Charles Thiefaine, Mohamed, orignally from Taez, a city in south Yemen where Yemeni troops and Houthi militias fought at the beginning of the civil war in 2015, came to Socotra in September 2021 and works in a restaurant, 2021
In Charles Thiefaine’s photographs of the Yemeni island of Socotra, the sea is a persistent presence, a leading character. It encloses, laps, borders. The sea is at the heart of Socotra’s prospects—a key factor in its striking natural splendor and wildlife—and, in turn, its many problems: conflict, constant uncertainty, the international meddling from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others, driven by struggles for power, water access, and trade (from the beaches of Socotra one can gaze to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a busy choke point between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East). “The water, it is their way to survive, to get money, and to eat,” Thiefaine, who is French and lives in Paris, notes of the people he met and photographed on Socotra. “But it is also their borders. They are stuck in this island, most of the people there, they cannot move, or they can only move to the mainland, where there is a war.”
Socotra lies in the Indian Ocean, tugged by competing hopes, identities, and ideals. It is 155 miles from Somalia and 210 miles from Yemen. Politically it is part of the latter, which sits on the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia, even if, geographically, Socotra seems to be a fragment of Africa. In the 1970s and early ’80s, Socotra was a Soviet navy base—one of Thiefaine’s photos shows an abandoned Soviet tank on the beach—and a part of South Yemen. Since the 1990 unification, it has been part of Yemen, which has in turn, since 2014, been in a lengthy, tangled conflict, the frustrations and oddities and duplicities of which are plainly revealed by Socotra’s current situation.
Today, Socotra is controlled by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), following a long struggle between the Council and troops loyal to Yemen’s President Hadi. The STC, a separatist movement, seeks an independent South Yemen, which contradicts the agenda of Hadi’s government. And yet, across the sea on the mainland, the UAE supports the government, and both the STC and pro-Hadi forces are fighting against the Houthis. As the circle of violence beats on, the tide comes in and out, the coral fish swim, and, in Thiefaine’s photos, the surface of the water glitters and teases in turquoise. So much trouble, so much beauty.
Thiefaine, who is thirty, explains that the nature on Socotra offers inhabitants a counterbalance to the oppressive turmoil. “Almost all of the people in the island go fishing,” he says. “They sell their fish, or they eat their fish. Almost everyone knows how to fish. They fished when it was USSR, now it is STC, before it was the Yemeni government—they keep doing it.”
The notion of consistency and routine in the face of upheaval has shaped Thiefaine’s current work as a photographer, and his recent shift from classic photojournalism. He has a background shooting in areas of conflict and first visited Iraq in 2015, when still a student. Just as he was graduating, the battle of Mosul broke out, and he returned, forming friendships and bonds with locals. He has since returned some fifteen times on assignments for publications such as Vice, and yet recently, he has rethought the focus of his images, believing that seeing inhabitants solely within the context of distress—conflict, invasion, death—only serves to other them. “These are countries that are stuck with a certain kind of imagery, which is most of the time linked with violence, or images that show them as victims,” he says.
Thiefaine’s approach has been fueled, in part, by the ongoing refugee crisis shaming Europe’s governments.
As if in direct contrast, he now deliberately seeks out the quiet, the simple: day-to-day habits and seemingly mundane occurrences, rather than the epic or shocking. His decision to go to Socotra was partly inspired by this shift; he wanted to go somewhere where he had no experience, where he could see things afresh. When making work, Thiefaine will often follow certain people for weeks, integrating himself in their pastimes and commutes to show their “adaptability, their way of acting, their routines and gestures.” He shoots with film on a medium-format camera—the bulkiness of which sometimes amuses his subjects. He likes natural pictures, though he occasionally directs his subjects, often ironically, in the pursuit of ease, to avoid them making signals at the camera or posing.
Thiefaine arrived in Socotra on November 14, 2021, without a fixer or translator; he had no plan of whom he would photograph or how he would get access. He did not have a journalist’s visa—which is tricky to acquire—and instead attained the right to travel by taking a job teaching English in a school in Hadiboh. He spent one month living in a small room above Shabwa, a restaurant named after the owner’s home city in Yemen: “I went to the restaurant every day, and they started to recognize me and to talk with me, and I got to know one of the people who worked there, and then eventually all the staff.”
His new friends invited him to come hitchhiking on their days off, join them on the beaches for swims, play football, hang out in their homes, and visit Firmhin forest, where one can find dragon’s blood trees, which, in Thiefaine’s photos, look like rolls of soft, squidgy flesh or the folds of a tightly clenched fist. Most of the men Thiefaine captured were in their late twenties or thirties. “We really, really had fun together,” he says. “The violence they are facing, it’s real, it exists, so it’s important for me to acknowledge it, but it’s important also for me to show how people are dealing with this violence, and how they manage to have a good life.” The images show “la bonne vie,” as Thiefaine calls it.
Thiefaine’s approach has been fueled, in part, by the ongoing refugee crisis shaming Europe’s governments. In recent years, thousands of migrants have drowned at sea, attempting to reach the EU. Public support for settling many of those displaced by war is muted (a sentiment made more blatant by the contrasting enthusiasm among Europeans for housing and supporting recently displaced Ukrainians). Xenophobia and racism thrive, fostered and fanned by various right-wing political figures across the continent. Thiefaine says that many people in Europe see those in the Middle East “as foreigners, people who live another life, who don’t have the same routines.” In his pictures, he tries to draw connections, to reveal shared points or experiences. We see the reach of technology, branding, and commerce: Gucci T-shirts, iPhones. His subjects photograph each other. They pass around clips from YouTube. One man attaches his device to his cap to go hands-free while fishing. “I am trying to show their contemporaneity,” Thiefaine says.
Thiefaine’s photographs capture the bizarre contrasts of Socotra—not only between the seeming bliss of the landscape and the backdrop of violence, but also between the sense of history and heritage embodied by those trees, the creatures, the rocks, and the arrival of the new, the glossy, the plastic, the man-made, and with it, so many questionable priorities and warped customs. His portraits provoke intrigue, comparison, identification. And yet, the quest to highlight his subjects’ modernity—to relate them to Western norms and standards in the hope of sparking a kinship, a kindness among viewers—bolsters some of the habits of thinking the project seeks to question, by inferring loaded ideas of who the images will be consumed by and whose norms they are catering to.
Thiefaine acknowledges that he cannot ever untangle his work from what he calls “the personal approach of me, a European, white photographer from France, from somewhere where there is no violence, no war.” Still, he says, these are images without manifesto or political argument, without great claim, other than a desire to know how another man spends time, how he passes his day, how he looks when happy, when living well. “I don’t pretend to show the reality,” he says. “I prefer to assume that it’s not the reality, but a personal approach, a personal way to photograph them. It is only some things I discovered, with the people I decided to spend time with.”
Read more from our series “Introducing,” which highlights exciting new voices in photography.