It was one of my random book purchases and yet it proved to be very satisfying. This particular edition is a sort of anthology of work by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher and shows images they took during a few decades of their fascination with Africa.
It’s a concept anthology, too, as it is focused on the cycle of life still very tangible and always present in lives of African people. The first pictures show newborn children with their mothers in very intimate and fragile moments of their lives only to move to pictures showing older children playing in quite often harsh African conditions, teenagers facing the ordeal of rites of the passage of their tribes, young men and women at the threshold of a new social group to end with touching photographs of the elders, their faces weathered by hard and challenging life and yet showing pride of who they are.
Pictures are wonderfully done and full of dynamics and life. We can see beautiful Masai warriors showing off not only their physical strength and courage but also the softer side directed toward their girlfriends, impressively ‘dolled up’ Wodabee charm dancers and mysterious and always veiled Tuareg camel riders. There are many portraits of people here but ‘Faces of Africa’ are not only about human faces but also about the fascinating and ever changing face of the continent.
The main reason I decided to buy this book was hope that it would contain pictures of ‘modified’ people and I was not disappointed as even though the authors were not focused on this facet of the African culture, it was impossible to photograph members of African tribes outside their culture and thus also their ways of adorning their bodies and marking stages of their lives. There are a few great pictures of Surma women wearing their impressive in size lip plates with pride and dignity, many photographs of Masai people and their stretched ears, a beautiful shot of a certain henna design and many wonderful examples of tribal body painting. Above all, however, the book shows how amazingly beautiful African peoples are, from giant Dinka men to slender Masai boys to fragile and yet strong Himba and Surma women.
Pictures speak for themselves but there are also captions added to all pictures to allow the reader/ viewer know some background about the culture and people shown. Each chapter is preceded by a short introduction which may seem a little pathetic at times but it always shows the authors’ fascination and love to both the place and its peoples.
While going through this book I got to think about the modifications and how different they are from our own. Even though they seem to be the same (stretched ears and lips, scars and tattoos), they are not about distinguishing their wearers from the crowd/ society; they do not communicate a desire to be different but rather an urge to be the same like the people around and their ancestors. People do it not because they want to but rather because it needs to be done and the feelings they derive from their ‘modifications’ are probably also different from ours.
There is a wonderful and fascinating variety to ‘Faces of Africa’ but also an amazing sense of relativity, truly showing that beauty is in the eye of beholder.
Carol Beckwith, Angela Fisher, Faces of Africa. Thirty Years of Photography, National Geographic 2009