Finnish photographer Aapo Huhta’s new book, “Omatandangole” (Kehrer Verlag, 2019) is otherworldly. The photographs were taken in Namibia, but the book is really more of a work about the photographer’s inner life.
“Omatandangole” is made up of high-contrast black and white images, interspersed with a few color images. And rather than being a purely descriptive record of what the country looks like, they are rich with symbolism, a testament to the photographer’s mind-set while working on the project. Flipping through the book’s pages, we see dogs lurking, dogs fighting and solitary figures moving across vast swaths of desert. There are more animals and insects: a horse on a highway, a bird bleached white against a black sky (or is it a black wall?), a deer peering quizzically out of a thicket.
What are we looking at? What is being symbolized? Is there some sort of existential struggle taking place? Is it a meditation on encroaching environmental catastrophe and what it might mean for us? Maybe it’s both.
In his afterword to the book, Darren Campion writes, “Although this is ostensibly a natural landscape, it still feels somehow alien, a glimpse of the post-human future that at the moment seems increasingly inevitable.” Campion goes on to say that the photos of the animals and stark landscapes “serve, like so much else in the work, as metaphorical or even archetypal figures within the imaginative arena that [Huhta] has created.”
Campion uses a photo of two dogs as an example of the symbolism found throughout: “The significance of the two combative, snarling dogs early on in the book, is to be found, then, in the apparent violence with which they confront one another, emphasized by the compression of the frame, but it is also the fact that they are, historically speaking, domesticated animals and human companions. In that respect, they can be taken to personify the constraints of civilization and what happens when these begin to break down.”
Huhta also writes about the forces driving “Omatandangole.” In the book’s final pages, he tells us that after going through a particularly rough time, he felt the need to escape Finland and get as far away from his problems as possible. This is how he found himself in Namibia.
“There was a notion of a location that was as distant as could be, and if I only ran fast and far enough I could escape my own past and self. … I escaped. Anxious to get as far away as possible I eventually found myself in the desert of Namibia,” Huhta says. “It was a place devoid of meaning to me, and as I stood in the middle of the vast landscape, the desert seemed to gaze back at me, equivalently ignorant.”
In this place far from home, Huhta finds an environment where he can create a world through images that reflect his struggle. It is where Huhta learns of a word from the Oshiwambo language, spoken by the Ovambo people, that he would take as the title of his book. Omatandangole refers to “a kind of mirage that appears in heated air,” which he says he found relevant to his state of mind at the time.
In the book, Huhta leaves us with these thoughts about omatandangole and how it relates to his work:
“[Omatandangole] seemed to reflect my photographic pursuit of illusion that is rooted in actuality. As actual as my escape was, the desert turned into an interior landscape where I was able to reduce the elements I felt familiar with. Even though our surroundings are chaotic and broken, it is possible to create photographs that show them as complete and pristine, so unlike what they are in reality. And yet — in that brief moment that is captured by the camera, wasn’t that sense of completeness true for a fleeting moment? An elusive bliss that can dissolve as fast as it emerged.”
Ultimately, Huhta’s book represents his internal struggle and perhaps also a metaphysical or spiritual journey for “the truth,” whatever that may be. This is a subject art has explored since time immemorial. And like most good art, Huhta’s “Omatandangole” invites the viewer to go on that journey with him. The book ends with bleach-white images of people walking up what appear to be sand dunes. They’re moving toward something, maybe on their final journey to some kind of resolution to existential angst? Maybe …
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