Jim Naughten’s Conflict and Costumes show at London’s Margaret Street Gallery, highlights how ‘Empire’ has been appropriated and refashioned in a visual style. Adrian Myers who was at college with Naughten, catches up with the former commercial and stock photographer to find out a bit more about the well-received show
Naughten’s latest work focuses on the Herero tribe in Namibia and their unique adoption of European fashion introduced to them by the German missionaries at the end of the 1800s. 1904 saw the Herero tribe almost destroyed by the war between Namibia and Germany however the Herero continue to wear the uniforms of the German soldiers they killed in battle and the Victorian dresses to honour their ancestors.
Prior to undertaking the project Naughten says that he had “an image in mind – individual portraits lit in the midday sun and shot against the expanse of the desert, really because the story is about the costume. I was not sure if the images would end up landscape, portrait or square, or who I would meet. I wanted to make the background pin sharp to infinity but it looked too unreal, so I settled with a thin depth of field, which echoed the heat haze.
Naughten’s project took four months in total. “It was physically tough,” says Naughten, “camping every day, cooking, striking camp, cleaning and charging the kit, driving for thousands of miles and that was before taking any pictures. We had few close shaves with snakes and scorpions, and the odd elephant, but generally no major issues, save for a very short spell in prison with a mix up over a permit. Not recommended!”
The most important aspect of the project was Naughten’s Herero Guide who not only translated and found the subjects, but also ensured that everything was done respectfully whilst at the same time teaching them about the Herero culture. As Naughten says “we would spend a lot of time sitting with the chiefs and elders before even photographing” and he also ensured that they had a plentiful supply of gifts such as coffee, maize and sugar.
And just in case you are wondering, the camera of choice was a V-System Hassleblad with a P45 back used on manual focus and wind-on, as it slows his picture taking down and of course saves on batteries! As far as lighting goes two Profoto Acute 600 packs with a silver beauty dish were used to fill in the harsh shadows but of course it was an endless battle to keep the sand out of everything!
Naughten previously shot for Getty images and a several advertising agencies but as he says he was, “averagely successful, which was never really enough and I always felt frustrated that I was not making original work for myself. I made a decision to dig my heels in and shoot for myself about 6 years ago and although it’s difficult to make the same kind of money, it’s endlessly rewarding.”
So what is coming next? Well of course he is guarded on that matter but does hint that his next project will be UK-based and is concerned with History. Conflict and Costumes is worth a visit, Naughten’s low angles and simple effective lighting allow the viewer an uncluttered and unique view of his subjects. The colourful costumes and the subjects intense expressions create surprisingly intimate photographs that you can’t help being drawn into time and time again.
I thoroughly enjoyed the work as did the judges on the AOP awards as Naughten won the award for Best Non-Commissioned Series.