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Volume 56, Number 3May/June 2005

In This Issue

The World of His Choice

Written by Lee Lawrence
Photographs by Wilfred Thesiger, courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum

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Wilfred Thesiger often said he regretted not having lived 50 years earlier, before planes and cars shrank the globe. As it was, he came into the world in June 1910 in Addis Ababa, where his father was serving as head of the British legation in Abyssinia, today’s Ethiopia. To his young eyes, it was a world of big-game hunting, horseback riding and impressive columns of Shoan warriors marching into battle. At the end of World War I, at age nine, he was sent back to Britain for 12 years of schooling, including Eton and Oxford. In those years, Ford began mass-producing automobiles, Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, and the world of Thesiger’s childhood began rapidly to disappear.

In 1930 he took a break from Oxford to return to Addis Ababa for the coronation of an old family friend as the emperor Haile Selassie. There, he snapped photographs of the ceremonies with his father’s Kodak Brownie box camera. He chose not to make photographs of the air show that was one feature of the celebrations, though he mentioned it in his diary. With that choice, he gave the first hint of the directions in which he would point both his career and his camera.

Following the coronation, Thesiger undertook his first exploration up the largely uncharted Awash River, accompanied by a retinue of local guides and porters. The trip afforded him a weeklong taste of life in the wild sufficiently thrilling to prompt his return three years later, after he had completed his Oxford exams. This time, he discovered the elusive source of the Awash, high in the country inhabited by the Danakil, who violently resented the intrusions of outsiders. Thesiger apparently impressed them with sincerity and his apolitical purposes, and he passed unharmed.

From 1935 to 1939, Thesiger worked for Britain’s Sudan Political Service, where he chose the most remote assignments in order to spend as much time as possible away from a desk and atop a camel. He had recently bought a Leica ii, which he carried throughout his subsequent service in Sudan, Abyssinia, Syria and Palestine.

In Abyssinia, Thesiger impressed the Danakil people and was able to pass through their territory unharmed. In the Sudan Political Service, he chose two years of assignments in remote Darfur.

By 1945, Thesiger had read—jealously—the accounts of Bertram Thomas and Harry St. John Philby, the first westerners to cross the Rub’ al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, of Saudi Arabia in 1930 and 1932, respectively. He had become fascinated with the Empty Quarter and its inhabitants, and he learned Arabic. When the Locust Research Organisation asked him to discover whether there were breeding grounds for locusts in the Arabian desert, he jumped at the offer. In 1946–1947 and again in 1948, Thesiger assembled groups of Bedouin and, taking new, more difficult routes, became the first European to cross the Empty Quarter twice.

“There was of course,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Life of My Choice, “the lure of the unknown; there was the constant test of resolution and endurance. Yet those travels in the Empty Quarter would have been for me a pointless penance but for the comradeship of my Bedu companions.” For months at a time over a five-year period, Thesiger traveled with Bedouin parties throughout the Arabian Peninsula’s deserts, pushing himself to exhaustion, sipping brackish well water and risking attack by rival tribes. When he left, he knew “I should never meet their like again. I had witnessed their loyalty to each other…. I knew their pride in themselves and their tribe; their regard for the dignity of others; their hospitality when they went short to feed chance-met strangers; their generosity…their absolute honesty; their courage, patience and endurance and their thoughtfulness.”

In 1951, Thesiger was looking to spend a couple of weeks shooting duck, and he headed into the marshes of southern Iraq, where he was smitten with the life of the Ma’dan people. He spent the next seven winters among them. Unlike his time in Arabia, his life in the marshes had a more settled quality, and his basic knowledge of asepsis and his supply of antibiotics earned him a position in society performing circumcisions. In the summer, Thesiger left the marshes to trek in the mountains of northern Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and one year he joined Iran’s Bakhtiari tribe for its grueling annual migration across the Zagros Mountains.

Between these ventures, Thesiger would return to England, where he visited family, and in the mid-1950’s he began taking yearly summer trips around Europe, North Africa or the Middle East with his mother, Kathleen Mary, traveling by train and automobile and staying in “reasonably priced hotels,” as he told biographer Michael Asher. Significantly, these trips are almost entirely absent from his photographic archive.

