Invisible Borders: An Interview With Ala Kheir






Ala Kheir is a mechanical engineer and photographer based in Khartoum, Sudan. He began building a photographic portfolio in 2005 with the purchase of a Pentax K1000 camera. Since then, his work has achieved international recognition, being chosen as 2010’s United Nations Education Photograph, followed by a Second Place finish in the 2012 World Bank Connect4Climate photo competition (age 25-35, forests category) for “The Alsunut Forest,” and another Second Place finish in 2013’s Our Continent, Our Future competition for “The Youngest Shilookh.” Earlier, his engineering career took Kheir to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, where his photographs of local life made it onto the cover of Senses of Malaysia magazine three times between 2007 and 2008, and earned inclusion in a local group exhibition, “50 + 1 Malaysia.” In May 2015, Kheir’s photographic work was included in another group exhibition that opened at the Venice Biennale – this one for Invisible Borders, a Nigeria-based origination that embarks on annual road trips with an ever-shifting mix of photographers, all aimed at documenting modern African culture along the route for public consumption as an artistic narrative. The multi-room Venice installation (running through November 2015) is titled “A Trans-African Worldspace,” and includes Kheir’s work from the 2011 Invisible Borders trip from Lagos in Nigeria to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia – passing through Chad and then Sudan, where Kheir joined the group. His resulting photo series from the trip is titled  “From Khartoum to Addis.” In the online world, Kheir joined a Flickr group called “Sudanese Photographers” in 2007. In 2009, he created a Facebook version that currently has more than 13,700 likes, and showcases pictures taken by professionals and amateur photogs of all ages, spurring the group’s transformation into a registered non-profit. Khartoum’s location at the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile rivers helped inspire Kheir to pursue a current project titled “Follow The Flow.” This involves photographing life along the winding course of Blue Nile, all the way back to its source at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. I interviewed Kheir via Skype from Khartoum shortly after the Venice Biennale, and discussed his work with Invisible Borders, his various photographic projects, and his approach to capturing landscapes and portraits.


What follows are his words, adapted from our conversation.



On His 2011 Invisible Borders Experience

I met Emeka [Okereke] back in 2010, during the Addis Foto Fest. I was participating there, and we talked about the trip. Since they were passing through Sudan, I think I felt this was the right thing to do during that time, and I was very lucky to get that chance to be with Invisible Borders. It was quite a nice experience.


I did not join the Invisible Borders trip from the beginning, from Nigeria. I met them when they arrived in Sudan. I had to do a lot of logistic work, because Sudan is a country where they do not like photographers to visit, and there was a lot of paperwork to be done. So I was there in Sudan waiting for them, and preparing the paperwork. But once they arrived in Sudan, they just set you in that mood in which you’d be shooting all the time. So it was that moment where I met the rest of the team. Until that moment, I had just met Emeka before, but I didn’t know the others. I met them and it felt like compassion, like a similar attitude and similar interests. It was very nice vibes. We shot a lot in Khartoum, and we had a nice trip to Ethiopia. Most of my shooting was on the road to Ethiopia and in Ethiopia. In Khartoum I was mostly helping, but I did manage to shoot a few times. Then I shot more on the way to Addis Ababa.


In general, I usually connect more to the landscape. Whether it’s inside a city, or the countryside, or just the road. I do not limit myself to a certain subject, but I had in mind focusing more on the transition. Khartoum and Addis Ababa are very different cities. But at the same time, if you travel between two cities a lot, the differences start to dissolve somehow. You feel the connection in both locations, and that’s what I was trying to portray.


Actually, between Khartoum and Addis, the main difference for Sudanese that you might experience is the language barrier. If you speak a different language, then everything is different. But because of the huge presence of Ethiopians in Sudan, and also the frequent travel of Sudanese to Ethiopia, there is that connection – although, there are differences. As a photographer, I think there is a lot to explore in both locations, and that there is a lot to show.


Unfortunately, I could not go to Venice [for the Biennale]. The visa process was a little bit longer, and I could not get my visa on time. I had a lot of photos. The series that I showed in Venice was called “From Khartoum to Addis,” which is trying to show this transition between the two places. 



Part of Kheir's "From Addis to Khartoum" series.



On Becoming a Photographer

That was when I was in University, in my final year I think, which was very intense. I guess I was thinking of something that is more fun to do, so I started to read about photography and looking at photographs, and I felt like, “Oh yeah, this is nice,” and “I want to do good photographs, so let me try.” So I bought a cheap old camera. It was a Pentax K1000 film camera. I started shooting, and it just got very addictive after that. It became like a second life.


I actually started with micro-photography. I was taking very detailed close-ups of insects, flowers, and things in nature in general. Then I started expanding to try to show more of the space, landscapes, cityscapes. I did shoot a lot of portraits, but I think my place or my comfort zone is landscapes. Although it is usually silent scapes, there is a lot to say in the frame. There is that much silence, and yet the buildings, or the landscape, or the trees, they’re still talking back to you.


I shot “Mountains of the East” all in Sudan. “The Fallen Giant” also – it’s a small historical site [in Suakin] in the East of Sudan. Those are some of the projects. Most of my work is more in tune with the landscape and the connection.


I think [shooting those two projects] in black & white, for me, it just sets the right mood that I find in that place, more than color. I think there is a lot of debate going on about black & white, and why should you shoot, or why you shouldn’t shoot black & white. Some people say that it removes some of the color distraction. But for me, it sets the mood more. 



Mountains of the East



On Living and Working in Khartoum

I’m a mechanical engineer, but photography for me is not just a hobby, I think it’s a lot more than that. Khartoum is a very busy city. It is rapidly expanding. It’s not as crazy as maybe Johannesburg, but at least there is a lot of life in Khartoum. Except for sometimes when it’s really hot, it’s a little bit difficult to make photos. But I still like getting the chance to go around, and there are places that I keep on visiting and photographing, places that I explore from time to time. I really enjoy going around Khartoum and shooting there. I like my city.


