Heading into the gallery that features visiting exhibitions at the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum a few days ago, I glanced at the guest book and noticed a comment reading, “Great show for my boys, too!” Given the violence, poverty, drought, and famine that have ravaged Africa’s largest country for decades, I was a bit thrown by the remark. I did not expect Michael Freeman’s 70 photographs—all shot during 2003 and 2004—in Sudan: The Land and the People (on view through Aug. 28) to be the kind of images one would take young children to see.
However, children were there the afternoon I went to the museum, wandering throughout the gallery in groups or in the company of parents or grandparents. And that reveals precisely what I find unsettling about the show. It presents kid-friendly pictures of a place no kid should have to endure.
Freeman, a 65-year-old British author and photographer with 40 Smithsonian magazine stories under his belt, is clearly accomplished. The breadth of his work in this show, from the panoramic “Temple of a Million Years” (showing a temple built by Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III, near Kerma) to extreme close-ups of faces, like the one in “Young Darfur Woman,” reflects technical agility and a seasoned eye for composition.
It’s possible that Freeman produced more challenging material that is not on display but can be seen in the show’s companion book, written by the last U.S. ambassador to Sudan, Timothy Carney, and his journalist wife, Victoria Butler, and published by Marquand. But the museum has only one shrink-wrapped copy for sale for $60. It would be a real plus for the exhibition to include a copy that visitors could peruse.
What is on display covers many regions of an incredibly diverse country about one-third the size of the U.S., with inhabitants speaking hundreds of languages. The Sudanese population, approximately 70 percent Muslim, 25 percent followers of indigenous religions, and 5 percent Christian (dating back to 300 C.E.), lives in or near forests as well as deserts, swamps and savannahs as well as plains. And the show includes visually stunning shots like the moody, atmospheric “Sandstorm, or Haboob, Rolls Over the Livestock Market” (shot in the city of Omdurman) in which white-robed and turbaned herders move through seemingly infinite space as a massive brown tornado churns in the distance.
Another bovine-dominated image, “Cattle Return to a Riverside Village at Dusk” (White Nile, near Malakal), shows sinuous long-horned silhouettes within suspended dust, a grove of palms anchoring the background. Color in the print lends it a sepia-toned look, evoking a sense of timelessness. “The End of the Day’s Classes” (Um Dalam Village, Kordofan), unlike most of Freeman’s pictures, is a long exposure with blurred shapes of young people running joyously up a slope made up of the ubiquitous butterscotch-colored earth found in “The Bayud Desert” (southwest of the great bend in the Nile).
Although images presented predate the “end” of Sudan’s civil war, someone reading this article and seeing the show might think “So what? This country that gained independence in 1956 and has suffered less bloodshed throughout the past six years or so since the north/south peace agreement, despite ongoing conflict, is indeed beautiful.” To which I say so, too, were places in Germany and Austria in the early 1940s. But “picturesque” photographs taken in those countries at that time, had they depicted fräuleins at the market or pink-cheeked babies in perambulators with nary a Nazi in sight, would have hardly reflected reality. Nor do most images of people in the Sudan exhibition.
For instance, “A Woman and Her Daughters Seek Refuge” (Abu Shouk camp outside El Fasher), with its four females looking content and healthy, could have been taken on a camping trip in the Grand Tetons, if it weren’t for the Islamic dress. The photo suggests nothing of the turbulent diaspora that’s involved 5 million souls. Five million. And roughly 2 million people in South Sudan have been slaughtered—more dead than in Angola, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Liberia, the Persian Gulf, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Rwanda combined, according to Judy A. Bernstein, co-author of They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky, a riveting book about the “lost boys” victimized by the Sudanese civil war.
Freeman’s “Blue Tarpaulin Shelters for the Internally Displaced at Sereif Camp” (Nyala, Darfur) shows a woman and two men amid dome-like stick-and-scrap structures draped with plastic and cloth. It is neither Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, nor does it function as a portrait, given that no real emotion is conveyed.
I think it’s probable that the images on display, chosen by Meridian International Center—one of those D.C. organizations most people know little about—are safe in part because acknowledged sponsors of the show include seven petroleum companies. With most of Sudan’s wealth belonging to about 2 percent of the population, leaving everyone else in abject poverty, corporate interests aren’t likely to support the sort of photography show that exposes political instability—coming to a head within the next month as the country attempts to divide into North and South Sudan. And showing victims of genocide living in unimaginably harsh conditions, even if it doesn’t upset the stockholders back home, is more than this particular exhibition is up for.