It was his photographs that, in the mid-1950’s, prompted a literary agent to urge Thesiger to write a book, thus echoing Kathleen Mary’s own persistent pleas. Finally acquiescing, Thesiger holed up in an apartment in Denmark with copies of his Royal Geographical Society reports, letters home, diaries and boxfuls of photographs. According to Alexander Maitland, now writing Thesiger’s authorized biography, the diaries were “massive, but they are very workaday documents.” He and others familiar with Thesiger’s archives agree that the photographs were essential to his reconstructions of his Empty Quarter and later journeys. “I think the photographs certainly kept the [journey] alive for him,” says Maitland. “They were the source for one of the things he did best, which was carefully honed descriptive writing.” The result of Thesiger’s effort was the first of 10 books Thesiger would author about his travels, the highly acclaimed Arabian Sands, published in 1959.

From 1968 onward, Thesiger made his base in Kenya among the Samburu and Turkana tribes. He would have liked to die there, he said, but in the mid-1990’s deteriorating health forced him to return to England. A man who had sought to share the rigors of male nomad societies all his adult life, Thesiger lived out his last years in a nursing home in Surrey populated largely by women. He died on August 24, 2003.

He left a photographic legacy of thousands of prints, 75 albums and 38,000 negatives. These photos, Thesiger wrote, were his “most cherished possessions,” thanks to which he could “live once more in a vanished world.”

What world exactly was this? What are we, today, to make of it?

In one photograph, a man, back to the camera, looks out over rocky, rugged terrain that fills the frame of the photograph. In another shot, a Bedouin sits on his haunches, rifle planted by his side. A third image shows a chain of camels cresting a dune. In a fourth, a boy turns back toward the camera as he poles a canoe through tall reeds.

These images are the kind we have come to associate with Wilfred Thesiger, and that define the Thesiger Collection.

To paraphrase the philosopher Vilém Flusser, photographs do not present the world as it is; rather, they enchant us into believing that the world is a certain way.The great majority of photos in the archive date from his 1946 journey across the Empty Quarter of Arabia onward, for it was during that first desert crossing that he “began to consider the composition of each photograph, conscious to achieve the best result. From then on,” he stated in Visions of a Nomad, “photography became a major interest.” In his early Royal Geographical Society reports as well as in his later books, he used his photographs as simple illustrations; however, since the late 1980’s, many of the photographs have themselves become the subjects of books and exhibitions. By the time he died, he was as well known in Europe for his arresting portraits of Bedouin and Marsh Arabs as he was for his writings. In both, the appeal lay at least in part in the romantic representations of times and places European audiences had never experienced.

Thesiger’s albums, prints and negatives were bequeathed to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. Thanks to a grant from the late President Shaykh Zayed bin Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, a team of three archivists has spent a year identifying, inventorying, cataloging and digitizing Thesiger’s 38,000 negatives. To encourage further research, the museum is posting the catalog on its Web site along with a selection of heretofore unpublished images.

Now, for the first time, Thesiger’s photographic work can be studied as a whole. Already senior curator Elizabeth Edwards has discovered a wealth of ethnographic material: series documenting the Samburus’ body art in Kenya and circumcision rituals in Iraq and Kenya, as well as many shots that contain information about the way people dressed, lived and made everyday objects. “People have made esthetic judgments about his photographs,” Edwards says, and now she hopes they will mine them for information, too.

More generally, the archive can reveal how Thesiger felt about the lands and peoples he photographed, and also much about the differences between viewing a single image in isolation and seeing it within the context and discernible patterns of an archive. It is important to remember that photographs are like statistics: By their very selectivity, they have a way of appearing factual even while spinning fictions. Or, to paraphrase the German–Czech– Brazilian philosopher Vilém Flusser, photographs do not present the world as it is; rather, they “enchant” us into believing that the world is a certain way. Archives, backed as they are by institutions with the power to compile, preserve and index, add a mantle of authority that cuts two ways: Sometimes it magnifies the spell of individual photographs; at other times, the succession of images in an archive helps to dispel the “enchantment” of the single photo with evidence of how it was made.

For example, the Thesiger Collection presents a chronological sequence of negatives spanning decades and continents. Since there are no significant gaps in this sequence, it is easy to assume that the archive chronicles all of Thesiger’s travels. From this, it is equally easy to conjure a specific image of a man forever seeking adventure and traveling under difficult conditions in remote places. It is an image that leaves little room for the fact that Thesiger took annual trips with his mother for more than 15 years. Except for a handful of mostly architectural photographs, the Thesiger Collection hardly acknowledges that these trips took place.

