Tales of a Swahili Land

With his series on Zanzibar, French photographer Antoine Jonquière wants to pay more attention to the island’s inhabitants – and at the same time embarks on a journey into the melange of tradition and modernity.

What brought you to Zanzibar?
A deep passion for travel and the African continent. I had previously spent time in the Gulf of Guinea where I worked on several projects documenting Ghanaian youth. After discovering one part of the African west, I felt compelled to see the other side of the continent. I’ve always been attracted to smaller islands. Zanzibar, the name itself feels mysterious; and I generally find islanders’ relationship to their environment and to Time more relaxing and peaceful than that of a continental population. As though remoteness brings a feeling of relative ease. I learned about Zanzibar’s exceptionally rich Swahili culture, made a few contacts and took off with that beloved feeling of excitement for unknown places!

What fascinates you about Swahili culture and what was your approach to capturing it?
Zanzibar is a fascinating place blending over 20,000 years of Indian, Middle Eastern, and African traditions and heritage, and I was drawn to the life of a society with such a diverse and complex history. Arab, Indian, Persian, Bantu: how could so many communities, religions, and cultures have intertwined to become one? After two trips I feel that I am still in the “observation” phase, and I don’t plan extensively prior to a trip. I need to be physically there, to speak with people I know, adjust to the island’s own natural “calendar” (rainy season, manual trades and seasonal harvests, popular celebrations…), and continue to learn about the Swahili culture and heritage.







Which Tales of a Swahili Land do your images speak about?
Even though the images connect as a series, I like to think that each one can stand as an individual “tale” – hence the title. Also, wherever I go I’m deeply interested in the existing relationship between tradition and modernity, popular culture, and the nobility of manual work. Time shapes people working with their hands and their bodies, in a particular way. It can be hard and very beautiful at the same time. Portraying these individuals is a way to honour them, and honour the knowledge of their (often) disappearing crafts.

What is important to you about portrait photography?
Emotion. Within that context, I wanted to portray subjects as they were, with as little alteration or “staging” as possible, since my goal was to capture whatever originally captivated me in the attitude and expressions of each person. Portraying “real” people, as opposed to people used to posing in front of a camera, is thrilling and has something.

How did you approach the people?
With a few words in Swahili at first; by asking if I could take their portrait and then trying to become invisible. With the help of friends and contacts. In some situations, I also travelled with a guide, to help out in the most remote parts of the island where English wouldn’t be an option.

Your series contains both black and white as well as colour images. How and why did you opt for them in each case? What was your criteria?
The nature of each scene, each subject.

How was the experience with your camera?
I used my trusted Leica M-P 240 with 35 and 90mm Summicron. Electronic equipment and a tropical climate don’t usually team up so well; but after the humidity of months in the Sri Lankan jungle documenting palm wine collectors, and the moist salty heat of the Gulf of Guinea, on the streets of Accra following young Ghanaian boxers, my well cared-for system was fully prepared for the East African coast. It allowed me to be quiet, light and quick at capturing a wide range of situations.





What impact does your journey have on you today?
It was fantastic and I intend to renew my visits to the island regularly. It affected me in the sense that, after two month-long trips, I dearly wish to maintain and develop my relationship with the people I’ve met, some of whom have become friends. I know now that the project will be long term, (and could possibly go on forever) as it merely aims to show the beauty of life in that part of the planet. And that’s okay. I’m not after some feeling of completion. The reward is in the act of photographing itself, and later printing at home. On another level, it also had a strong impact on my consumption of fresh fruits, now multiplied by 3, at least.

What did you find in Zanzibar that you can’t find elsewhere?
A state of delightful lightness, like that of a flâneur, the joy of togetherness that deepens social relationships in micro-communities, and the best Urojo soup (a popular favourite in Tanzania/Zanzibar).

Antoine Jonquière is a French documentary and portrait photographer based in Marseille, France. Driven by research-led, self-initiated projects, his work often explores countries and cultures through the relationship existing between tradition and modernity. He has documented the Tamil palm wine collectors of Northern Sri Lanka, young boxers in Accra, Ghana, and is currently working on a documentary about Swahili identity in Zanzibar, Tanzania. His work has been featured in GEO Magazine, Photo Vogue, Suitcase, and Gestalten. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.

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