I am still trying to understand the meaning and role of these song oxen, (also called song bull/personality ox/display ox). Francis Deng says that young men identify with them as symbols of virility and wealth. And, from research in Upper Nile, Sharon Hutchinson has seen them as a marker of the link between masculinity and cattle wealth.

Well, I couldn’t say no to these photo requests. Below are some of the results of a considerable amount of grooming (of people and cattle) and posing. I took these, but they aren’t my creations.

Reflecting on my photos made me think more about historical photos from Southern Sudan and wonder what went in to their composition. There are very few written records for the area I am studying and I am beginning to realise the stories that are lost to the written record, but still survive in the visual (more to come on this in a future blog…or you might have to read my PhD thesis!). All of these photos are from the brilliant Pitt Rivers museum Southern Sudan resource

Nuer Youth (with display ox), from Eastern Jikany Gaajok in 1935. Photographed by E.E Evans-Pritchard 
Dinka man with an ox, in Warrap, 1947-51. Photographed by Godfrey Lienhardt
Two Mandari youths with their display oxen, in Bahr el Jebel,  1950-52. Photographed by Jean Buxton

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