The work of Leni Riefenstahl and George Rodger on the tribal peoples of the Nuba Mountains.


The work of Leni Riefenstahl and George Rodger on the tribal peoples of the Nuba Mountains.


When I first saw these two pictures, I had never heard of either photographer. What struck me as I looked through my copy of The Photobook were the similarities between the men in the two images. Their appearance is distinctive, although the two scenes are markedly different. It was at this point I set about researching the two photographers and these particular pieces of work.

I first looked for the bodies of work these images had come from. I couldn’t help but note the consistent similarities; from the cultural peculiarities to the compositions and the particular subject matter. I looked hard for differences too, knowing that some of the images were shot in 1949 and the others in 1962: knowing that one was taken by a woman and the other by a man. I thought to myself, perhaps a little cockily, that I had an exciting essay on my hands. When I undertook some research into the backgrounds of the photographers I made some interesting discoveries, ones which made me start to feel differently about what I was seeing.

Although my initial intention was to focus solely on these two images, I feel there is a much wider issue which has presented itself and one I wish to explore. It is the relationship between what we know and what we perceive. Perception is more than just something we use to make sense of what we see, it can be warped and illusive and perhaps not always our own.


Let’s begin by examining the two images above. The focus of both images is the famous wrestling tournaments of the Nuba people of southern Sudan.[1] The image on the left is in black and white and shows the victor being carried on the shoulders of his opponent. The image on the right is a colour image, which shows two competitors mid-match. In the one image there is evidence of the spectators and other competitors, adding a certain context to the scene, which is not apparent in the other image. Both pictures, in my opinion, scream of masculinity. Whether this was the intention of the photographers is not clear, but it is evident that the men in both images are of fine physical stature and condition. All of the men photographed are naked, adding to the primitivism implied. They allude to a time and culture passed in the western world hundreds of years ago, in an almost nostalgic fashion.

Compositionally, one image is dissected horizontally and the other vertically by the figures in the centre of the frame: They both allude to a sense of oneness between the competitors- victors or losers- being photographed, a sense of a pair. One being incomplete without the other: only half the worth. The vantage points are also very different, with the first image being ‘looked-up’ at, in close proximity and the second witnessed from further a field at eye-level. Maybe one photographer felt awed and the other felt equal, perhaps that is what can be seen if you read into an image what isn’t there. It is far more likely that that was all the circumstances and equipment would allow. Speaking of reading what is not there to be seen, we now come to the part that inspired me to write this: The photographers.

The image of the wrestler being carried victorious was taken in 1949 by George Rodger; a Briton and prolific World War II photographer. He was the first man to photograph inside the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, after it was liberated from German control. It had affected him so badly, that, in his diary Rodger (1999. p.ii) wrote: ‘I just had to get rid of the filth of war, the screams of the wounded, the groans of the dying. I sought some spot in the world that was clean and untrammelled- tribal Africa’. Bruce Bernard (1994. p.46) wrote of this ‘Belsen…would scar him far more than all the other scenes of death and suffering’. Rodger had sought to escape post-war Europe and its civilisation ‘Rodger felt fettered and restless’ (1987 p.8), so, on the advice of the Magnum office in Paris, he sought out the tribes of the Kordofan province of southern Sudan. (Hamilton 1999, p.v)

The image of the two competitors in combat was taken in 1975 By Leni Riefenstahl: celebrity German dancer, actress and controversial film director, who had been commissioned by Adolf Hitler himself to produce ‘Triumph of the Will’. [2] She had also produced the iconic film ‘Olympia’ of the 1936 Olympic games held in Berlin, in which Hitler famously awarded Jesse Owens his Gold Medals. (Taschen 2000) Inspired by Hemingway and by the images of George Rodger, she too sought adventure in Kordofan. In an interview she says:

I read Hemingway’s book, The Green Hills of Africa (1935). And that influenced me. And when I got there, this shimmer, this light that I found in Africa, the warmth and the colours that look so completely different in the heat from those of Europe, all that fascinated me greatly. It reminded me of the Impressionist painters-Manet, Monet, Cézanne. (Brownlow 2002)

How does this new information affect your analysis of these images? Do you now look for evidence of empathy in the image on the left and for racism in the image on the right? When I looked at these pictures I saw equal beauty. I had no pre-conceived ideas on what could’ve motivated Rodger and Riefenstahl to create these images. My perspective had not been tainted, although it very nearly was. I have read many pages of comments, reviews, critiques and essays written on the lives and works of these two famous photographers. The same opinions dominate. George Rodger: hero, adventurer, risk-taker, master, inspiration. Leni Riefenstahl: Nazi, propagandist, fantasist, culture-wrecker, liar. It was incredibly difficult for me not to be influenced by these very well put-together and altogether compelling arguments.

