The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Vanishing Africa

Gianni Giansanti

Reviewer - Adrienne Hack

This is a clever idea. A book, mostly of portraits of ten of the tribes living in the south of Ethiopia, some brief text to introduce each chapter and a 30-minute DVD tucked into the back for good measure.

I was charmed by the idea of this book but frustrated that, as it was tightly shrink-wrapped, I couldn't sneak a look inside while in the bookshop: I bought it anyway. As it happened I checked out the DVD before flicking through the portraits. This is an Italian book so the commentary by the photographer himself is, naturally, in Italian so was lost on me. However, I found seeing moving pictures of the southern tribal celebrations such as the Mursi practising for the Donga and the Hamar performing bull jumping - usually private ceremonies and only witnessed by the most fortunate traveller or the most financially generous - a great joy.

Having made this journey last year with two friends I was thrilled to see this action film of some of the peoples and places we had visited. However, one aspect of our trip which had discomfited us was that we were obliged to pay for photographs - an average of 2 birr per person per photograph. This led to the embarrassing problem of who to choose, how to choose (you, you and you?) and how many to choose. We were not comfortable doing this and we also had the vague suspicion that some local people might have tended towards overdecoration in order to appeal more. We definitely only took quick 'snaps' to cover our embarrassment.

Signor Giansanti's film, photographs and photo diary appear to show that he was much more comfortable in this situation than we had been. He is seen posing his subjects, playing with them and filming them - indeed his own face features a lot in the film. Many of the still pictures in the book are of portraits in extreme close-up. Real life ceremony is celebrated. It must have cost quite a lot of lire.

The book disappoints slightly as many of the photographs seem to be cropped stills from film and DVD. Also, the introductory text is rather heroic as there is talk of an 'expedition' and of the crew's 'personal way of the cross' - dramatic language which rather made me smile. In spite of these quibbles, if you have visited the southern tribes this book will at least give you happy reminders of your journey and if you haven't it might just make you wish that you had.

Vanishing Africa by Gianni Giansanti, published by White Star, Italy, 2004.
Hardback, 504 pages, illustrated plus DVD
ISBN: 8854400068
Price £22.95

First Published in News File Spring 2006

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