Indeed, the archive presents only a world in which camels plod through sand, dhows sail into harbors, and horses clamber up mountain trails. Lone figures look out over untouched landscapes, children live in the villages of their grandfathers, and the faces of individual men and children fill frame after frame, their dark eyes often peering straight at us. On the whole, there is a static quality to the images, as few show a chance or fortuitous event unlikely ever to be repeated; when action shots occur, they portray activities we imagine people have been performing for generations: watering animals at desert wells, circumcision rituals, braiding thatch housing in the marshes, making coffee on a campfire, herding livestock across mountains or converging on a pilgrimage site.

It is a world, moreover, devoid of color. This was not always a deliberate choice on Thesiger’s part, since color film was not widely available during most of his active years. Nevertheless, it is telling that, given a choice, even later on Thesiger favored black and white, tracing this to his preference for prints and drawings over paintings. “Colour,” he wrote, “aims to reproduce exactly what is seen by the photographer…. With black and white, on the other hand, each subject offers its own variety of possibilities according to the use made by the photographer of light and shade.”

“Those travels in the Empty Quarter would have been for me a pointless penance but for the comradeship of my Bedu companions,” Thesiger wrote. “I knew their pride in themselves and their tribe; their regard for the dignity of others; their hospitality when they went short to feed chance-met strangers.” Mary Peck, one of America’s leading photographers of regional landscapes, has, like Thesiger, traveled in deserts and mountains. She helps clarify what Thesiger may have been getting at in his praise of black and white. “It is a remove from the supposed reality that color gives us,” Peck explains, adding that she finds black and white film “a way to try to translate an experience” that gives her “a better chance of guiding a viewer’s reaction.”

This holds true in the Thesiger Collection. Were we to stand, say, in the desert, we would experience the way in which the reds, tans and oranges of dunes and the blues of the sky intensify and wane over the course of a day. Dunes would be differentiated not only by light and shadow, but also by their hues, and desert shrubs would sometimes sprout green leaves and blooms, indicating a recent rain. While color film chronicles such variations vividly, black and white film does not. The sun’s journey across the sky registers only as a deepening of shadows, with the sand appearing somewhat whiter at noon and grayer at dusk. The sky remains a constant, whitish expanse occasionally interrupted by clouds. Shrubs and trees appear uniformly gray, whether they are in leaf or desiccated. The use of black and white suspends time, and it strengthens the impression of changelessness.

Moreover, just as black and white photography erases the differences in hue among the dunes, it also creates artificial similarities. The lines in some of Thesiger’s mountain views in Kurdistan and Pakistan, for example, echo those in his Arabian landscapes, both favoring converging lines and balanced compositions typical of European landscape painting. In black and white, these compositional similarities become more prominent, causing the scenes to resemble one another more closely than they might in color: The various reddish shades of the dunes would set desert landscapes well apart from mountains covered in white snow. In Thesiger’s images, the chromatic similarities reinforce the compositional ones to create the impression that the lands and peoples all belong to the same timeless, changeless pre-modern era—a most romantic notion. There is yet another way in which the archive magnifies the “enchantment” of individual images. Based on a single black-and-white shot of, say, women at a well or men dressed in traditional garb, we might not assume that their world was completely untouched by modernity. But a steady succession of such scenes is more likely to enchant us into believing that the camera has recorded all there is to see. If there had been signs of modernity, we might think, they would have appeared, and thus we conclude that they were not there.

Yet this was not the case. “There were certainly cars in Salalah, where Wilfred began his journey to cross the Empty Quarter,” says Asher, himself the winner of two awards for desert exploration. “Wilfred even mentions—not in his books, but in one of his reports back to the Royal Geographical Society—that they followed a motor track for some way when they got to the other side of the Empty Quarter. And you may remember also that when he and his party were arrested [during his second crossing of the Empty Quarter], they were actually taken off in a truck.” It is right there, as he points out, in Arabian Sands.

So are references to airplanes: In 1946, following Thesiger’s first taste of the Empty Quarter, a member of his Bedouin traveling party, Musallim bin Tafl, became the first in his tribe to board a plane. A year and a half later, a favorite companion, Salim bin Ghabaisha, flew from Salalah to Hadhramawt at Thesiger’s insistence in order to join the expedition in time for the second crossing. None of this could have occurred in the world the Thesiger Collection conjures up. “I would say that Wilfred was definitely setting out in his photographs to create a world that no longer existed,” Asher says.

