With Basterland photographer Julia Runge (Berlin, 1990) graduated in 2015 at the Ostkreuzschule in Berlin. Basterland is a portrait of a society in Namibia that seems to find itself in an “in-between“ amid tradition and change.
BK: You lived and worked in Namibia between 2010 and 2012. Where you working as a photographer in Namibia already or did you start photography on a later moment?
JR: When I got there I first started to work as a teacher in an english pre-school class. Later I did some photography jobs as well. Although I already got into photography in 2006 I would say it REALLY started with my studies in Berlin in 2012. I never really chose to become a photographer – it was my passion ever-since and luckily I was able to study at the Ostkreuzschule. Today I’m able to earn money out of my passion.
BK: Your work is about the cultural legacy of the Baster. Can you explain a bit about this group of people? How did you get involved with the Basters?
JR: The Basters are the offspring of the union between European settlers and their indigenous Khoisan slaves during the colonial period in the 18th century.
The name “Baster” (Afrikaans for German bastards) may seem a little pejorative. But the Baster community gave it themself because it reminds them of their heritage and emergence. During the South African colonization, the Basters became a more and more unwanted and stigmatized group.
By the Europeans they were considered superior to the black population group, but they were still too black to be treated by them as Europeans. The black people on the other hand felt the association which the Basters had emerged from as treacherous.
For the Basters this situation was of course offensive and uncomfortable. Thus they parted from dependence to the Cape region in the middle of the 19th century and moved northwards for 2 years into the empty farmlands of central Namibia, where they still live today.
The Basters are a very proud and strong ethnic group who respect their history and their elders like nothing else. They are also traditionally-minded people and stick together, especially when it comes to protecting their family and community.
Not least because of these properties, they have managed to survive apartheid, two world wars and national peoples wars.
When I lived in Namibia in 2010 I was lucky to work with a very special woman – Luzaine Hoff. She is the woman in the “desert” picture on the cover of my book. Everything started with her because through the work we became very close friends and her family became kind of my second family. That was when I first heard about the history of the Baster. So I got involved with the Basters before I even knew anything about their “existence”
BK: How did you come up with this subject and do you feel in a way connected to this specific ethnic group?
JR: I always wanted to do a photographic work about the Basters since I got to know them. I decided to do the work as my final thesis for graduation at the Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie. I wanted to give it a special importance. For me my graduation was very special so are the Basters.
I wanted to show a different face of Africa, which remained entirely unnoticed so far by the international media. Also, I wanted to photographically examine and capture the Baster people, their culture & history.
My work isn’t a “pure” portrait or documentary work, but also a personal tribute to the people who have touched me deeply with her warm and friendly nature and among whom I count many of my friends and my family.
BK: In the book we can read that some portrait where partially staged, while other were created spontaneously. In what sense did you find it necessary to partially stage the photographs and how did the people portrayed react to this?
JR: I think for a good and intense portrait you have to take your time. I used my Mamiya 645 for that work. That camera has no autofocus or light meter and only 15 pictures on one film. You really have to think about your photos if you work like that. Sometimes there was a situation in which I wasn’t able to catch that moment so I asked the people to stand, sit or lay again for me, so that I can take a portrait. I didn’t stage the photographs in the meaning of telling the people what to wear or how to pose because I wanted the portraits to be as natural as possible. It should still show their own personality. So for the people I portrayed it felt natural as well and there was no awkward situation at all.
BK: Basterland is a portrait of a society that seems to find itself in an “in-between“ amid tradition and change. Was it hard to capture this balance between tradition and change?
JR: Not really because I just captured different moments and situations. On some pictures you will see the Basters more traditional like the portraits with the traditional dresses. And then you will see the change in portraits like the ones of the younger generation. The only hard part was to edit the pictures and find a balance within the photoseries.
BK: Did you show your work to the people portrayed and if yes, how did they react to your work?
JR: Everyone I worked with got a book from me and they were really overwhelmed. I think it is because the history really means a lot to the Basters especially in connection with their identity. It was the first time someone published something like that about their ethnic group and culture. So the Basters were really proud and thankful for that work.
BK: How did you project developed when you were studying at the Ostkreuzschule? Was there any guidance, or did you develop your project all by yourself.
JR: I developed it all by myself. I visited the Basterland many times, learned the language and lived there with the people. The project had its own dynamic. The more I got into the life of the Basters the more intense it got. But of course it helped me a lot to get feedback from the other young photographers and my teachers at Ostkreuzschule. I learned a lot about myself and my photos when I opened up to others about my work.
BK: When you started with this project, were you thinking about a book from the beginning?
JR: Yes. Making a book was the only way for me to show the life of the Basters in all its facets.
BK: You won several prizes with this work and it was exhibited in Western-Europe, Nigeria and China. How were the reactions to your work and were there any significant differences?
JR: The reactions were mostly the same. Interested – because of the fact that they didn’t hear anything about the history of the Basters before, fascinated – about the life of the Basters, surprised – to see a different face of Africa compared to the stereotypical picture you see in the news.
BK: This book was self-published in an edition of 250 copies? Can you tell us a bit about the design and edit of the book? How did this evolve?
JR: I wanted the design of the book to underline the content of the project. Nothing fancy but natural like the photos. So I chose a natural coloured soft cover made by a berlin based paper manufacturer. The beige natural look of that paper fits to the aesthetic of the photos. The white sleeve (?) or banderole wrapped around the book has a symbolic meaning as well. As I explained before the whole project started, when I met the women on the picture. So I wanted the book to start and end with her. I decided to make a banderole with her portrait on it, which you have to take off when you want to open the book and have to put on again to close the book.
I kept the layout simple because the photos are different enough (landscape, portraits, documentary photos, stilllife…). Every photo has the chance to stand by its own without being influenced by the layout. All photos have a horizontal format, so does the book.
The edit is a heterogenous spectrum of images which provides a multifaceted insight into the contemporary life of the Basters.
BK: Since our blog is about the changing visual representation of Africa as expressed through the medium of the photobook I always ask if there is one (photo)book, or more, dealing with the African continent, that you really admire and could be included to the website (according to you)? Please explain why?
JR: Tough question. As there are already so many important and good books on your blog there are only a few I could think of to include to your website.
1. The Photographer by Ernest Cole: because he is one of the greatest and first black photojournalists of South Africa. His Images are very powerful. He understood and had access to the people and places he photographed because he was one of them.
2. Africa by Sebastiao Salgado: very impressing and powerful black-and-white images. He exactly knows how to grab the essence of a moment.
3. Legacy of the Mine by Ilan Godfrey: At first it seems to be only a nice coffee table book with pretty photographs. But then you come to the back of the book and find the captions chapter where you get an insight into each photograph and see what they really are about – the dark shadow of mining in South Africa. That gives the book and its images a completely new complexity.
Other books I would like to read something about on your blog would be Fifty-One Years: David Goldblatt and The Hyena & Other Men by Pieter Hugo and anything from Jürgen Schadeberg.
For more information on Basterland please visit Julia Runge’s website.