I questioned how readily I’d initially absorbed what I read and allowed those opinions to- almost- infiltrate my own; something seemed to me to be unjust. I do not think it fair to place such judgements on the motivations of an individual. I especially felt that Leni Riefenstahl was getting a terrible press. Her memoirs say that she did not want to work for the Nazi party. She was unhappy about her Jewish friends having to emigrate under the regime. In a biography in the book five lives, it describes how Leni tried to speak to Hitler in 1933 about it. (Taschen 2002) I personally don’t have any reason to doubt that. The title of one article, by James C Faris[3], written about Riefenstahl is ‘The Nazi that wont Die’ (2002), although it is widely accepted that many citizens of the Third Reich were unaware of the true horrors being carried out in concentration camps. Many people were too brainwashed or too afraid, to see the fallacy in the propaganda so widely distributed- so it is hardly fair to state that someone is a Nazi. George Rodgers memoirs, however, are taken as gospel. Implicitly trusted, never questioned, yet we have no evidence to ascertain the truth in his portrayal of events. He was, as cited in his book humanity and inhumanity: ‘often alone, in the unrestricted yet vulnerable position of the self sufficient writer/photographer.’ (1994 p.5) As yet I have not seen a single article challenging Rodgers motivations. Is this evidence of a collective opinion on which photographer we are willing to believe: of us deciding what we want to see?

Riefenstahl was affiliated with Adolf Hitler (Taschen 2002) and as such she will always be considered as “one of them”. Susan Sontag, commented in a review of ‘the last of the Nuba’, entitled fascinating fascism, that Riefenstahl had a ‘fascist aesthetic.’ (1975) Her argument being that it’s about the way she looks for beauty, perfection, strength, health and purity. I agree that Riefenstahl did glorify the strong healthy body in Olympia, but the images are of the worlds finest athletes, surely this can be forgiven as an accurate portrayal of the physique of the competitors. She may well be guilty of paying too much attention to the physical beauty of the Nuba people, with little regard for conveying an accurate document of the culture and history of those people. (Op’t Ende 2008) Nanne Op’t Ende [4], photographer, editor of and frequent visitor to, and campaigner for, the Nuba in Sudan, writes in a personal communication: ‘she showed poor judgment, she never cared much for the truth and she clearly had a talent for opportunism’. But Rodger did this also. Unbeknown to many, the images in the village of the Nubas have been drastically cropped. Removing from the frame that which is not deemed to be of enough aesthetic value[5].

One could then surely argue that the eye of Rodger also be clouded by fascism, if that is the basis of argument. He himself said ‘I could see the horror of Belsen and think of nothing but a great photographic composition’. (2008 p.7) Should the legitimacy of the eye of every creative professional be questioned too? Do we not then all have a fascist aesthetic? Do we not all admire beauty and perfection and seek to create it where we can; whether it be our homes, our clothing, our faces or our art? In a personal communication, Nanne (2008) said to me in an email ‘look at it this way: when an obsession with youth, beauty, physical fitness and perfection is fascist, the United States are arguably the most fascist country on the planet.’ I agree however controversial it may be. James C. Faris, a respected anthropologist whose expertise is body art in the Nuba culture, writes for Counterpunch:

This discrimination could be applied to just about all photography of non-Western people of lesser power by Western photographers, and this same critique applies to much of National Geographic’s production and most coffee table photographic volumes of others. It is an aesthetic widely shared in the West. (2002)

Peter Hamilton, when comparing Riefenstahl to Rodger says; ‘Although their subject matter coincides, their perspectives are diametrically opposed’. (1999 p.viii) I don’t believe this to be true. I believe they both had nothing more in mind than creating sensational images of an exotic people. Nanne Optende is not alone in his opinion that ‘I don’t think many people combined an iconographic interpretation with some basic understanding of the culture and history of the Nuba.’ I think he is right, the evidence certainly suggests that neither Rodger nor Riefenstahl even tried to do this. Riefenstahl by her own admission was preoccupied by the beauty (The Sieve of Time) and Rodger simply did not try to immerse himself in the culture or spend much time in the environment (village of the Nubas): he couldn’t possibly have achieved it.

Riefenstahl is also often blamed for the decline of the Nuba culture. When I announced my intention to write this essay, one of my fellow students, getting quite emotive, said words to the effect of her being ‘solely responsible for the demise of the Nuba tribes’. (Aslett 2008) In one of Rodgers books it is said:

Fifteen years later…she arrived there and took a remarkable series of colour photographs that were published all over the world. They became justly famous and immediately attracted more visitors to the area. The reaction of the puritan Islamic government of the Sudan was to encourage encroachment by Arabs onto the Nuba territory and oppress their culture to a degree that has now amounted to their destruction as a free people. (Bernard 1994, p.158)

However, in a new foreword in a later edition of the village of the Nubas, it quite clearly states that ‘He [Rodger] felt saddened that his words and pictures…brought the Nubas to the attention not merely to the outside world, but their own government. The newly independent Islamic state pressured the Nubas into changing their way if life.’ (Hamilton 1999, p.vii) Riefenstahl says herself ‘when I was on my way there, the police (chief of Kordofan) told me that these Nuba on the picture-“the unclothed Nuba”-no longer existed. They said they’d existed ten years earlier.’ (Brownlow 2002). According to Nanne Optende (2008) who has spent many months immersed in the culture, to blame either photographer is naïve and inaccurate. He says ‘it is hopelessly romantic to view the Nuba as an isolated people whose unique culture became spoiled because a lone photographer ventured into their world and exposed them to modernity. Their lives were on the path to modernization long before either arrived. The Nuba people wanted this for themselves; they were not adulterated by a few western journalists. He continues to say ‘In the 20th century the entire world changed dramatically… it was just a matter of time for the Nuba to catch up with these changes…the Nuba elite started their rebellion because they thought modernity was not coming to the Nuba Mountains fast enough. (2008)