This world is one largely populated by men whose faces fill frame after frame in the archive, bearing witness to Thesiger’s assertion that it was people, not places, “who offered me the most interesting subjects.” In all but a handful of Thesiger’s portraits, the subjects are squinting in harsh sunlight, their half-closed eyelids protecting them not only from the sun’s rays but perhaps also from our gaze.

The men in Thesiger’s photographs live in the landscape as insiders, and their contemplation can induce viewers to see it from their point of view. At one level, many of Thesiger’s portraits follow a convention of his day whereby photographers called forth squints and their radiating wrinkles when they wanted to mark their subject as “an outdoor type” or a member of a pre-modern “primitive society.” The squint also speaks of authenticity: It is proof that Thesiger was not photographing people in a studio but in their environment. At another level, the squint prevents us from looking deeply into the subjects’ eyes, perhaps marking them as people whose soul a European viewer could not easily know.

At the same time, the light falls at enough of an angle to bring out the texture of skin and cloth. We see the stringy fringe of a headscarf, sand grains in matted hair, the wrinkles in newly washed cotton, the lines on individual faces. Such detail can heighten our empathy with people strong enough to withstand the harsh conditions that etch such deep wrinkles into their skin. The children portrayed may not yet bear the traces of hardship, but their juxtaposition with their elders implies that they will in time.

This is not to suggest that the portraits create a total romantic fiction. Whether in the desert, marshes or mountains, life was and often remains hard by any standard, and the faces of the men and the rugged landscapes were indeed as they appear in the photographs. Yet we know from Thesiger’s and others’ accounts that the Bedouin, for example, spent part of the year living in cities and with their families, as did many of the men in the Iraqi marshes. To take the archive at face value is to believe that the men portrayed lacked family lives, made their way in small bands across inhospitable lands, gathered in guest houses or stood alone contemplating trackless terrain.

Given Thesiger’s admiration for the “comradeship” he found in his travels, it is perhaps surprising that images of lone men in large landscapes are such a recurring, even archetypal pattern. Such an image first appears in a 1946 shot taken in Oman; it then recurs in various settings, even in a shot of the Parthenon that is one of the rare photographs Thesiger took during his travels in Europe with his mother. Such images say more about a 19th-century convention popular with British picturesque photographers (and no less popular today) than it does about nomadic life.

In Britain such scenes were often staged using a man in city clothes who stood in the foreground to illustrate the vastness of nature and to induce viewers to appreciate and contemplate it with him. But there is a salient difference between those photographs and Thesiger’s. The men in the British prototypes contemplate the landscape as outsiders in the country for a day of reflection; the men in Thesiger’s photographs live in the landscape as insiders, and their contemplation can induce viewers to see it from their point of view.

In many of these photos, Thesiger showed a landscape that rose high behind the subjects. Indeed, with the exception of photographs taken in the Iraqi marshes, Thesiger’s horizon line tended to remain high throughout much of the archive, so that we come away with a sense that there is no escaping the land. Whether sand, water or rock-strewn mountains, these untamed landscapes define men’s lives and require that men adapt to them and not the other way around. As Edwards notes, “there is not that caressing of the landscape you see in, say, pictures of the American West. Thesiger is interested in how people survive in these landscapes.”

If the archive strengthens the spell cast by individual photographs of a pre-modern world inhabited by lone men, its succession of images also serves elsewhere to diminish the power of individual images. Viewed singly, a photograph of Bin Ghabaisha might lead us to believe that Thesiger had either happened upon him or asked him to pose for a photograph. But the portrait of Bin Ghabaisha turns out to be one of five successive photographs of the young man, all taken in front of the same rock, and two more portraits follow of two other boys at the same location. Such series of portraits of various people at the same site recur frequently. One series totals 11 portraits of different Kurdish villagers, all taken at the same spot.

We thus can imagine a far different scenario: Thesiger snapping the photograph of one villager, only to find others queuing up for a turn to pose. This raises the question of who is in control of the process of representation. In the one case, the photographer (or editor, publisher or curator) selects which portraits will be published to represent a given people. Within the much broader and less selective archive, on the other hand, the individuals who stepped before the camera uninvited have as much say in who represents their group as the photographer had.

As we move chronologically through the Thesiger Collection, it becomes increasingly clear that, just as the photographer is capturing his vision of his subjects, the people portrayed are as consciously presenting themselves to his camera. Some of Thesiger’s Bedouin companions relax and smile; some people he encounters in villages appear to strike poses. A Herki boy in Khazna, for example, wears the same stern expression in each of three shots Thesiger took of him, even though these were not taken in succession. Similarly, a Barzan man poses, one arm crooked, the other holding a pipe, a plume of smoke blowing sideways out of his mouth. Since this is one in a series of same-site portraits, it seems likely that the man stepped up to the camera intent on projecting a particular—presumably favorable—image of himself.

