Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

One of the best thing in the countryside are the encounters with ladies carrying around an amazing amount of stuff (often on their head), some of them do it with very curious and beautiful (if not totally outdated fashion wise) outfits. She had a smile to warm up a dead body

What is race? How does it work? For example, what does humanity’s racist tendencies of the past have to do with current economic world order? Ethnology assumes that race and racism are extremely powerful social and cultural forces at work everywhere in the world. And that we, as humans, seek lessons for generalizing about modern society and the contemporary global order. But specific questions need to be asked too: what are the structural dimensions of race and racism (social, political, and economic inequality) and what are the cultural dimensions (artistic forms of humanistic expression, as well as politics)? How do they differ from country to country? If one were to take two island nations–Japan and Madagascar–and compare their societies, it would seem that the Malagasy would come in a far second to one of the most powerful economies as rich in cultural history as the Japanese. But why? Unfortunately the answers are never easy. But with effort and experience we hope to gain insight. Though the following article is not a comparison nor a study of two separate, unrelated countries, but rather about research and communication, we place a special focus on an old practice with a new name: ethno-photography. It will be described as an analog and digital bridge for science and communication; as a platform for resource users to showcase their points of view; and as an amplifier to research for development.

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

–by Arnaud De Grave & Patrick O. Waeber

A brief glance at Madagascar

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

This little dude is a Gentle lemur (also known locally as bandro, or under his scientific name Hapalemur alaotrensis) from Lake Alaotra; it seems not so sure whether to enjoy the sun and breeze while softly rocking on the top of a reed stem, or rather be concerned about the pirogue lurking in closest vicinity.

Madagascar, renowned for its unique flora and fauna, one of the hottest biodiversity hotspots on earth, has a lot to carry in terms of suffering. The nation has been through five years of a transitional administration under the leadership of a former DJ, during which economic disorder and international isolation has weighed heavily on its people. Presidential and legislative elections finally took place in Madagascar in December 2013. Hery Rajaonarimampianina, according to the New York Times the president with the longest surname in history, assumed his role on 25 January 2013. Immediately thereafter, the African Union and Southern African Development Community lifted their suspensions, followed by the European Union’s development program; monetary institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund reinstated their development funds. Hope for better times?

According to some, the power shift was merely a cosmetic make-over. The political situation remains fragile, and the new government has to deal with a lot of “challenges”, to say the least, which have been ongoing for long times, and will likely and unfortunately continue to carry on: Highest poverty rates, highest birth rates, highest school drop-outs, increasing in-transparency in governance, increasing illegal exportations of precious natural resources. Nevertheless, the new government started to take action by creating more presence in previously neglected regions in Madagascar, and according to Rajaonarimampianina’s speech on 25 September 2014 in front of the UN General Assembly in New York, declared that “Our primary goal is to bring our people out of their precarious situation” (…) “the aim…is to transform Madagascar into a food hub in the region” referring to increased investments into agriculture.

Inside Madagascar’s Bread Basket: Alaotra

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

Local marshlands are at risk to be all converted into rice fields: you burn it, you claim it, and you farm it

In terms of rice and inland-fish production the Alaotra-Mangoro region, one of 22 in Madagascar, is the country’s current food hub. Constituting the largest wetland system, the Lake Alaotra wetland’s surrounding marshlands deliver crucial cultural and ecosystem services such as water, medicinal plants, fish stock, while hosting unique wildlife such as the Alaotra gentle lemur, a primate species living constantly in marshlands. The wetland is the third out of currently nine Ramsar sites in Madagascar since 2003 (The Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources). The Malagasy government added further importance to the conservation and biodiversity values of the region by inscribing the system as new Protected Area in 2007. To be ratified as a Protected Area (the marshlands are risking to be all converted into rice fields: you burn it, you claim it, and you farm it…), a management plan, currently in the making, is badly needed.

Forests? Of course, there are also some beautiful forests full of biodiversity (more than 80% of all described animal species in Madagascar depend on forests), but they are largely locked up in parks and reserves. The rest of the landscape is dominated by agricultural production (a significant portion is also for self-subsistence, with a majority of the 550,000+ people engaging in small-scale farming), and a vast extant of open grasslands, which are low in nutrients and hence difficult to use for farming production.

Stakeholders can be the fishermen who fish in the lakes and marshes, the farmer growing fruit or cattle on the open range, as well as the any one of the heads of the Ministries deciding on regulations regarding fisheries and… Click To Tweet

Governing the complexity

So, we have mentioned forests. Check. Outside protected areas, there are still ‘forests’, but many are degraded (or actually burned in order to be used for agriculture), and either have been transformed into something like ‘agro-forestry’ (though generally rare, and more on the ‘agro’ side than ‘forestry’), dominated by a few species such as fruit trees, or plantations. Besides being the rice granary of the island, the Alaotra is also leader in terms of plantations (with the usual suspects: acacia, eucalyptus, pine) for wood production but a lot is used also for energy consumption. Wood charcoal is still the number one energy source in Madagascar.

