Dori Caspi, Himba tribe, Namibia.
Susie Pentelow meets Israeli artist Dori Caspi, whose photographic work offers an intimate look into the lives of villagers from African tribes facing extinction.
What drew you to the medium of photography as a means of artistic expression?
All along the years, I have worked as a lawyer. I was never into art or photography. Then, in 1998, came Africa. I found myself participating in a 4x4 trip touring Namibia and Botswana, in the southern part of the continent, totally overtaken by the ultimate mix of virgin and unspoiled terrain, wildlife and tribes - zealously keeping their ancient tradition aging thousands of years. This is when it all started. Outburst, with great intensity, a desire for the black continent that probably was always inside, suppressed and hidden, ever since the days of my Tarzan books, the tales of my South African photographer uncle and the National Geographic magazines I eagerly ‘swallowed’ as a child. I started traveling by myself into the African wild.
By almost imaginary circumstances, I arrived at a small desolated Himba village in the remote north-western corner of Namibia, and was immediately captured by the ancient ways of life of the tribe’s people, by their inner and physical beauty and by the shear love with which they have accepted me. Without understanding why or how, a deep passion emerged for photograph the tribes’ people, who, with time, became second family to me, from a very intimate and emotional point of view. Since then I have never ceased photographing.
Much of your career has been dedicated to the photography of the people of the Himba village in Namibia. What first prompted you to study this culture?
I was never drawn to “study” the Himba culture and I never used my camera as an anthropological or research like tool. True, along the time I got deeply acquainted with the Himba fascinating traditions, but my photography with them always came from an emotional and personal related source. I was amazed by my mere presence inside their huts, fascinated by their beauty and esthetics and I got attached to the people. Today, looking back, I understand that photographing the Himba simply came out of love.
Dori Caspi, Omo tribes, Ethiopia.
In contrary, my recent project, with the Omo Valley tribes from Southern Ethiopia, expresses a totally different photography concept. Here I approach photography being much more rational, conceptual, calculated, and aware of relevant political and social issues. This project did not evolve from an emotional source, even though I am told that my love to the African people is being expressed in these photographs as well.
Do you consider your work political in its focus on societies that face the danger of extinction?
I can draw a clear and conscious separation between the inner place from which I photograph - the energetic source to my art - and the meaning and connotations which might arise from my work. My art is not political, nor does it carry ideological flags. My urge to photograph arrives, first to all, from an artistic, aesthetic and emotional place.
Saying that, I am fully aware of the importance of my work in the documentary aspect. I have no doubt that on historical time dimension, the Himba, like the Omo Valley tribes, are in the last minute of their existence as traditional tribal societies. The changes which these tribes are going through, those enforced and those at will, are powerful and swift more than ever before. Roads are being broken into the tribe's isolated regions, their lands are being given to huge corporates, and cellular communication is arriving at their huts. These days, almost all tribesmen walk around with cellular hanging on their chests. This is not the beginning of the end. This is an end itself, and in some sad way - my art documents its last moments.
Dori Caspi, Omo tribes, Ethiopia.
You have also worked with film - notably in your documentary “Cry Of The Owl”, a collaboration with Erez Laufer. Was it strange or difficult to share with another artist the extremely personal relationships you and your subjects had formed?
‘Cry of The Owl’ is a very intimate film. It is not about the Himba. It is with the Himba. I clearly knew that in order to be able to keep my intimacy with the tribes’ people and produce a product which is not characterized by anthropological distance, but by personal proximity, I would not shoot this film with a crew. It had to be only Erez and myself. Him, with professional know-how and a camera, and me, with my connection to the people and knowledge of their ways. It was clear to me that Erez, with his delicate and tender personality, would be accepted by the tribe, and so it was. In order to successfully deal, only the two of us, with technical issues in such a desolated and remote, sometimes hostile, area, we had to improvise all the time. Shooting the film, during few trips along a period of eighteen months, was an adventure worth a movie itself.
What are your plans for your work in the coming months?
In the coming year I plan to travel few more times to the Omo tribes, and photograph from a different approach. If until now I mainly photographed individual’s portraits, now I wish to work with a “wider lance”. My intention is to photograph familial compositions and group situations, but still from a personal angle, emphasizing the individual, its place in the family unit and in the tribal society, trying to preserve and express the uniqueness and pride of each of these tribes’ people in such situations.
For more information on Dori Caspi’s practice, visit http://www.doricaspi.com.