Moment of light

Text: 
Susan Villa
Photo: 
Jehad Nga

A doorway in the evening sunlight and a love for a war-ravaged country were the inspiration for Jehad Nga’s series of images from East Africa.

The story has to start from that moment.

An afternoon somewhere in North-West Kenya, near the border with Somalia. Jehad Nga is enjoying a cold drink at the end of a day’s work. He is sitting near the doorway of an empty shop, watching the angled sunlight as the day turns into evening. It gets dark inside but by the doorway the day’s last rays of light are still illuminating the passers-by. The play of darkness and light attracts Nga’s attention and he takes a few pictures just as a test. The end result is dramatic.

It was not, however, what he was looking for.

Nga is on his way to photograph the drought-ridden Horn of Africa region for an

international organisation. But that moment captures him. The shafts of light will only keep dissecting the thickening darkness for another hour. As he is taking more pictures, Nga knows that this is something he must continue.

Memory of the sun

Years later, Saido Mohamed, who grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia, is looking at Nga’s pictures on his computer screen in Helsinki. Human figures cut across the black background here and there. Mohamed browses the pictures, lingering on some for a little longer, before continuing. Some of the pictures have been taken in Kenya, the majority in Somalia.

In Mohamed’s view the images tell about people’s everyday life and reflect the civil war in Somalia. A woman’s hand on the shoulder of another, as if consoling her amidst sorrow, the military fatigues, gun barrels, furrows on a man’s face. Despite the absence of ruined buildings or other typical elements of war photography, he can see them all in these portraits.

The almost all-engulfing darkness of the images makes him think. Mohamed wonders whether the photos have been taken at night. No, it is the moment just before sunset. The images make Mohamed think about that moment in far-away in Somalia and he remembers the surprisingly intense light that is created when the sun is sinking towards the horizon. When the light, just for a moment, still prevails against the encroaching darkness.

Intimate arrangement

Jehad Nga would not have photographed the Shadowed by the Sun series if he had not been able to do it just with sunlight. In the series he particularly values the shoot as an event, the process itself. The pictures themselves only have significance for him in so far as they can maintain the beautiful sensory perception of the moment for a little longer than reality.

The shoots went well. So well, in fact, that Nga does not know who he should really thank for it. The Kenyans and the Somalis in the pictures were at first curious and even playful. But when the shoot began, they behaved in a very dignified manner. Very self-consciously.

For his subjects Nga selected the people who were the most curious but at the same time the most reluctant to be photographed. The situation was quite intimate because in addition to Nga, only a translator was allowed to be present. The subjects created a very sensitive and sincere atmosphere for the shoot.

The light was very harsh on the subjects and for some it may even have been frightening to stand alone in the beam of light in the middle of darkness.

Jehad Nga’s images have something in common with the works of the baroque artist Caravaggio: both can be characterised as chiaroscuro, a powerful combination of light and dark.

Beloved Somalia

For Jehad Nga, Somalia is his most important and interesting shooting location. He loves Somalia and for some reason has a particularly strong bond with the country. For him Mogadishu is unique; he has not come across anything comparable during his travels.

Nga can imagine how beautiful the city has been in the past. Now it is described as one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Somalia also fascinates Nga because it has so few photographers due to the bad security situation. Planning shoots and predicting events is difficult, and it is impossible to know whether it’s possible to return there to continue an incomplete project.

The situation has still worsened in recent years because there are also conflicts within the different parties to the war. Picture agencies and the media don’t like sending journalists and photographers to Somalia.

For Nga it has been easier to get access to the country because most of the time he has been working independently and funded his work from his own savings. It’s convenient to cover Somalia and the rest of the Horn of Africa from Nairobi.

According to Nga, Somalia is worth all the effort, worth the commitment. Yet he believes that he will never quite understand the object of his love.

Giving something back

Shadowed by the Sun has been exhibited in many fine galleries around the world. New York, London, Paris. In the exhibition the pictures are art, removed from their context. Nothing is explained to the viewer, no information about the war, people, the doorway or Somalia.

Nga does not mind if the first thought of a visitor to a gallery is whether one of his pictures would look good above their sofa. Whether the tones would fit in with the décor. If the works are sold, he donates most of the income back to Somalia.

Life continues in Somalia despite the difficult situation. Children play with a ball on the street, there is joy and the usual hustle and bustle of work. People are not just sitting around waiting for salvation.

With the proceeds from the sale of his images about a Somalian boxing club, Nga bought some more equipment for the gym. He is also planning to give funds from the sale of other works to small health stations, for example.

A country worth the commitment, in a very concrete way.

Permanent trace

For Nga, photography means the same as the most important relationship anyone can have. The same as a relationship that perhaps saved you, or a relationship that can make you feel more valuable.

The connection with the subject is also important. During the shoot you need to be sensitive to the situation. This is especially hard in war-zones where the situations are very fluid. You stop the car, take a few pictures and exit the scene quickly accompanied by security men.

Nga can’t say whether working in Africa has changed him. And whatever it has taught him, he will probably never really understand it. He continues the close relationship without a deeper analysis.

And dreams about an image that will not desert him so soon after it was taken. An image that stays with him and does not leave him with the feeling that he should still take one more, and then just one more.