There are a impressive number of institutions responsible for governing the various dimensions of this complex human-environmental system: Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Water and Forests, Ministry of Fisheries, Ministry of Livestock, Ministry of Mining. There are remarkable overlaps of responsibilities requiring some coordinated planning, a challenging thing, …and you’ll also understand that communication, i.e., the receiving and delivering of information, between these institutions (but also between the decision makers and resource users on the ground) becomes a key part in this governance undertaking.

Research in the Alaotra

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

The AlaReLa logo represents 3 main ecosystems: in yellow the open grasslands, in blue the wetlands, and in green the forests.

Given we are working in the realms of NRM (natural resources management), we first started creating an acronym (technocrats are very fond of acronyms; not that we would label ourselves as such, but we are, as said in NRM realms): “AlaReLa”, the name of our research for development project, stands for Alaotra Resilience Landscapes. In brief, this research aims to provide tools to the various stakeholders of the Alaotra human-environment system to strike a balance in the governance between development (or agricultural production thereof) and conservation (there are crucial ecosystems for biodiversity and people). Stakeholders can be the fishermen who fish in the lakes and marshes, the farmer growing fruit or cattle on the open range, as well as the any one of the heads of the Ministries deciding on regulations regarding fisheries and agriculture. This sounds very ambitious, and it probably is! Nonetheless, we, a consortium of several research and conservation institutions use a three-prong approach: understanding, exploring, communicating– with the latter being ongoing throughout the duration of the project, and beyond.

How do we do it?

Well, we talk and we listen. Sounds simple, right? To tackle the understanding portion of this research, we use a variety of disciplinary approaches (e.g., ecology, sociology, remote sensing) to create a picture of this complex human-environmental system. The exploration consists of collectively developing models (in our case role playing games and board games such as Settlers of Catan©) to test collectively agreed scenarios. For this, we sit together with the various resource users and decision makers to describe the challenges of NRM, to identify and link the key actors and resources of the system which may be prone to change (such as environmental, economic, political, etc.). In applying this participatory modeling approach, the underpinning philosophy is communication. By gaming various NRM situations, we bring together key stakeholders of the system; we listen, we (the researchers) and they (the stakeholders from the Alaotra) both learn, and we reformulate questions. During this process new questions and surprises can emerge which were not evident from the start of the project. To sum up, we all gain a better understanding of how processes or dynamics work (this is our overarching assumption).

But let’s elaborate on the term “communication” a bit further; here we explore and present a rather new avenue of communication in research. We decided to ask a photographer to be part of the AlaReLa project, here is what he has to say…Arnaud! Your turn.

In a way locals are also researchers of their own lives. Click To Tweet

An innovative approach to dissemination of research

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

Shooting from a moving pirogue is no picnic! I had to do it while standing [Note from Patrick: almost 20 minutes!] to be able to get a shot of a baby bandro. I earned the respect of the fishermen that day, and got the picture of the beast.

There is a need to be innovative in environmental sciences, involving locals and the approach described in the former paragraph explains one of the ways the AlaReLa project is doing this. However, there is also a lack of communication for all this science to actually mean something! Having been an academic myself (in various unrelated fields, do not ask on which fields, I still have some sense of decency) I do think that there is a conundrum in the way research and particularly the publication/reference/quotes system performs and sometimes clutter the way knowledge is produced. Writings by scientists for other scientists is needed, the peer review system is sound. But maybe there is a need to reach further and with more tangible effects for a more perennial outcome; so one has to find other ways to enter people’s field of view. Art could be this entrance. Or rather art could be the metaphorical foot blocking said-door. The AlaReLa team decided to continue being innovative and incorporate a photographer in the project, from start to finish, not only for pure documentation… Somebody who could invest more than a couple of weeks to go on site and maybe sleep on the floor and get bitten by bugs and almost killed a couple of times for being too noisy in shady bars. I was happy to oblige.

I decided to call this activity Ethno-photography. How does it work? The “ethno-” means a humanistic approach and long stays, with local involvement through iteration in the picture selection (and shooting) process and through potential collaboration with local photographers. We should be able to use photography as support for the project research results, or even provide more information, a different point of view, visual narration for data… That is where my (second) academic background came in handy. Let’s spill the beans: I re-educated myself in Forest Ecosystems management recently.

