Afar 2010 - 2012
The Afar, nomads and pastoralists, live in the "Afar triangle" (or Danakil) in the Horn of Africa, now straddling the territories of three countries: Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. Breeders of goats, sheep, camels and cattle, the Afar also ensured once the caravan transportation (especially salt and slaves ...!) on behalf of Yemeni merchants between the Ethiopian highlands and the Red Sea. Long Islamized (Sunni), they remain imbued with traditional animist beliefs and reminiscences of ancient Egypt.
Secret and isolated, the Afar people are not necessarily easy to approach. Remarkable and uncommon, the Afar series by Frederic de Woelmont - a photographer quite secret and secluded in its own way - is a relatively long term photographic project. Although its aesthetic and formal dimension is well asserted, it also has a documentary and ethnographic aspect - focused on the Afar, their traditional way of life, their culture, environment and traditions, which are all threatened by the globalized economy, climate change, the dictates of the industrial world, and consumerism. According to the photographer, it is “an attempt at portraying the beauty and majesty, as well as preserving the memory of the Afar people and of this region of the world where human communities continue to live according to their ancient cultures and traditions in a pristine natural environment”. Bearing witness, helping understand and inspire action, if possible, but also presenting Africa through lenses radically different than the ‘evils’ (wars, epidemics, famines, poverty…) or some exotic and simplistic clichés through which she tends to be caricatured.
The approach here is neither naive nor idealistic. Through his university education (International Relations studies in Brussels and London), and his numerous field trips for photographic but also humanitarian purposes (since 2005 he has worked as a consultant for UNHCR in the Horn of Africa and West Africa), Frederic de Woelmont has an ability to keep a careful and nuanced approach, but one which is enriched by an obvious aspiration for sincere human encounters, as well as a deep respect and commitment to the subjects he photographs.
Initiated in November 2010, the Afar project is now coming close to its end. It has been a slow motion project made up of patience and impregnation. The photographer made four journeys, spending several months in immersion in the Afar community, sharing their life in the settlements. Conducted quietly, away from the Western media fuss and even the small buzz of the photography world, this work appears now, thrilling. One can feel the empathy of the photographer for people and human communities, his interest in their lifestyle, their cultures, their relationship to the environment and the nature that surrounds them. One can also feel an acute sensitivity to light and delicate color, an attention to detail, as well as a sense for the right distance: a certain daring ability to photograph people face to face, in complicity, while keeping the lens framed gently and never oppressive, portraying and inducing powerful and natural, never overstated emotions.