The Look: What War Can’t Destroy
In South Sudan, street photography is essentially illegal. It is another casualty of the civil war. Young, fit, twitchy soldiers are everywhere, ready to crack down on anyone who pulls out a camera. No reasons are ever given and no laws are on the books specifically banning photography, but security services across the country have arrested photographers and roughed them up for taking even the most innocent pictures, like a shot of women baking bread.
It wasn’t always like this, but in the four years since the war broke out, scattering millions of people and unleashing unspeakable horrors, the South Sudanese government has become incredibly suspicious. In a country that has ripped itself apart by internecine conflict, anyone can be the enemy.
Stepping off a plane in Juba, the capital, you feel this tight-shouldered tension immediately. Sara Hylton, a Canadian documentary photographer who came here on assignment in August, had anticipated the hostility. What surprised her was the city’s bold style.
Amid all the shot-up buildings, fear and danger, she was struck by the great pride many South Sudanese take in how they look. She saw women in bright print dresses and chunky brass jewelry; some wore purple hair extensions. Men sported bleached dreads and sharply cut suits. There was a fearless sense of style that the war had not managed to kill off.
It wasn’t easy for Ms. Hylton to capture it because she couldn’t take pictures in public. She had to work off the streets, in safe spaces, in people’s homes, their backyards, their tiny, tidy shops. Sometimes, Ms. Hylton found, the nicer the space, the sadder the experience. Many South Sudanese carry their trauma quietly, and those who were trying to will away all the brutality and destruction around them seemed the most vulnerable. They were emotionally exposed in a place where so many dreams have been crushed.
Winnie, who runs a small boutique that sells dresses, purses and one or two paintings, seemed to be swimming upstream. The war has sunk Juba’s economy, and for the two hours Ms. Hylton spent in Winnie’s immaculate shop, where so much thought had been invested into every detail, not a single customer walked in.
“If I was living in this environment, I would have given up,” Ms. Hylton said. “That was the biggest surprise — that people here hadn’t given up, there was still so much hope.”
But there was also still so much sadness. It wasn’t always obvious, but it was there. As Ms. Hylton said: When you interview people, they often put on a brave face and tell you what you want to hear. But when you take out a camera and ask someone to stare into the lens, it’s different. An honesty is revealed. She especially felt this when making a portrait of Wokil, a comedian.
“His posture was very cool, he was trying to be very cool,” she said. “But you could tell he lived through some of the worst stuff.”
“Loss, I recognized loss,” she said. “It was in his gaze.”
Just about everyone Ms. Hylton approached in Juba (she stayed away from soldiers) was willing to be photographed, including a group of young men playing basketball behind a primary school. If South Sudan has anything, it has height; the Dinka and the Nuer, South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups, are considered among the tallest people on Earth. And basketball is the sport here, maybe even a ticket out. The former N.B.A. player Manute Bol, who died in 2010, grew up herding cattle in South Sudan and then made millions. Most of it he gave away, to South Sudanese rebels fighting for freedom.
For as long as anyone can remember, life in South Sudan has revolved around war. That’s as true today as ever. The endless military checkpoints across Juba and the marauding soldiers who prowl around every neighborhood make it impossible to go out at night.
So young South Sudanese have found a way to do what young people do the world over, just slightly differently. They pack into dark buildings during the bright, hot hours to groove to hip-hop and rap. These places are called “day clubs” (as opposed to nightclubs), and they allow Juba’s youth to hang out, meet strangers, dance, drink and forget for a moment what lies outside the club’s doors.
Crazy Fox, a popular dancehall artist, fled South Sudan for Uganda as a refugee. But after four years, he was “tired of running” and recently came home.
But home for the South Sudanese is a place they themselves broke. South Sudan is the world’s newest country, having won its hard-fought independence from Sudan in 2011. Two years later, a political dispute between Dinka and Nuer leaders in Juba blew up into a full-scale military conflict between Dinka and Nuer across the country.
The war keeps spreading, engulfing other ethnic groups and new areas. It has killed more than 50,000 people, destroyed oil wells, farms, schools and hospitals, and sucked in countless children as child soldiers and then spat them out dead or mutilated. Many people fear what is ahead. It is etched in faces all across Juba.
Still, as death goes on, life goes on. Routine is a refuge, and many South Sudanese are trying to reclaim their lives. Ms. Hylton spent hours in barbershops and in salons where hair extensions hung on the walls like tools at a hardware shop.
“When you come to Galaxy salon, we can change you,” said the owner, Nadia Tushabe, with more than a touch of pride.
It may be hard to believe that a country where the per capita income is around three dollars a day, where three quarters of adults can’t read and a 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than she does of finishing primary school, has any fashion or beauty industry at all. But it beats on, fragilely, in packed little houses and tin-walled kiosks lit by a single bulb.
“We don’t have something distinguishing us,” said Juana, a fashion designer. Her patterns are intensely colorful, and she hopes fashion can bridge the poisonous divides between ethnic groups.
Akuja de Garang is, after the model Alex Wek, one of the best-known names in South Sudanese fashion. Large brass jewelry and black nail polish are her signatures. Before the war, she used to organize fashion shows.
“Culturally people take pride in how they look,” she said.
War or not, the South Sudanese are like anyone else.
They want to look good.