The archive also reveals another type of portrait series. For example, a photograph of Sultan, a Bedouin of the Bayt Kathir tribe, shows him from the front, looking into the camera; in the next frame, he appears in the same pose at the same spot, but this time in profile. Since Thesiger worked mostly with a standard 55mm lens, he had to photograph his subjects from about two meters’ (6'6'') distance to get a head-and-shoulders portrait. Looking at the archive, we imagine Thesiger, who himself stood almost two meters tall, circling his subject, leaning in periodically to take a reading with his hand-held light meter, then stepping back to take the shot while the subject collaborated by not moving, giving the frontal and profile sequences we see.

When the photographer himself appears in this world, it is not as conqueror or outside observer, but as a fellow traveler, respectful of his companions and striving to be accepted as their equal.Such series are typical, particularly during Thesiger’s first two years in Arabia, and even though they occur less frequently after that, the format persists through his time in Kenya in the 1980’s. Those frames taken at a level or slightly downward angle recall the way colonial ethnographers documented “Orientals” in the 1800’s and the way colonial police in India recorded criminals—the antecedents, in other words, of our frontal-and-profile mug shots. But it is as though Thesiger himself caught this resemblance and fought against it. In the albums, he often chose only one of the pair or, when displaying both, reversed their order so that we first see the profile followed by the frontal view.

More telling yet is that as time goes on, he varies the angle. Three-quarter views often replace frontal shots, and the angle of the camera changes from slightly downward to upward, so that he captures the subject soaring dramatically against the sky. If the closeness and the detail of the portrait invite our empathy, this dramatic upward angle creates monumentality and elicits our admiration, making us literally “look up to” these men.

As with his figures in landscapes, Thesiger’s portraits are mainly rooted in colonial and picturesque precedents. Like colonial representations of non-European societies, the Thesiger Collection conjures a world suspended in time in which men live in harsh, primitive conditions. There is more than a touch of the “noble savage” in the way Thesiger eulogizes these men—and some women—who, he contended, “had no concept of any world other than their own” yet were on the verge of seeing modernity alter their way of life.

If such melancholy reeks of latent colonialism, the archive also works against such attitudes. Unlike colonial archives, the Thesiger Collection teems not with “types,” but with named individuals, and when the photographer himself appears in this world, it is not as conqueror or outside observer, but as a fellow traveler, respectful of his companions and striving to be accepted as their equal. In portraits taken in Saudi Arabia, Thesiger poses the way his Bedouin subjects pose, and he dresses the way they do. The shots are taken from a similar distance, and at the same variety of angles, so were it not for his European features, there would be no distinguishing Thesiger from the Bedouin. Since Leica only introduced a self-timer in 1950, one of Thesiger’s companions must have operated the camera for those shots, even if Thesiger set them up. According to a caption in Desert, Marsh & Mountain, in at least one case this job of photographer fell to Bin Kabina, a favorite traveling companion.

The act of handing his camera to the young man so that he, Thesiger, could place himself in Bin Kabina’s world contains an obvious irony, and also poignantly highlights the yearning that infuses the Thesiger Collection. While his other portraits and landscapes work together to enchant us into believing in worlds so harsh that they sculpted men into heroes, the self-portraits assert that Thesiger not only witnessed these worlds but lived in them, and can thus claim for himself some of the heroism and admiration he bestowed on the Bedouin, the Kurds and other nomadic peoples.

At the same time, the Thesiger Collection proves by its very existence that modern technology had already encroached upon those worlds. We are thus left between the enchantment and the abolition of the enchantment, in a limbo much like the one that Thesiger himself inhabited as, try as he might to prove otherwise, his ideal pre-modern world slipped into the past.

Lee Lawrence

Lee Lawrence ([email protected]) is a free-lance writer in Washington, D.C. who specializes in the cultures of Asia. She recently completed a master's thesis on photography in British colonial India.

The editors extend their thanks to Jocelyne Dudding of the Pitt Rivers Museum for her generous assistance in photo research.

To learn more about the Thesiger Collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum, visit www.prm.ox.ac.uk/thesiger.html.

This article appeared on pages 24-37 of the May/June 2005 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 2005 images.