There is a palpable sense of self expressed in the young Himba men depicted in Kyle Weeks‘ striking ongoing photographic series, The Ovahimba Youth Self Portraits. The series captures the men’s distinctly unique personalities, but also reflects something universal about being young and being human; the viewer and the sitter are likely to come from vastly different environments, but the subjects’ expressions and openness create a cord of relatability.
After completing his BA in photography at the Stellenbosch Academy in 2013, Kyle returned to his home in Namibia, where he shot this project. The Ovahimba people are semi-nomadic pastoralists who live in the north-western part of Namibia. They have been viewed as one of the last groups of people untouched by Western civilisation, and this is often reiterated in the pictures taken by tourists. This negation of nuance in an evolving cultural identity echoes the Western world’s tendency to exoticise foreign cultures. The rift between representation and reality is what prompted Kyle to photograph the Ovahimba men. He chose subjects all very close to his own age, so as to narrow the societal and cultural gap and allow for a heightened sense of relation between himself and his subjects, which is conveyed in the candid, intimate portraits.
Initially, the photographs remind one of ethnographic portraits taken in the 1900s by Western photographers and documentarians. Such representations reduced subjects to objects, where the camera was merely a tool in cultural reductionism and served to maintain existing power structures. Thus, it is significant that this is a series of self portraits: Kyle puts the shutter release cable into the hands of his subjects, allowing them to take control of their own image. The power dynamic is therefore shifted: we see these young men as they wish to be seen, self-styled in their favourite items of clothing. The attire reflects a hybridisation of traditional cultural dress and Western influence: Puma, Louis Vuitton and Lacoste are worn with necklaces and beaded collars. Each outfit is a site of self expression: some T-shirts have been cut and reworked, bright colours and patterns abound and jackets are donned with downright swag.
The unmarried men of the Ovahimba all wear their hair in a single plait extending down the back of the head, with the rest of the head shaved. This is called an ondatu and indicates their status in society, in which they are designated the role of herding cattle (something they take great pride in). There remains a strong affinity for tradition and culture in the Ovahimba community. The portraits thus depict conscious reflection on cultural and personal identity in a rapidly modernizing, globalized world.
Ovahimba Youth is not only a beautiful series of images; it shows photography can be an empowering art form giving voice to individuality and raising significant issues in the ethics of representing difference.