VOICES OF THE NILE
IN CONVERSATION WITH DUO BASTIEN MASSA & ARTHUR LARIE
Voices of the Nile is a project aiming at raising awareness on the vital importance of the Nile ecosystem by the photographer duo Bastien Massa and Arthur Larie. The two have been doing joint photo projects for many years. Working photo journalistically, they have been traveling through Ethiopia, where they spent four months at the source of the Blue Nile to do a series about Ethiopians and their relation with water.
Tell us a bit about yourselves. How did you both become interested in photography?
We are two young French photographers (Bastien and Arthur) working on a project along the Nile River. We have previously spent four months in Ethiopia at the source of the Blue Nile and we now have just left for Sudan and then onto Egypt following the flow of the river.
We come from two parts of France, Arthur is from Corsica and Bastien is from Paris. We both met during our time of studies in Aix-en-Provence. In our project, we try to embrace research, journalism, and photography. Photography is a medium to reach the diversity of humankind, it is an excuse to reach unknown worlds. Possibilities are infinite, you can spend time with fishing communities of the Nile in the Sudan and work with artist performers in Paris, these reasons might explain our interest in photography.
You have shared with us a series you call 'A Kind of Blue Nile' from Ethiopia. How did you come up with that title?
We have spent four months in Bahir Dar at the source of the Blue Nile, one of the tributaries of the main Nile. At Khartoum, the White Nile coming from Lake Victoria and the Blue Nile coming from Lake Tana in Ethiopia merge to flow towards Sudan and Egypt. This title is a reference to the iconic jazz album from Miles Davis. In addition to the direct reference to water and the Blue Nile, for this album, Miles Davis gave little indication to his musicians, just a general idea, and asked them to improvise on it. We did - at our own level - the same, we had the Nile and water as a guiding thread, and if we had more information than Davis’ musicians, we still tried to improvise some variations around this theme.
What do you want to express through your photography? What are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?
When you start photography you want to capture everything, especially while travelling. But in a world of images, it is really important to focus on what kind of story you want to tell, how you can deliver a new vision of a subject that everybody knows. Thus we try to look for the margin, if you take the Blue Nile falls in Ethiopia it is hard to create something new, all tourists, photographers have already taken millions of pictures of this place. So we tried not to capture the falls and instead we decided to follow the people coming back from the market to their homes. We were walking with them on the banks of the river and we could see how they live, close to one of the most touristy places of Ethiopia.
There are no particular elements that we try to include in our photographs, it is more about what you see and what you feel in a given moment. Sometimes you are on the move in the streets and you just have to stay aware of everything: lights, objects, colours, and people, because it goes so fast. But at some point you just experience a moment and have some time to find the perfect frame where you include all the elements you need, playing with lights and movements.
Tell us a bit about what we are seeing here? It appears to be a kind of religious festival?
We wanted to do a series about Ethiopians and their relationship with water at the source of the Blue Nile. How it affects their practical life but also the cultural and spiritual dimension of water. At the end of January, in the city of Gondar (the north-eastern part of the country), Christian Orthodox people celebrate Timkat, which represents the epiphany and the baptism of Christ. In Gondar, around 500,000 pilgrims from all over the region gather inside Fasiladas bath, named after one of the 17th Abyssinian kings. There, a basin is filled with water for the ceremony and after a night of prayer, the pilgrims, mostly men, enter the bath to get blessed by the holy water. You can definitely see in the picture a special connection between Ethiopians and water.
How do people along the Nile react when you take their photo? Are they friendly about it?
In Ethiopia, people have mixed reactions. Some are reluctant to have pictures taken of them and many will ask you for money. Cameras are not well accepted everywhere and we met some people asking "for what purpose". This is understandable regarding the fact that photography is held accountable for the past negative image of the country among the rest of the world. But this happens only when you take pictures without creating a connection. But you know, the reactions are as diverse as the people, some are shy, some are extrovert, some are suspicious, some are proud. And hopefully, we don’t all have the same reactions to a given situation.
Another point is that, as our stories need time, we spend some with people before taking pictures of them. We don't arrive with our cameras out. You have to create a dialogue, explain why are you here, and establish trust. If you break the ice, how they perceive your camera will somehow change, which is once again totally understandable.
How long are you travelling for, what else will you be photographing on your journey? Do you have any ideas?
We left France four months ago and will still be travelling for another four months in the Sudan and in Egypt. In the Sudan, we want to focus on the practical impacts of seasonal flooding and the cultural perceptions of the population. We also want to realise a series about the communities who worship the Nile river and gather their stories. Environmental issues are also central to our work all along the Nile river.
Where do you both find your inspiration?
Our environment is of course a huge source of inspiration, but this inspiration is almost instantaneous. So we may say that looking at other photographers' work and discussions with them accounts for a big part of our inspiration. We pay special attention to their composition and how they apprehend light and movement and their perception of their subjects.
