Jim Naughten: Conflict and Costume in Namibia

Conflict and Costume
(c) Jim Naughten, courtesy of Klompching Gallery, New York
Otruppe cadet proudly displays his partly home-made uniform.

Resting expectantly on the roughly cushioned seat of his motorbike, Jim Naughten was entranced by his first glimpse at the lunar landscape of Namibia.

“I felt as though I had been transported to a different planet,” he writes in the introduction to his forthcoming book, Conflict and Costume. The landscape was scorching and inhospitable, and for the recent college graduate, as foreign a world as he could have found.

On this land — marked by the remnants of the world’s oldest known cave paintings and still trodden by today’s remaining nomadic tribes — Naughten found a world of crises and celebrations — the twisted braids of culture and colony that have given birth to modern Namibia.

“Namibia was a country of contrasts and paradoxes,” Naughten writes. “I was hooked.”

Specifically, it was the Herero tribe that would bring Naughten back, some 15 years after watching his first sunrise over Namibia’s eastern expanse. This time, with digital camera in hand, Naughten set out across the desert by car, camping each night, and photographing throughout each day — from weddings to funerals and all ceremonies in-between.

“For me the Herero story, illustrated by the amazing costumes and uniforms, is one of survival, pride and defiance,” Naughten told TIME. The process of photographing his subjects on a landscape silently marked by the fingerprints of history, gave the Conflict and Costume gravity — the images tugged at something deeper.

In part, that “something deeper” is the colonial experience — a force communicated through the Herero’s adoption of Germanic-style military or dress attire. Namibia, is bordered by Angola to the north, Zambia to the east, South Africa to the south and the Atlantic ocean to the west, and came under German rule in 1884 – a political decision thought to forestall British Colonial expansion from South Africa up the western coast.

“The project led me to read a great deal of colonial history,” said Naughten, noting that the story of the German Herero war is not widely known at all.

German occupation led to decades of indigenous struggle, which almost led to the extinction of the Herero people. Specifically, the German-Herero war between 1904-1907 resulted in the loss of nearly 85 percent of the Herero population.

“Namibia’s colonial history is extremely complex and fascinating,” said Naughten. “But amidst twists and turns are stories of the most unbelievable inhumanity.”

But from those struggles have grown an obsession with dress — or costume — amongst the Herero.

Naughten told TIME that, according to custom, whenever a Herero warrior would kill a German soldier they would take his uniform, considered to be a badge of honor and an act that would symbolically “take their power.”

Today, many of the uniforms are merely bartered, bought or sold, but the influence of the early German colonial wares has led the Herero to adopt other more European elements of fashion. In this remote corner of the Namib, European style of dress has become a celebrated aspect of the modern Herero’s identity.

Interestingly, despite a fervor for military marches and battle dress, the Herero people no longer have a traditional standing army. The parading men are mere community groups, who march for display, accruing respect and rank by virtue of their frequency of attendance, as well as the appearance and quality of their uniform.

There’s little or no political motivation behind the work, Naughten said. His process, and his approach to photography, is based on a basic method: find a story, explore with the camera, and make pictures of where the story takes him.

Unlike his first trip to Namibia, however, digital photography has limited Naughten’s ability to share his work with his subjects.

“It was much easier when I was able to give Polaroids to the people I photographed.” he said. “Now with the digital technology it’s not possible, and very few people I worked with had access to email.”

When asked about the value that Conflict and Costume might provide, Naughten refers to the curiosity that kept him engaged with Namibia throughout the years.

“I would like people to become more interested in Namibia and aware of the history, and just maybe pick up some further reading.” Naughten said.

Jim Naughten is a photographer based in London. His book, Conflict and Costume, will be released March 1, 2013 by Merrell. This work will also be shown from March 5th – April 13th at the Margaret Street Gallery in London, and from March 14th – May 4th at Klompching Gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y.. Last summer, TIME commissioned Naughten to photograph the athletes of the 1948 London Olympics.

Related Topics: , , , , , ,

Latest Posts

2014.  Gaza.  Palestine.  Schoolchildren head to class at the Sobhi Abu Karsh School in the Shujai'iya neighborhood. Operation Protective Edge lasted from 8 July 2014 – 26 August 2014, killing 2,189 Palestinians of which 1,486 are believed to be civilians. 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.  It's estimated that 4,564 rockets were fired at Israel by Palestinian militants.

Inside Gaza with Photographer Peter van Agtmael

What photographer Peter van Agtmael encountered in Gaza changed the way he worked.

Read More
WASTELAND PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic magazine dated December 2014 and exclusively in conjunction thereof.  No copying, distribution or archiving permitted.  Sublicensing, sale or resale is prohibited.     REQUIRED CREDIT AND CAPTION: All image uses must bear the copyright notice and be properly credited to the relevant photographer, as shown in this metadata, and must be accompanied by a caption, which makes reference to NGM.  Any uses in which the image appears without proper copyright notice, photographer credit and a caption referencing NGM are subject to paid licensing.        Mandatory usage requirements: (Please note: you may select 5 branded images for online use and 3 images for print/unbranded)1. Include mandatory photo credit with each image2. Show the December cover of National Geographic somewhere in the post (credit: National Geographic) unless using only one image3. Provide a prominent link to: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/12/superfund/voosen-textat the top of your piece, ahead of the photos 4. Mention that the images are from "the December issue of National Geographic magazine” GOWANUS CANALNew York, New YorkPollutants: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead, copperYear listed: 2010Carved from a tidal estuary 160 years ago, the Gowanus Canal is Brooklyn’s industrial artery—and a deeply polluted waterway. Even so, it’s frequented by herons, seagulls, crabs, and canoeists. Defying local fears of economic stigma, the EPA listed the canal as a Superfund site in 2010. It hopes to start dredging contaminated mud in 2016.

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 24, 2014

Mideast Israel Palestinians

The Best Pictures of the Week: Nov. 14 – Nov. 21


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,265 other followers