An expert in what concerns the brilliance of Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels, Patrick Gries descended into the darkness to photograph the Albino of Tanzania. Here a genetic disease, which affects one in 1,400 people, limits the lifetime. Death becomes more likely during election time, with children and adults being victims of witch “doctors” and superstitious politicians. (Read more…)
Patrick Gries moved to Tanzania for six months accompanying his wife, an anthropologist, and their son and daughter ages seven and nine. In this Eastern Africa country “too wide and where travel is time and energy consuming” he decided to postpone the artistic projects that made him famous and dedicated himself to the reading of regional newspapers.
Every day he was fascinated with “the regional outlook of American and European policy, so different from the rest of the world” until one particular report left him speechless.
“A daily in Dar es Salaam had a story about a farmer who lived four and half hours distant from the capital,” says, in a Skype interview, the author of In/Visibility, a series of portraits of “people that nobody see” and to whom he wanted to return their identity and dignity.
“One night, strangers entered that man’s house, amputated both his arms and left him on the floor bleeding to death. He was an albino, and his arms were sold to witch doctors.”
“It was the first time I heard of it,” added Gries, whose project started in 2010 and took him several years to complete, from the selection of photos to the various exhibits from China to Argentina.
“I could never stop thinking about what I’ve read. Initially, I’ve tried to understand, but there was nothing to understand. It was then, while my wife, an Africanist, was investigating the mining sector in Tanzania, that I decided to photograph the Tanzanian albinos.”
“I started in Dar es Salaam, because it was easier. I contacted the [football] association Albino United. I explained them that I wanted to make some pictures. They asked me for money. I replied that I had no means to pay, and that any payment would negatively affect the nature of my project.”
“They let me ask the albinos if they would accept being photographed. I promised them that I would give the best of me, and that I would try the utmost to draw attention to their drama. All of them accepted. I photographed everyone. I at ease, just like they were dressed.”
Before moving on to the photographs, Gries had to learn what he did not know about albinism. That is a genetic disease characterized by partial or total lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes due to absence or a defect in an enzyme involved in the melanin production.
“Many of them go completely blind and only a few make it to live to 40 years of age,” the photographer said. “All sections of society are affected, whether rich and poor white or black.”
Tanzania is the country with the highest percentage of albinos: one in every 1,400 inhabitants, i.e. seven times more than in the rest of the world.
“In Europe, a person suffering from albinism would probably get their hair dyed or would wear makeup to disguise their condition,” noted Gries. “In Africa, it is very difficult for an albino to survive, because they lack education about the disease affecting them.”
When albinos die, their relatives “bury them in secret locations or in their own homes, under beds or trees, so that the bones of loved ones are not stolen,” Gries added. Although the current President Jakaya Kikwete has ordered the arrest of almost a hundred sorcerers involved in the “macabre trade of albinos”, many superstitious politicians still pay large sums – in a country where people live on less than two euros a day on average – every time elections are in the horizon, hoping to win their opponents.
This year [for the 25th October legislative and presidential elections], despite increased vigilance, the “hunting on the invisible” did not stop.
Patrick Gries regrets that Tanzania no longer has at the helm “a role political model as Julius Nyerere [1922-1999, he abandoned power in 1985], because he tried, after independence, “to end the tribalization of the country in order for it to become safe and peaceful”. The photographer gives a warning: “What we see is the beginning of a genocide of the albinos.”
In places he visited for his series of portraits – as a school for the blind in Tanga, shelters, private schools, homes and/or offices – Gries photographed “more than 200 people, some with higher social status and others less fortunate”.
He only selected around 20 images. “I have not done any casting. I had to be very careful with my selection, because some of the kids looked so fragile and vulnerable. I did not want to show my pictures in exhibitions as if those people were aberrations.”
“I’ve structured my project, a mixture of anthropology and politics, around three paradoxes. 1) A paradox of value: albinos are considered useless by a society that denies their existence – there are no birth registration and, therefore, it is very complicated to know their real numbers [between 8,000 and 50,000]. On the other hand, their organs and limbs cost fortunes; 2) A paradox of whiteness, or the ambivalence and the ambiguity of being born white of black parents; as white is seen as a legacy of colonization, albinos have been rejected by their physiognomy – many girls that I’ve met used to dye their hair and used a lot of make up to look ‘whiter’, the way they look themselves. It is less risky to look white than black when someone is albino; 3) A paradox of death: many people believe that they ‘do not die’ because albinos cannot be buried in cemeteries.”
One of the places visited by Patrick Gries really moved him: the school of Shinyanga, in the western region. “There were almost 120 kids. I began to photograph them. Everyone wanted his or her portrait. They felt as if they were stars. They did not need to pretend to be someone else. They just wanted to present themselves as they were. It was so powerful!”
“I’m not a historian or a photojournalist,” Gries clarified. “It was not my intention to explore the question of who feeds this damn business. There has been more pressure from the European Union and from the United States. This is good but, in order to be protected, the albinos have been placed in centers where they live segregated – they are refugees in their own country, not able to claim the same rights of refugee people.”
The photographer of the “invisible”
Patrick Gries, 56, studied to be a schoolteacher (“because it was the will of my parents”) before moving to New York, where, in 1978, and “by chance”, he discovered photography. Coming from a distant rural area of Brussels, he “did not know what to expect from life”. However, by settling in the United States, where he had relatives, the doors quickly opened to a brilliant career.
He took the first steps as “an apprentice to a commercial artist” involved in advertising, who taught him how to “use a camera and do almost everything with it”. In 1992, he moved again to Paris, but became tired of making publicity.
In 1999, emerged his first project: Evolution, a book for which he used skeletons, mostly at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. “From the smallest to the biggest vertebrate, Patrick Gries presents [them] as sculptures, [offering] an atypical approach to viewing natural science and forces us to reconsider the boundaries between artistic and scientific objects”, said the photography curator network LensCulture.
The book, published in 2008 and acclaimed as a masterpiece, features more than 250 black and white photographs, accompanied by a text written by scientist and documentarian Dr. Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu. The publisher is Xavier Barral.
It took “two years of work, six months of which to determine the high resolution, and one year of patiently tinkering to eliminate all the vestiges of wires that hold the bones together”, according to a description of the French newspaper Libération. The exhibitions were numerous, from Italy to Japan – and the photos are already part of some private collections.
“This book elevated me to another level,” recognizes Gries, who is now living in Copenhagen (Denmark). “Because of my aesthetic precision and minimalism, I began to be hired by companies such as Louis Vuitton and Van Cleef & Arpels. I photograph their collections or patrimony (someone else do the layout and the graphics of the catalogs), and it is this work that allows me to finance my own projects. I also cooperate with the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, and various museums.”
This article was originally published in the Portuguese news magazine VISÃO, on October 22, 2015