When you do photo reportage, the research part is also really important. Getting to know where you go, what the main challenges are and how other photographers have already talked about the topic you want to cover is important to create something different but still reliable.
Who are your favourite artists/photographers?
Both Joseph Kessel and Nicolas Bouvier have fed our desire to travel and report the stories of people. Then there are two photographers that we refer to when it comes to inspiration: Sebastiao Salgado and our friend Eduardo Soteras Jalil. Sebastiao Salgado succeeds in creating a new perception of the world's complexities especially when it comes to conflict, his work is at the borderline between art and journalism. Eduardo Soteras is a photojournalist covering the current war in Tigray, Ethiopia. We met him at the beginning of the conflict at a time when we were just starting out in photography. Since then we have been following his work, which has had a great influence on how we perceive photography. He plays with light and composition and makes you feel that he is always at the right place at the right time.
Do you have a favorite place to photograph?
We love to take pictures in markets or city centers. In Ethiopia, most of the cities are evolving fast and those places are in translation. In Bahir Dar, the municipality decided to transfer the old shops and sellers to new buildings. This adaptation is photogenic. A market is not a place where everything is clean and organized. In those places, some physical concepts do not apply, like gravity. Stacks of fruits or goods are challenging those principles. And life is not aseptic: it's smelly, noisy, and crowded refusing a kind of uniformization.
We also love decadent places: places with a glorious past, that were once state-of-the-art and are now neglected. Not abandoned, if we take the example of this old hotel in the northern part of the lake. It was a modern lakeside hotel, constructed under the socialist regime of the Derg. It has now lost this fancy aspect but you still can feel what its golden age was.
Would you say you are documentary photographers? How do people react to you?
We are trying, but in the meantime, photography is so vast that we want to experience other styles that would improve our perception when we do documentaries. We always ask ourselves if in documentary photography everything has to be natural, just capturing the moment, with no more intervention than the way you compose the image and we are learning every day.
Reactions are different, and it depends on which communities you try to document. Usually, people are friendly when you go out with your camera, but still, we try to ask for permission when we can or form a relationship with the subject. When people have negative reactions we try to explain what we are doing, to show them the picture, explain who we are, just to make them more comfortable. Once, in India, we got hit by a group of women, so you also have to deal with these reactions.
When you take pictures, do you usually have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just 'come to you', or is it both?
We would say both. For some specific projects, when we know what we want to document, we try to get information. If we do a reportage on fishermen along the Nile, we need some information regarding their culture and we try to meet them several times to have a better understanding of what we want to shoot. But being prepared does not mean being hermetic to the unexpected. On the other hand, when we travel or just walk around with our camera we don’t plan what we will shoot but our mind is focused on the environment that surrounds us.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? (What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?)
Our equipment was chosen by our project. We needed something practical and resistant to travel with for 8 months. We were going to countries where you face high temperatures in the Sudanese and Egyptian desert, and sometimes heavy rains in the Ethiopian highlands. It needed to be ‘tropicalised’, waterproof. We had to choose a quality camera but also did not want to look too professional or journalistic. We have a Lumix G-90, which offers a good compromise between photography and also video making. You can always choose better equipment, spend more money, improve your lens but this camera is a loyal ally. To compensate for some technical aspects you need to work on composition, light, timing, which is also really thrilling. We use a 12-35mm lens, many photographers prefer a fixed focal length, we agree with them except that there are situations where you can't just come closer or go further away for your ideal composition. There, the zoom is welcome.
What are some of your goals as a photographer? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
We were inspired by photojournalism and photo reportage. We love to tell stories through photographs. The idea is to use images as a complement to texts and stories. You first need a story, a context, and a caption. Images are there to illustrate this story, it does not replace it. Pictures can help to convey a message, through emotions and sensations. Our mission is achieved when someone remembers one story by remembering one specific picture.
We hope to keep telling stories through pictures.
Are there any other special photo projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
This current project depicts how people at the source of the Blue Nile are connected to water and the river. But our final goal is to render a broader picture of the people of the Nile (Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt). This work will be a comparison, a kind of tryptic, but also a way to connect people around a shared river in the context of regional tensions. We hope to exhibit our final work in those three countries and create dialogue through them.
Editors note: You can see more of Bastien and Arthur's project on their YouTube channel.
“When we are not out photographing, we (like to)…
...think about all the amazing reportages we could do. Every day we encounter people, ideas or situations and we are thinking we could spend one month just staying there and reporting their stories. We wish we could slow down the time in our fast societies, but we also know it is up to each of us to do something for it. Sometimes just be a spectator, we sit in the streets, take a traditional Ethiopian coffee and wait. Usually, people are curious and come to talk to us. As they penetrate your reality, they
become the strangers and you are the landscape.