Dinka photography: exploitation or art?

says a recent series featuring the Dinka people of South Sudan raises questions of whether the world is still stuck in a post-imperial rut

Humans of New York captures the individual

Humans of New York captures the individual

Photographs of the Dinka people of South Sudan by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, although stunning, have raised important questions about consent and representation, and rightly so.

Looking at photographs taken by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, the exquisite beauty of the series is undeniable. They capture the exoticism of a culture different from our own. Whilst some might argue that this is part of their charm, for me they echo a fascination with ‘the other’ which I had been led to believe was left behind long ago along with the Empire.

To give a bit of background; the duo have been photographing tribes in Africa for 34 years, have lived and worked with some 150 ethnic groups, and have set up a charitable foundation for projects dedicated to the survival of such cultures. The most recent series features the Dinka tribe men, women and children- without clothes on. Photographs can be bought online for $600.

Beckwith and Fisher have emphasised the importance of their work as a way of recording cultures which are disappearing from Africa for posterity. Yes, the importance of capturing such cultures is undeniable- but this way of doing so negates the significance of the individuals which form the Dinka community.

The primary difference between this project and the hugely successful Humans of New York Facebook page is the degree of humanity the subject is presented with. In Humans of New York, each picture of an individual is accompanied with a snippet of dialogue about that person. You don’t learn about a general culture, faith, sexuality, or lifestyle- you learn about the human, their personal experiences and what has made them who they are at the precise moment the shutter button is pressed.

The contrasts with the captions accompanying Beckwith and Fisher’s work, for example, ‘Dinka Boy with Long Horned Bull’ followed by a spiel about the importance of bulls to the Dinka. Consequently, the subject is reduced to a mere case study.

Many have raised the issue of consent, arguing that people sunbathe topless on the beach, but wouldn’t be happy photos of such holiday frolics were being distributed around the globe at $600 a pop by strangers. In these photos, the Dinka are going about their daily lives- and one does wonder if the photographers fully revealed the implications of their intention- particularly considering most of the photos are of children.

Nudity, whether artistic or part of ones lifestyle, isn’t the issue here. At least not for me. Nor is the aesthetic value of the images. What is really concerning is the failure to acknowledge the individuality of the people in these images.