There are a few places in Khartoum that you can call proper galleries. Recently there’s a big event called Modern Photo Week, which is a photography festival in Khartoum. So there are chances and options to display works in Khartoum. I think right now the public in Khartoum, they do have interest to go and visit photography exhibitions. 



Life in Addis Ababa.



On His Senses of Malaysia Covers

I did study in Malaysia, and I was working there for some time, before moving back to Sudan. At that time, there was a small club that gathers a lot of non-Malaysians who live in Malaysia. I usually posted there for people who are interested in photography to go with me on photography trips, and there was where I met the director of the Senses of Malaysia magazine. He saw some of my photographs, and started using some of my photographs, and from that I did a lot of pictures for them, and they did post a lot of my photographs in their magazine. 


There was a landscape that’s called “A Pretty Planet,” showing the whole of Kuala Lumpur. It was a panorama that was done like a little planet. There were a couple of pictures of a boat and one of the beaches in Malaysia. The boat was almost transparent, and there was a kid on that boat. The boat looked more like a canoe, the traditional Malaysian boat. They used that on a couple of ones.


Malaysia was somehow involved in making me have to learn, because when I moved to Kuala Lumpur to study I did not have any intention to do photography. But I am from Sudan, I am from Darfur, from somewhere which is more of a desert. I think even before I started photography, I was fascinated by the nature and landscapes in Southeast Asia. I just liked that more, and I think it somehow reflected in my way of looking at landscapes in the camera.


China, you feel like you just went to another planet. It’s very different from most other Asian countries. I went there for a work trip, but on my way back from the office to the hotel I preferred to walk, and tried to take pictures around the cities that I went to. It was a nice experience. 



A Pretty Planet



On His 2010 UN Education Photograph

I was online actually, looking for photos that are taken in Africa, and I passed by the link where the United Nations was calling for photographs that reflect education and the future of Africa. I happened to have been to one of the schools in Khartoum, and I did a lot of photographs in that school, and I thought some of my pictures would fit perfectly in there. So I did send them some of my photographs, and my photograph won that competition.



Kheir's UN Education photograph.



On His 2012 World Climate Change Photograph

Sudan is one of the places where desertification is taking place, and also that we have a government that did not care much about climate change. I had interest in showing that. I had been also reading a lot about climate change, and then I saw the post for this competition. There is a small forest here in Khartoum [Alsunut Forest] that is slowly disappearing, and it’s one of the places that I go to for relaxation, and it’s sad for me to see that forest start to disappear. So I did a photo in there showing the forest, and the rubbish from the city is just thrown at the side of the forest. 



The edge of the Alsunut Forest in Khartoum.



On His 2013 Our Continent Our Future Photograph

This photo is actually very similar to the United Nations Education photograph. It’s more about the future of Africa. One of the photos that I like, actually, it’s of a young Sudanese girl [“The Youngest Shilookh”] in [South Tokar, Sudan]. She had that tribal marking on her face, and she was at school. I mean, the girl was at school and studying, yet you still see those tribal marks, which are slowly disappearing from the Sudanese culture. I think that contrast made the photo interesting. 



The Youngest Shilookh



On His “Follow the Flow” Blue Nile Project

I did the work in Ethiopia, which is right at the beginning of the Blue Nile, after it leaves Lake Tana. I’ve been going there a lot with an Ethiopian friend, a photographer. We thought of the idea of going along the Nile and tying to see what goes on. I mean, the flow goes from Ethiopia all the way to Sudan, but we want to see and experience how it feels being on the banks of the Nile all the way from Lake Tana to Khartoum. It’s just amazing how people live, and it’s not a very long stretch from Lake Tana all the way to Khartoum. It’s less than 1,000 kilometers, but the diversity and what is out there is just way too much. I think it’s a must-see to experience, these kinds of trips. I did start on it. I did work on Lake Tana and some places in North Ethiopia. On the Sudan side, I did a lot of shooting in Khartoum, and some areas south of Khartoum on the Blue Nile, but there is a vast area I did not cover yet which is, I think, very diverse. Southeast Sudan is where the Nile enters from Ethiopia to Sudan, and I think that’s my next plan to finish during this year.



Waterfalls in the Blue Nile.



On His Portrait Work

In nature, I’m more of a quiet shy person, and I find difficulty sometimes to talk to people. But I think through photography it’s slowly becoming easier. Some subjects are just very difficult to ignore and pass by. So I stop people and ask them nicely if they would allow me to take their portrait. But sometimes there are photos that are so tempting, you cannot let it go, so I take the picture and then later ask for permission. Portraits, some faces they just say a lot. And every time I find that kind of face, I just go ahead and shoot. There is a guy in the North of Sudan, he lives in an area that is very far from any water source. It’s a very rough mountain area. But the guy, the smile on his face is just – despite all this, the guy is still very happy. It’s just amazing to see people like those.


Sometimes it’s amazing how just eye contact can do the work. Sometimes it’s just a smile, and if the person smiles back that’s the sign that “Okay, go ahead and shoot.” It did happen to me a lot in Ethiopia, and West Africa, and South Africa. It even happened in China. In China the language is a huge barrier. I mean, I don’t know any [Chinese]. But sometimes you just feel like, “Yeah, okay, I can shoot this.” And in China, there are some places where they did not see much of black people, and they have that interest of trying to know where you are from. On the train, the language barrier, in the end, someone in the same car spoke a little bit of English, and he was like the translator between me and those [interested] people.



The happiest man in North Sudan.



Sudan, Blue Nile, Invisible Borders