Swiss Photography Foundation, Winterthur

'Africa does not exist'

“Africa doesn’t exist.” This sentence is posted next to images exhibited by Swiss photographer Dominic Nahr. It is a quotation from journalist Georg Brunold’s reports from Africa – and relevant to Nahr’s work. His photographic oeuvre is now on show at the Swiss Photography Foundation in Winterthur. The exhibition’s title is “Blind Spots”. 

The dark spots are South Sudan, Somalia, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo: four African states that can’t provide inhabitants with basic necessities and security. Four countries whose problems are rooted in their colonial history or caused in part by other external influences. 

To this day, these volatile states are at the mercy of interest groups and foreign powers’ hunger for profit. Internal conflicts and civil war prevent political and social stability. Nahr has worked in these countries for years. “Blind Spots” shows a small section of life on the big continent. 

The exhibition also addresses photographic questions: What is it permissible to show? How much beauty is allowed in portrayals of terrible things? How do you avoid ethnic clichés? 

Nahr was born in 1983 in canton Appenzell and grew up in Hong Kong. After stints in Toronto, Berlin, Cairo and Nairobi, he has now returned to Switzerland. We met the young photographer to discuss his life and his work. 

Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sake, 2012

Mali, Bamako, 2013

“I grew up in a rather protected environment. My father had a good job in Hong Kong. I was often alone, because my schoolmates were all expats and regularly moved away. I was a bit of a geek at school – I always preferred to be behind the scenes.”

South Sudan, Thonyor, 2015

“My school once organised a trip to Laos and I took a camera with me. Back home, I showed the pictures to the Pulitzer Prize winner Hugh Van Es, a friend of my father who had chronicled the Vietnam War. He asked me what I wanted to do in life. I had had enough of school and so he said ‘OK, now you’re a photographer’. He got me an internship at the South China Morning Post.”

Mali, Bamako, 2016

South Sudan, Leer, 2015

Somalia, Mogadishu, 2011

“I visited New York for the first time as a student. I stood in a telephone kiosk and called photo editors. I won the College Photographer of the Year award twice with photo-reportages from East Timor and Gaza. I knew I could use these awards as admission tickets to media picture desks.”

Sudan, 2015

Mali, Bamako, 2013

“At university I had the constant feeling that the handbrake was on. I bought a ticket to Wales, where a friend of mine was living. The airline went bankrupt during my flight, so my return ticket was no longer valid. I interpreted it a little bit as a sign. So I left university and never looked back. That was in 2008. I moved on to Berlin.”

Somalia, Mogadishu, 2011

Mali, Segou, 2011

South Sudan, Kok Island, 2015

“While I was there, my photographer friend Karim Ben-Khelifa suggested travelling to the Congo, where war had broken out again. I had never been to Africa. Within three days, I found myself at the front, so to speak. Within a week my pictures were everywhere: in Stern magazine, Der Spiegel, Newsweek and on the front page of Courrier International.”

Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sake, 2012

Democratic Republic of the Congo, Goma, 2009

South Sudan, Lankien, 2015

“I never asked myself ‘what do I actually want?’ There were just role models who had done it before me and told me about their lives. In East Timor, I travelled with an elderly Reuters cameraman. In this business, you can quickly get lost or even go under if you are alone and have no one at your side who can point you in the right direction.”

Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kibati, 2008

Sudan, Heglig, 2012

“I moved to Cairo. I thought: that’s the Middle East and Africa at the same time; from there you can work in both regions. But I missed eastern Africa and went to Nairobi. I’d already had two farewell parties there, but I went back anyway. The third time I didn’t tell anyone but I went back. Now I want to live here in Switzerland. I would like to work with fewer customers, but more intensively with the ones I have.”

South Sudan, Bentiu, 2012

Sudan, Heglig, 2012

“The limited communication with editors via email, social media or bad telephone connections is frustrating. Once I did a reportage for Time magazine about the 2011 famine in Somalia. Time played the story prominently – but I have no idea who actually saw my pictures. Today I would come home and try to publish photos on such an important subject through other channels – as a book or even as an exhibition.”

Mali, Bamako, 2016

“In journalism, pictures have to be simple. They therefore by necessity serve clichés. At Time I quickly sensed what worked and what not. I knew ‘this picture will get on the third page, it will get this much space’ – I knew how it had to look. I wasn’t opening my eyes anymore and I wasn’t experimenting. This exhibition is a new experience for me; it seems so grown up. Taking a step back and looking at my own work with distance is something I haven’t done before. The chance to work with other people on a project involving my photography is something I see as a step forwards.”

Mali, Bamako, 2016

"After the interview I've got to quickly clean the kitchen!" Nahr said as he greeted the photographer.


Dominic Nahr


Excerpts from a conversation between Dominic Nahr and Thomas Kern in June 2017.


Thomas Kern and Luca Schüpbach, © 2017