20 Jun Photo Essay: The Himba men harvesting wine from Namibia’s Makalani palms
Looking at Kyle Weeks’ photographs, one’s curious to know how he finds his subjects. Take his latest work, Palm Wine Collectors. A series of portraits of men photographed during the process of palm wine tapping. They appear nimble and fierce holding onto graceful palms, and towering above the ground they illicit wonder and awe.
The story goes that while Kyle was on his way to distribute prints to the young Himba men who participated in his previous project, he met Wakarerera Tjondu, who introduced him to this illegal practice. Makalani palms are protected by Namibian law, but these men believe that as long as their actions are respectful, they have a necessity to uphold cultural traditions and should be allowed to utilise their land.
Selecting a suitable palm is a rigorous undertaking. “The process begins by selecting a well-aged, male palm. Its size and proximity to ground water will determine the amount of sap it produces, with some palms secreting over one hundred liters. Once selected, the trunk is then pierced with stakes carved from harder wood that act as steps upward toward the leaves and flower at the top. In order to attain the sap, the men behead the palm by cutting its crown from the trunk. This sacrificial act will eventually cause the tree to die, but first the white sap rises upward filling a hollow carved into the trunk. The secreted sap is sweet and alcohol free but due to naturally occurring yeasts it quickly ferments and produces an alcoholic drink traditionally known as ‘Otusu’,” explained Kyle
For him, portraiture is an empowering medium. As a tool, contemporary photography has shifted from being an oppressive colonial device and become a means to establish new narratives and identities – touching both on cultural and personal aspects. Portraiture can drive important dialogue on the art of documentary and explore the ethics of representing cultural difference.
He highlights the difference between a photograph and good portrait saying that “A photograph will always only depict the surface of things or people. Good portraiture, however, goes beyond the superficial and reveals something about what it means to be human”.
Kyle’s personal heritage has had a huge influenced on his visual exploration of representational politics and subversion of stereotypes. He considers himself an African of Western decent and is fluent in German, despite having an American mother and South African father. As an artist, he preferences collaboration, knowing all too well the intricacies of representation.
It’s vital during his process that subjects are photographed in the way they want to be seen an outside audience. “Usually, I let the subjects perform for the camera, giving very little direction but rather letting them experiment with the construction of their own image. Then of course there are the formal aspects such as shooting from a slightly lower angle and handing the subjects the shutter release to give them full control.”
To capture the series, Kyle travelled with a translator and discussed the production of each portrait with the people in them. Locating palms isn’t easy, the trees are usually hidden from the roadside, and so much time was spent walking for long periods on foot.
The Palm Wine Collectors series is testament to young Himba men and explores ideas of agency, self-fashioning and mobility. They’re evocative images filled with assertiveness and endurance from the subject and artist, who together have exposed a lesser known narrative to a wider audience.