Tim Freccia: Next of Kin

Tim Freccia: Next of Kin

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These life-size portraits represent a body of work I created in South Sudan—the world’s youngest nation, now an effective example of failed statehood. I've lived with and documented the major ethnic groups of South Sudan, traveling into all areas of this vast country, which is roughly 1/3 the size of Western Europe.

The Dinka and Nuer represent the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, and there have been tensions between these two groups for over 100 years.

In late 2013, President Salva Kiir (a Dinka) accused Vice President Riek Machar (a Nuer) of an attempted coup d'etat. Machar accused Kiir of corruption and an attempted dictatorship, and fled into the bush of the traditional Nuer homeland, summoning the infamous “White Army” to wage rebellion.

The portraits of the Dinka were created in Yirol, in early 2011, just before South Sudan achieved independence from the North. In the run up to independence, there was a sense of triumph and unity—even ecstasy, throughout South Sudan. After two decades of civil war with the North it seemed peace had finally come. However, the Dinka ethnic group had consolidated power, and despite the excitement surrounding Independence, ethnic tensions remained. Civil war erupted in December 2013 as events unfolded in Juba.

The portraits of the Nuer “White Army” were created in February 2014, as they launched a major offensive on the strategic oil port of Malakal. The White Army is an organic collection of armed Nuer civilian militias, with no central command structure and a mythos of prophecy. Machar summoned this in an attempt to seize power, and had effectively taken control of the oil rich regions of South Sudan by April of 2014.

I traveled with the White Army for a few weeks, slept and ate with them, watched after their children with them and bathed with them. I witnessed their victories and defeats. As they sacked Malakal, I watched the fighters carry away the spoils of battle: plastic chairs, bed-frames and mattresses, cooking utensils- things they didn't have, and had pillaged from their defeated enemies. I've witnessed the humanity of the peoples of South Sudan, and have been deeply moved by it. The current events sadden me greatly and remind me of my inability to fully comprehend the complexity of these ancient social relationships, no matter how close I ever get. It’s easy for many to express compassion, empathy, outrage or even pity for the citizens of South Sudan. I remain on the fringe, at times suddenly thrust into the middle of it, and do the best I can to capture some of that humanity visually.

Next of Kin

A few years ago, I started working on a book with the working title "Next Of Kin". As I ruminated on a career spanning three decades, I realized that a significant goal of this project was not just to examine my work over the years, and put the stories into words, but to examine my life, and the turns it's taken- the turns I've taken.

I've been married three times and have three children who are now adult, or rapidly approaching adulthood. I'm very proud of (and grateful for) the exemplary humans they've turned out to be. As I looked back on the events and personal decisions that have influenced and shaped my life, I focused on a melancholic symbol: when filling out forms for clients or officials, there is inevitably a line item labeled "Next of Kin"—who to call in an emergency; who to send your remains to. I've always balked at this line. I've never been able to list a person I'd want anyone to call- hence the title of the book.

My son recently wrote a paper for school on the theme of crisis and conflict photography, and posing the question of whether documentary photographers are "vultures or artists". He and I discussed this at great length, and I introduced a third category or quality- "tradespeople". The industry of documentary photography has evolved significantly since I started (in the days of film), and I've evolved from a person with a technical skillset (and possibly an unusual ability to exercise that skill under the most horrific conditions), to an "artist", with a statement to make, or a vision to share. I'm not exactly comfortable with this moniker.

The takeaway from all this was that while examining my own life and focusing on the term "Next of Kin", I understood that part of what I've been attempting to do for years is to document the humanity in conflict and crisis. I've been making "family portraits".

I now spend my days in a bucolic upstate NY town, the home of the romantic Hudson Valley School of art. I watch the sun set behind the gentle silhouette of the Catskill mountain range. Cottony clouds are lit softly underneath with pink and lavender. I realize I've watched the same sunsets on battlefields in Congo and Sudan.

"Misery" is relative. Part of my daily task entails an attempt to reconcile the indigenous (upstate NY) definitions of "suffering", "hardship", "outrage", etc. with my own ideas of the same. My ideas are colored by my own experience and, in a sense, by yet other indigenous peoples' definitions of these emotions and experiences.

And then, the negative isn't the only yardstick of the human experience. We all experience humor, love, embarrassment, joy, pride, jealousy, wonder, fear, enlightenment, pain, confusion... and so on. At the risk of stating the obvious, we are all therefore, "next of kin.”

With these images of "foreign" people, in "foreign" places, dressed in "foreign" clothing, engaged in "foreign" activities, I'm attempting to focus on our "next of kin"- humans who experience and feel the same things I (and you) feel and experience.

I was asked for this interview if  “As a journalist, do you ride on the back of the poor?"

If I interpret this correctly, the question is: “as a photojournalist who covers conflict and crisis (and specifically the people who are the subjects of these conflicts and crises) are you a "vulture"?"

My thoughts stretch much further than the space constraints and scope of this article allow for, and it’s something I hope to confront in the book.

The best way I can answer this is to paraphrase my highly-respected colleague, Jerome Delay: "when we stop documenting humanity, we lose our humanity."

-Tim Freccia

All images:
Yirol, 2011, type C-print

edition of 10 at 84 x 44.75 in

edition of 15 at 42 x 22.5 in.

www.nextofkinshow.com . rsvp@nextofkinshow.com . +1 718 450 6801