While Danger may not be Tim Freccia's middle name, he has certainly been no stranger to it throughout his life. At age 16 he worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, before pursuing a career in photography that quickly included documenting Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s rise to power in Haiti and interviewing Nelson Mandela. VICE readers will recognize his work from VICE's April "Saving Saving Sudan" issue, for which he was the sole photographer.
The spirit of Freccia's new exhibition, Life and Death, a series of portraits of the Nuer White Army and their Dinka adversaries, has little to do with documenting danger. True, the subjects of his portraits are currently engaged in a bloody conflict in South Sudan, and yes, many members of the White Army wield guns, and the Dinka are incredibly physically imposing in the pictures. But the emphasis in each portrait is on displaying a fundamental humanness. Each subject is shot against a white background, mostly looking right into the camera, and thus at the viewer. Moreover, the photographs are printed life-size, so each person appears almost as if they were present in the room. The effect is one that presents the subjects not as members of opposing forces at war, but as individuals first.
I caught up with Freccia while he was in New York to discuss his new show, opening tonight. Due to his busy schedule as a traveling photojournalist, the interview took place over the phone and was punctuated by screeching car sounds and a dropped call or two. Although he was just a couple hours north of the city, it was more fun to believe he was deep in the African bush speaking on a satellite phone.
VICE: You’ve described yourself as a photographer of “conflict and crisis.” Why is that something that’s appealed to you throughout your career?
Tim Freccia: That’s funny because I have this discussion a lot. It doesn’t appeal to me so much as that’s where my skill set lies. I have the ability to endure uncomfortable stuff and get good pictures and movies despite all that, and that’s what I do for a living. If anything, I like the simplicity of it. For me, it’s a lot easier for me to deal with a guy waving a gun than somebody smiling. City life is a lot more complicated, and I haven’t spent so much time in that sort of social environment, so one of the things that appeal to me is the harsh simplicity of it.
If you had to estimate, how much time have you spent in Africa?
I’ve been working in Africa for 25 years. And I’ve probably spent a solid ten years there. I lived there and worked there with my last wife and kids seven years ago. I’ve spent the majority of my career there.
When you first traveled to Africa, was it for photography?
It was. It was an interesting situation. I was in Senegal, and the then prime minister, Abdoulaye Wade, who was later president, invited me. There was a conference for the economic community of the West African states, and the theme of the conference was “using media as a tool for integration.” At the time I was sort of way into and a semi-expert in low-powered TV, how to set up a broadcast for 500 bucks or something like that. So I was invited to come and talk at the conference about that, and then I ended up hanging out, and I actually met Nelson Mandela coming out of prison—he was on his victory lap around Africa, and he came to Dakar, so I was able to interview him. And then from there I traveled into Mali, in the Sahara, and I fell in love with the continent.
And how old were you at that time?
I was about 23 at the time, something like that.
For this show, you photographed the White Army and Dinka cattle herders.
In 2011, right before independence, I photographed Dinka herdsman in a place called Yirol. They’re life-size, seven-foot prints, and they went to the Armory Show in New York in 2012 and to a bit of acclaim—people were, somehow, moved by these images. The other set of portraits were made of the White Army right after they had sacked Malakal, a strategic port on the Nile—if you control Malakal, then you essentially control the oil fields.
So you photographed these subjects two separate times?
Yes. And they happen to be the two ethnic groups that are fighting right now.
When you photographed the Dinka, the combat wasn’t at this level it is now?
When I photographed the Dinka in Yirol, the whole country was essentially unite in glee and ecstasy over the impending independence even though there’s always been an underlying tension and infighting on the village level. But on the national level, everyone was unified in their move to independence. That was in 2011. The most recent images were made in February of this year just as the White Army sacked Malakal, so they were fighting the SPLA, which is predominantly Dinka.
How did you come to the decision to make the portraits life-size?
I think there’s something striking about it. To go wide on it, my goal here is to show people sort of removed from their environment but within their environment. They’re not standing in a studio in New York City—the Dinka in Yirol were standing under a mango tree, and the Nuer in Malakal were standing on a battlefield. I want to somehow show these people as people, and the reason to print them life-size is because they’re people and I want the viewer to be able to stand there and feel as though they’re looking at the subject and the subject is looking back at them. It’s kind of a moment of suspended—I don’t know what it is, but something is suspended. But it’s like the viewer is viewing the subject and the subject is viewing the viewer. I wanted to remove as much of the external information as possible and communicate these people’s stories or selves as people rather than as combatants or cowherds, or anything like that, and I think that comes through in their posture and their facial expression.
How did photographing the White Army differ from photographing the Dinka?
It was a very different circumstance. The White Army had just finished sacking Malakal, essentially committing war crimes. The Dinka are also extremely fierce, but it’s an entirely different set-up. They basically roam with their cattle, and once or twice a year they come into a town, a rural village, and stand on the side of the road and pose and hope to attract wives, for which they trade cows. These guys stand there in nightshirts and pose, hoping to attract wives. For the White Army, it was entirely different. These guys had just ravaged their way through Malakal and committed what we would consider war crimes, simply because they had nothing. They literally killed, raped, and pillaged, for as little as a plastic chair, because they didn’t have one.
How did the people you photographed react to you photographing them?
It’s a big honor to be photographed in most developing countries. And that was true in both cases. The Dinka were eager to be photographed because it was like they were being elected, and the White Army had just prevailed, had just taken this town, so they wanted to be photographed. So again, I attempted to remove as much of that information from the environment as possible so we can look at the people.
So much of how Africa is looked at in America has to do with exoticization and a sort of otherness. Did you try to change that perception with this project?
Yes, but it was also an attempt to combat any perception at all, so it really boiled down to the lowest common denominator—this is who they are, and they’re standing in front of you, life-size, and this is what they’re about, just through their expressions and posture. Because this is the first time these photographs have been shown together, I’m trying to be very careful in not making a statement, because I don’t consider one group to be a victim more than the other. Both groups have done horrible things and good things for the nation. They just happen to be the two groups that are killing each other right now.
So the work isn’t about that necessarily.
Not at all.
In general and in this project, is the danger something you are sensitized to or feed off of?
I’m definitely sensitized to it. I don’t think I feed off it. People tell me I do, but I don’t think I do. I’m used to it. Where it might be scary for someone else, it’s not for me.
Tim Freccia's new exhibition, Life and Death, opens at the Ricco Maresca gallery at 6:00 tonight and runs through September 13.
Giancarlo T. Roma is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician. Follow him on Twitter.