Through his portraits of Ethiopians, Antonio Perez Rio explores colonialism and the homogenisation of culture
In his series Lo Inevitable, which he started in 2012, Antonio Perez Rio photographs individual men and women against the landscape in Gambela, western Ethiopia. They are members of ethnic communities that have historically lived in the region, he explains, belonging to two major groups: the semi-nomadic pastoralist Nuer people; and the Anuak people, who mainly devote their time to fishing and agriculture.
“Since the 19th century, relations between the two groups have been difficult,” says Spanish photographer Perez Rio, who is also a lecturer in the history of photography at LENS School of Visual Arts in Madrid. “But, since the 1980s, the situation has become increasingly complex, with the arrival of refugees from the war in Sudan and Ethiopians from the rest of the country who have been forced to resettle. With the government transferring land to foreign companies, the relationship of these people to the land becomes increasingly difficult and complex.”
On one level, the images are intended to draw attention to the people who live on “land [which is] rife with forced resettlements”, and to interpret how land is being assigned to foreign companies without the participation of local communities, explains Perez Rio. On another level, the series is intended to encourage people to reflect upon the identity of a culture that is undergoing change.
“I was captivated by the inhabitants. The option to photograph everyone individually, not in groups, has to do with [my] fascination about their identities at a time of irreversible change,” says Perez Rio. “I want to explore how every human being reflects the tensions between the global and the local, individual and collective, tradition and change.”
Perez Rio chose to photograph using a horizontal format to draw attention to each subject in their surroundings. “I care about context,” he says. “I would like the photographs to reflect the meeting of two forces that surround us – the spirit of the place (genius loci) and the spirit of the time (zeitgeist). The two meet and are manifested in the people portrayed, and in us all.”