The rawness of Kyle Weeks’ photography delivers a bold statement on how African people are viewed, represented, and often misinterpreted. Born and raised in Namibia’s capital of Windhoek City as a white African (his mother American/German, father South African), Weeks adheres to the ideal relationship between the artist and his subject, in order to effectively capture what he wants his subject to portray. The success of his series, “Palm Wine Collectors”, thrives off the interaction between authenticity and presentation (rather than representation). By capturing real moments, he illustrates the relationship between humans and their work in the palm groves of the Kunene Region of Namibia. The subjects are amidst their labour; there is nothing glorified or illusive in the subjects’ work. Weeks aims to eliminate and challenge global stereotypes that are imagined against Namibians by capturing the realist representations of individuals, not just the general idea of their culture.Weeks consistently places a strong emphasis on the importance of the artist-subject relationship. The objective of his series, “Ovahimba Youth Self Portraits”, is to exhibit the adjacency of traditional and modern culture among youth from the Himba ethnic group as they negotiate the past, present, and future. This project consists of 18 portraits of young Himba men, and was produced over a 3-year period consisting of 4 trips to Namibia’s Kunene Region. Weeks allowed his subjects to choose when and if the camera shutter captured an image. This gave the subject full agency in how they are presented, rather than a version of themselves under the control of Weeks behind the lens. Weeks was interviewed by Alyse Goodacre for Needs&Wants Paper, and shares his process behind these two projects:
First of all: where are you from? Where did you grow up?
I was born 25 years ago and raised in Windhoek City, the capital of Namibia. My mother is part German/American and my father is from South Africa. I went to school there for a while, then moved to Cape Town to study photography for three years at Stonbosh Academy.
How did you fall into photography?
I never actually considered myself artistically inclined at first, but then in Grade 11, I met a woman who had moved into my hometown from Johannesburg. She would take pictures of us skateboarding and I enjoyed watching her
work. She offered to give me lessons and then I started in earnest, for fun. It didn’t take long to realize I wanted to pursue it as a career and then I went to study it from there. I also travelled a lot with my father, through Namibia specifically, so we did a lot of camping trips up to Northern and Eastern areas I suppose that also inspired me, wanting to document my travels visually.
You can definitely see this in your work, as a form of documentation and being an observer of the world. Is there anything in contemporary culture that drives your work?
Once I started studying, capturing people and the way they live occurred for me quite naturally. Inspired by my classes, I began to lean towards the history of representation on the African
continent, starting from colonial photography and then delving into the relationship between the subject and the photographer throughout the history of the photographic medium in Africa. In my third year, I wrote my thesis on the representation of African communities. This interest is at the crux of my work now.
Some context too: with my mother originating from the States and Germany and my father being South African, growing up as a white African but of western descent, just looking at the complex relationship embedded in photographing African people with my background was interesting. This is still a common thread that unites my fashion, commercial and personal work. In particular, I’m fascinated by the representation of African men and their youth culture. Some of my projects comment explicitly on this connection.
Right! Can you tell me a little about the Youth Self Portrait Project?
Sure! I started photographing people who inhabit the northern region of the area [in Namibia] called the Kronenja Region. I made multiple trips over three years to produce the self-portrait project. I travelled around with a makeshift studio setup, usually travelling two to three weeks at a time across the land trying to find these young men, usually giving them a day in advance to give them to prepare themselves and choose whatever they wanted to wear.
Once I started becoming more aware of the overhand tradition, I realized that there was a huge rift between the representation and the realities of that culture. I suppose because the bulk of imagery produced in that area is made by Westerners. If you look at how the
Namibian government purports the image of these people as unchanging and traditional to stimulate tourism, almost primitive, so people travel to marvel and reinforcing these stereotypes, it becomes a vicious cycle. I began to realize that men specifically were not often photographed, I think because the women would not appropriate any sort of western dress. Instead, they walk around bare breasted, often covering themselves only with okara to protect themselves, a form of insect repellant. This visibility is quite exotic, so generally the woman and children are the most common subjects.
My interest lay in the men of Ovahimba, who would don western dress in interesting ways. Every article of clothing was modified – they would cut each piece up and resew them, fusing colours and combining materials. I wanted to close that gap between myself and them, which is why I only photographed men between the ages of 18 and 26, just to create
some sort of mutual relatability. A lot of that mentality informed the foundation of the project: adhering to the ethics of photographing these people without othering them, I also wanted to dull down my own voice in these photographs and really just give them the opportunity to represent themselves in how they would want to be seen.
It’s a really beautiful project! It must be a challenge to represent a minority as to how they want to be represented, especially one so devoid from your own way of life.
I wanted to produce images that focused on positive aspects of these tribes, highlighting their individuality and their post-colonial identity and just how globalization has affected these areas already, but that there is also a balance between their tradition and modernization in contemporary culture. We have to preserve their truth.
How did you find yourself getting to this point where you were connecting to these people? How could you make then genuinely trust that you had their best interests at heart?
Well, I made quite a few trips there over the years. I always travelled with a translator so this helped communicate my aim of the project. I also made sure that the translator was a young man, so we were less intimidating. Even though there may have been some initial skepticism at first, once a few of them were participating and the other men saw how much fun they were having and that I was really just letting them take photographs of themselves, they were pulling funny faces and acting out in front of the camera. It made them want to participate, they were calling each other out for the poses they were striking. It became quite fun.
“In particular, I’m fascinated by the representation of African men and their youth culture. Some of my projects comment explicitly on this connection.”
I saw that you would give them the cable… Usually when someone takes their photo in that context, it can be nerve-racking, as it is such a vulnerable position.
Going back to ethnographic photography for a moment: there is a pronounced imbalance in the photo between the subject and the photographer in which the photographer assumes complete authorial control over the image. By giving them the shutter release, I reduce my control over their image and let them act as their authentic selves in front of the camera.
Can you tell me about the palm wine collector photo series?
In the aftermath of the youth self-portrait series, I printed out about 90 posters depicting all of the men that had been involved in the project, alongside thumbnails detailing their name, their age, and where they were photographed, coupled with a thank you note in their native language. I had driven back a year later to
distribute these among the men who had participated, and upon my return they were shocked to see me there.
There was one man named Wakarelaha – he appears in both projects. It was about the second or third time I had seen him and he was so excited. He led me through the palms and he showed me one that was still being tapped for palm wine. I had been aware of this practice for quite some time. If you drive along the Komane River you can see quite a few dead palms that have already been tapped, but I hadn’t actually seen one yet in being harvested.
We climbed up the trunk together, and he had me taste this wine, fresh and sickly. It tasted absolutely horrible, but the view was majestic. The palms swayed in the wind, and the ground below was miniscule, the trees are so tall. I saw four grown men climb and sit at the top at once.
I took a few photos from this crown on my little Leica 35 mm, and then we drove further
down the river. I remember seeing another palm being tapped and I walked down there and asked him if I could take a photo of the process. I soon realized this was something they were extremely proud of.
Having the previous work with me, building this relationship with the community, was very meaningful to me . It allowed me to understand how dynamic this culture really was, to push against the fact that it isn’t as single faceted as the post-colonial image suggests. Getting to reveal the truth, their truth, and how they see the world in their eyes without proselytizing or authoring, was profound.