So in fact, working quickly without technical limitations, meant in every sense, I was able to realise the pictures I had pre-visualised – that ‘stare in the camera’ moment.
But technically it was an evolving obstacle course, that required constant adaption, finessing – a change of settings, changes of place. But as each day progressed I began to work this out – where to place the backdrop and where to place the subject. Yonas and I would park our vehicle and amble along a dry riverbed, set up the backdrop under a tree. And wait. Someone would always wander by, and we would get our shot. And in the placing of my subject and the backdrop accordingly, I was able to offset the brightness ratio of the scene, but also introduce a textural element that draped across the image, adding further depth and aesthetics.
Many days I felt like I was fire fighting, most days I appreciated that I needed a backdrop that was at least twice as large and truly black, and if I ever return to repeat, I will know these things in advance – I will do things better. But somehow, the frailties in the process forced this Heath Robinson approach to problem solving, which in turn generated an immense energy. And it drove me on to create the work that fills these pages, and which I hope stands as testimony to something extraordinarily important.
The AK47 is replacing the spear. It’s not a definitive statement. The spear abounds still, and the Kalashnikov too. I have this image printed, and in a gallery in Paris. It’s 150 x 100 cm. It has nearly been sold twenty or more times. But at the last minute, it has always fallen through. Until now. Previous potential buyers have jumped to those conclusions that images seem to provoke in people. It’s a child soldier, a women with a gun, such aggression, same old Africa. None of which are true of course.
It is true that inter-tribal conflicts have existed for thousands of years, as indeed wars across the globe, have been prosecuted since the birth of man unkind. But these are rare events, driven largely by famine. The main reason for spears, AK47’s, weapons of any kind, is to both hunt for food, and in other eventualities, to protect against predation by wild animals
I have now sold that print, but the husband and wife still argue over it. It does not reside in their home, for fear of misleading their children – it is hidden in the husband’s office. He likes the story, likes the truth of it.
Like all invading forces, tourists leave a lot behind. And the locals seem to make good use of this. They integrate it, almost seamlessly, and almost without incongruity, into their dress. Soda bottle tops, a watch, a tourists gift of a bra – all donned with ease, all so well fitted to their traditional attire.
It’s a world on collision, and it’s both painful and beautiful to observe. But like all cultural shifts, it occurs like glacial slip – slowly and imperceptibly, but inexorably. It is unstoppable. You can travel anywhere in the developing world now, and every third person is wearing a Premier League football top.
In 2000, I was standing by the side of a dusty road in Ethiopia, approximately in the middle of nowhere. I had never felt so far from my reality. It felt to me, like Africa must have felt to the first explorers. In the distance, the rising sun illuminated a dust trail kicked up by an approaching lorry. I stood in despair as it hurtled by. Emblazoned along its length were the words ‘Coca Cola’. I knew then that the game was up.