Photographer’s images capture the incredible costumes—and improbable story—of Africa’s Herero tribe


posted Friday, July 12, 2013 at 5:30 PM EDT


English photographer Jim Naughten spent four months driving across Namibia in southwest Africa to document the costumes and cultural traditions of the indigenous Herero people. His book "Conflict and Costume" tells the story of both the brutality of colonialism and the resilience of the Hereros to overcome it. I was struck by the beauty and strength of Naughten's images, and reached out to him to find out more about them.

"Namibia's geography has witnessed a turbulent and little documented history of human settlement, upheaval and war within a particularly brutal period of European colonization," Naughten told me.

Germany and other European nations had come into the colonial business late in the game after England, Spain and France had long held colonies that had enriched them, Naughten said. In the scramble for Africa, Germany just got a desert -- the Namib Desert -- which is perhaps the oldest desert in the world, a place that remains one of the most sparsely populated and most hostile environments anywhere on earth.

Photo by Jim Naughten.


Named Deutsche Südwestafrika by Kaiser Wilheim II, German Lutheran missionaries soon moved in and began converting the local tribes, both in religion and in clothing. Nonetheless, in the early part of the 20th century, the Hereros rose up against their German occupiers and in what has been called "practice for the Holocaust," 80% of the Hereros, or some 65,000 people, were wiped out.

However, it was during this genocidal war that a strange thing occurred. "Garments became an important expression of identity during these fragile times," Naughten said. "If a warrior killed a German soldier, he would take and wear their uniform as a badge of honor, and to ‘take’ or appropriate their power. A version of these uniforms is worn by Herero men today at festivals and ceremonies, to honour the fallen ancestors and to keep the memories alive."

Photo by Jim Naughten.


Over time, these "costumes" became a Herero tradition, and continuing to dress in this manner was a great source of pride to the wearer. "Gradually, regional variations in the silhouette emerged; for example, the addition of cow horns to [women's] headdresses reflects the great importance with which they regard their cattle," Naughten said.

After World War I, the country was placed under the control of the whites-only government of South Africa, and in the 1960s, a guerilla movement grew against these new occupiers. After 20 years of armed struggle, the nation of Namibia gained its independence in 1988. Through the decades of conflict, the Hereros used their costumes as a way of remembering their past.

Photo by Jim Naughten.


In their travels across Nambia, Naughten and his guide would ask permission to take photographs. However, rather than setting up a studio backdrop, Naughten used the stark, lunar-like Namibian landscape as his background.

"By composing these portraits against the Namibian landscape -- one of unforgiving intensity but also of silent witness -- there is an enlivening that takes place in an otherwise frozen moment that allows the past to speak," Naughten said.

Photo by Jim Naughten.


Naughten also photographed the Hereros' "marches," processions that are re-enactments from their German colonial past, now used as part of events that celebrate their survival.

You can learn more about the Hereros and see more of Naughten's photos by ordering a copy of "Conflict and Costume."

Photo by Jim Naughten.
Photo by Jim Naughten.

All photos used with permission of photographer.