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South Sudan – 2022

In retrospect, my photograph Mankind, taken in the same country in 2014, was a stepping stone for me. It was authentic, it had a biblical scale to it and could be looked at for a long time. Haunting and hellish one minute and serene and ethereal the next.

I knew it would be a mistake to go back and try to copy what I did eight years ago; it would hint at a lack of creative progression and courage. I needed to do better and offer a new story, to go backwards would be damaging at many levels. I had been preoccupied by that fear for some time and I knew I had to be bold when I returned at the end of June 2022.

The Lakes areas of South Sudan is just about on a map, but way off the grid for most. It is the most basic of existences and the only material source of employment is the cattle camps. In 2014, I filmed near the town of Yirol in a camp on a Nile tributary, but this time I wanted to travel further into the interior and find an even bigger camp on the way to Rumbek. My premise was to play on scale and my leaning was always to go bigger not smaller. The Dinka tribe are the world’s tallest people, their cattle camps are the biggest of their kind and the cattle horns are Jurassic. This is a place to play on the word “big”.

Whilst I was nervous of treading old ground, familiarity is a friend not a foe, that’s why we often work with the same talent in our storytelling. My sense was that there needed to be even more of a visual overload in the frame and I found it difficult in my preconceptions to escape from the word ‘panoramic’.

The local chief and the head of police knew where to take me and my security detail knew how to keep me safe. I would go into largely unchartered land where the Dinka had established a camp of over 10,000 cattle. We knew to bring cow medicine to win the crowd and we came with a load from the capital Juba. That was a good call.

The discomfort of staying in a room costing $5 a night and eating a meal for $2 whilst security costs $1000 a day, is compensated by the comfort of knowing that there is a chance of authenticity. For an artist that is pure gold. I question whether anything is truly novel these days. All creation is influenced by what we have seen elsewhere, but this terrain is not well trodden. I was excited to arrive in South Sudan and even more excited to leave when the job was done. In other parts of Africa, my emotions are much more compressed because it is so mainstream and that is something with which I am increasingly uncomfortable. In my journey, I need to push on and accept challenges and this shoot was certainly one.

There is about a 40-minute window for this kind of image; basically, the time between the cows returning to camp in late afternoon and half an hour before sunset. The hope,
of course, is that there is direct sunlight. On a dull day with full cloud cover, the light can’t bounce off the smoke quite like it does here. Meanwhile, there was some maths involved in determining the best height for the ladder that travelled 500 miles with us; too low and there would not be enough depth and too high and we would lose immersion. ~ David Yarrow

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