The first encounter with Winfried Bullinger’s imposing, sober, black-and-white portraits immediately brings about a slight disruption, as if the automatic pilot that guides our day-to-day perception had a momentary glitch. Although Bullinger seems to adhere to the idiom of classic portrait photography in the best tradition of August Sander, it is with a gentle but nevertheless a firm hand that he denies his viewers the worn-out idiom that Western culture generally employs when it is depicting Africa. As a result his individual portraits of the nomads dispersed along the borders of the East African Highlands fall outside the scope of journalistic photography, with its idiomatic oversimplification of ideas like ‘minority’, ‘folklore’, ‘growth market’, and its orchestrated romanticization of African wildlife. Equally absent is any of the sense of naivety or vulnerability so often encountered in anthropological photography.
In their stead Winfried Bullinger presents his rarefied, magnificent portraits of the inhabitants of the barren savannah landscape of Eastern and Central Africa, their tall bodies an unexpectedly vertical element in an otherwise horizontal and vast landscape. They have practically no cover other than a tree, a shrub, or the occasional hut. Such landscape elements are kept just outside the lens’ maximum depth of field, and their generality seems to stand for the overwhelming, all-embracing sense of space that so characterizes this continent. All the attention – a 100% focus – is directed towards the subjects being portrayed. Their body language, skin, clothes and attributes convey countless signs that are as cryptic as they are fascinating. They bear witness both to an ancient, traditional way of life deeply rooted in the territory that is their home, and also to the contemporary, and usually troubled, political relationships that arise from it. Functionality comes before everything, also in terms of pose, style, and fashion. What you see are people who simply stood still for a moment during their day-to-day routines. They have not dressed up for these photographs, but are wearing their usual outfits; a creative mix of traditional garments, the odd T-shirt, ritual scarification, and often a hunting rifle or an AK-47. Inventiveness and survival are key.
For his part Winfried Bullinger prefers to call his portraits of the inhabitants of these border regions in Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan and the Central African Republic ‘encounters’. This attests to his need for a certain neutrality in the relationships, which is expressed in his choice for black and white photography as well as in the somewhat distant, but invariably unforced pose adopted by his subjects. From Bullinger’s standpoint these were consciously sought-out meetings with members of a given tribe, but while he does in-depth research into the local living conditions and political situation he never actually knows who will turn up in front of the camera. For the more or less unsuspecting passers-by who were startled out of their daily activities by his camera, these will have been encounters with a distant world forming no part of the domain to which their identity is linked, even if they are not unfamiliar with visitors’ requests to take a photograph. Bullinger’s diary entries make repeated mention of the fact that his large plate camera introduced a reassuring element into the exploratory process that preceded the photograph itself. When one tries to imagine the impression made by this team – the photographer, his plate camera and tripod, reflectors (to soften the shadows), and a variety of travelling companions including two guides, a cook, and perhaps a few attendants – next to the members of a nomadic tribe, one must conclude that, to say the least, it must have been a most unusual and surprising encounter for all concerned.
In genre terms Bullinger’s portraits lie somewhere between typologies and intuitive character sketches. Part of their typology is the sequential aspect of the photographs and their categorization by the name of the tribe and the year of the journey, e.g. Nyangatom, 2014; Hadza, 2014; Karamajong, 2013; Afar, 2012; Dassanech, 2013; Nuer, 2011 and so on. Nevertheless I would argue that the emphasis in these series lies not so much in its systematic construction as in its intuitive interaction. Perhaps exactly because these portraits bridge the greatest imaginable distance between cultures, the subtlety of its interpersonal interaction is its core element. Bullinger portrays without psychological or moral preconceptions, and gives the viewer room to look for themselves.
At first sight the various tribes seem to exhibit only relatively minor differences; sometimes there are ethnic characteristics, and sometimes the nature of the place where they live and work seems to determine their appearance. The Hadza are hunters and this can be seen in their clothing, into which leather, fur and feathers have been worked. The Nyangatom are very likely to carry a weapon, as are the Suri and the Afar. The real power of this portrait series, however, lies in the opportunity it provides to allow us (as globalists) to stand eye to eye with representatives of traditional, self-contained communities; small, rural economies that provide just the simplest of tools. These encounters allow us to traverse not just distance and culture but also time. We see life at its most basic. The portraits offer no solutions to the geopolitical or resource-based conflicts in which these tribal people have become embroiled, but what they do show is their natural poise, their self-awareness, and the matter-of-factness with which they are connected to the landscape. This is due in part to the emphasis with which Bullinger silhouettes his subjects against the landscape, giving the work a strongly sculptural quality. But the most impressive attribute of these portraits is the self-awareness and natural ease (a certain reserve notwithstanding) that radiates from every one. Today, nomads stand both for an old world and a new one.