I think people may like the romanticised view of the Nuba as a culture struggling to retain its tradition. It fits in nicely with the perceptions some have of a reality different to our own, with judgements we make about the world around us. These concepts of the wider world and where we all fit in it, are instilled subconsciously in us with years of television and newspaper reading. They are very hard to change as many don’t even realise they have them. ‘Humanist notions of the underappreciated beauty of those photographed, their overlooked misery, their unrealized authenticity, with a further inference that we (the photographers) should be lauded for having documented and appreciated them.’(Faris 2002) Maybe the truth is that our own perceptions should be more widely criticized for it is the needs of the consumer which drive a market. Why is it we so wish to see the ‘untouched’ the ‘never before seen’? I believe it is our fascination and popular belief that we are more civilized, more advanced. It re-establishes ideas of supremacy, of having higher status. (Sontag 1975)

‘Any photographer who goes out to satisfy a public’s desire for exotic images turns the people he photographs into subjects.’ (Op’t Ende 2008) Yet to a certain extent we are all guilty of this. It is all too easy to lay the blame at someone else’s door. In this instance, at the door of Riefenstahl. We will happily objectify another person, or group of people, to serve our own means: Whether that be money, entertainment, ego-nurturing, or in the case of Riefenstahl, fame. Yet we are collectively very quick to criticise a photographer for selecting a certain type of image to make, without acknowledging that we are instrumental in the need for it. ‘They [the Nuba] are necessary fodder in some distinct way, for Western functionalist consumption.’(Counterpunch 200_) Both photographers are guilty of this in equal proportion. ‘It seems too easy to dismiss it all as simply “fascist.” (Faris 2002)

Photographs work in the space between what we see and what we are guessing. They also require the viewer to use their knowledge and apply it in context to the subject in front of them. Desire is important when it comes to seeing an image. (Walker 2008). Do people see the fascism in her work because they desire to see it based on limited knowledge of her history? Do they see heroism in Rodgers work because something about their understanding of him makes them want to see it? Does it then absolve us of any guilt for our own voyeurism? Are our judgments of what we see dictated by indoctrination, racism, inherited truth? Are they tainted by what we read, what we hear, or by the people we aspire to be, people like the respected Susan Sontag? Is what you see in these images partly influenced by what you think you know of far away lands or now determined by what you know of the photographers themselves? Do politics and conditioning determine what you are prepared to believe? These are all questions I would ask myself before analysing the images again. Is it possible for you to objectively view the images as done in the beginnings of this text?

Powerful though they may be, the words of others are opinions: Nothing more. To create truth for oneself is more valuable than to absorb and regurgitate the opinions of others. Truth is organic; it is nurtured and changeable and can be obtained for oneself with absolute objectivity only. That includes the ability to evaluate oneself and a wider perception of the world in which we live. To challenge misconceptions and inadequacies in our own knowledge. Nanne challenged me by stating ‘the possibility that I might just provoke you into reaching beyond the cliché is very tempting.’ (2008) That, he has achieved, with any luck I’ll have done the same.

“Perception is like a tool box and we all use it to manufacture our own reality” (Yentob 2008) So now I ask you to look once more at the two images… What do you choose to see?

[1] Wrestling tournaments are a very common feature of life in Nuba Mountains, and do not reflect a unique or primitive culture. Wrestling is big in many modern countries and in Africa. Wrestling is a sport practiced traditionally along a broad zone stretching from Sudan to the West African coast.

[2] The iconic propaganda film documenting the rise of the nationalist party in Germany.

[3] James Faris, is a retired anthropology professor .One of his earlier books, Nuba Personal Art (Duckworth, 1972), contained maps that lead Riefenstahl to the Southeast Nuba of Sudan

[4] Nanne op ‘t Ende graduated from the ‘s-Hertogenbosch academy of visual arts in 1995. he then became involved in Sudanese issues: human rights, the war in the South, the war in the Nuba Mountains.

The Nuba invited him to come to Sudan to document the war. He went to the Nuba Mountains for the first time in 1997. Returning in 1998 and 2000.

[5] In reference to an exhibition of the original prints displayed at The Noorderlicht Photography Festival in Groningen in October 2003 that included the work of seven more Magnum members.


About Vickers

Artsist, Photographer & Writer Currently working on projects with the ultimate aim of improving the lives of people facing mental health challenges.
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One Response to The work of Leni Riefenstahl and George Rodger on the tribal peoples of the Nuba Mountains.

  1. Tom Bradley says:

    Nice – really enjoyed that. Was just talking with a friend about the Rodger/Riefenstahl dispute. It’s clear and considered essay – pleasure to read.

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