It is not all fun and games though… One of my biggest fear was (and still is) to depict the locals throughout the lens of Neo-Colonialism or Post-Colonialism or Neo-Post-Colonialism, et al. I am a Caucasian male of 40, born and raised in a “rich” country (France, of all places, has a, er, rich and complex history with Madagascar). Whether I like it or not, my views are tainted. By overthinking it sometimes, as well. So I had to find a way to make sure this vision I was to bring back was a vision shared with the depicted people, as real a picture as possible. Of course, paradigms, lenses, etc. Here is the way the AlaReLa team and I tried to overcome this issue. The project was separated in three distinct phases:

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

The modus-operandi was simple: wander around, pick some good one, negotiate (sometimes with the help of an interpreter – phd student, local project manager, etc.) and shoot. While the picture was self-developing, write “AlaReLa project 2014” on it and make a scene of drying it and all… give it to the model and try to escape the hordes of people wanting to get one as well. Repeat later, farther… I tried to get a wide variety of models: kids, teenagers, workers, old folks, both genders. I then asked them to be pictured with their instant-photo by joking that my boss wouldn’t believe me that I worked if he had no proof! There is nothing better than the common enemy of “the big boss” to make friends…

1. Discovery – I followed two Malagasy PhD students during their field work and, without previous knowledge (i.e., without having done my homework and read a lot about the country and its history), took a first harvest of pictures…

2. Iteration – With the first batch of pictures it is possible to identify some gaps in the stories we want to narrate and complete the set. However, the most important for me is to go back to the same spots (and more of course) and to show a selection of these pictures to the locals, asking them what is missing. For instance, let’s say I was dumb enough not to take any pictures of Zebus, there is a strong chance people will ask me something like “Dude, where are the zebus!” Zebus are an important element of local life, from social prestige to more economical reasons, which is of course linked. It is my belief that, by combining my view and theirs through this iteration, an accurate picture of the life in this socio-ecological-economical system can be achieved. I do hope that something beyond the obvious will emerge from this ping-pong with the locals. Nonetheless, we already know that I need more pictures of people working and a more varied selection of activities: fishing, cooking and farming, but also charcoal making, hunting, illegal alcohol making, etc.

3. Display / Outreach – The final outcome for the photography part of this project is a transdisciplinary exhibition, coupling photography and environmental sciences, in various locations. A first formal collaborative exhibition at a cultural institution in the capital Antananarivo with a local photographer (I am in negotiation with the French Cultural Center, the only way to have good wine at the opening…) will be organized. Then we will bring a selection of the pictures, printed on tarp, to each village where I was staying when doing, er, let’s call that field work, that sounds like science. Each time we will try to have a party and create a cultural event. Following these, the exhibition will constitute a package that will be proposed at scientific conferences as a support for the presentations of AlaReLa researchers’ work. First results were shown with a presentation and an exhibition in April (2015) at the GTOe conference in Zurich. This is aimed at bridging the gap between art and science or, to get back to our metaphor, put the shoulder in the door-frame previously blocked by the metaphorical foot.

The photography in itself has also been thought/designed to be multidisciplinary (within reason and within photography techniques) and serves different purposes. Digital colour photography is used to document the work of the AlaReLa researchers; it can be used rather quickly for Internet visibility (even during the stay, as shown on my flickr Madagascar set) and later by the researchers for their publications, reports, etc, all using creative-commons licensing. For the “art” part I use mostly black and white analogue film photography. It is beyond the scope of this article to debate of the pros and cons of film photography or to inflame any church wars, though let me just say this is a personal choice and modus operandi, not any kind of statement. The selection of which type of camera(s) to use and why is also beyond the scope of this article but to satisfy the photography-freaks amongst the readers here is my setup: I used two Voigtlander Bessas (R3M and R4A) with 3 lenses: 21mm, 35mm and 50mm, shooting Ilford HP5 and FP4 film, depending on the wind direction and my moods. The use of rangefinders helped me to get quickly close to people and be rather unobtrusive, but this set-up is limited for portraiture or details such as hands, etc. I will undoubtedly change this for the second phase. In addition to that I carried around with me a Fuji Instax camera and gave away about 70 to 80 portraits. This helped me connect with people and led to a lot of memorable encounters. Moreover it left behind a trace of my passage (each instant picture I labeled “AlaReLa project 2014”) and a tacit promise of return.

That is all good but what is the gain for the locals? Obviously they get the opportunity and the ability to bring their own point of view through the process and through the collaboration with local photographers during the final exhibitions. We’ll see how that goes. In a way locals are also researchers of their own lives. In addition, as the stays are long there are possibilities for me to share some of what I do: photography, self-publication, association creation, etc. During the first phase I gave a workshop on how to run a small photography association (BOP – the infamous “Bricolages Ondulatoires & Particulaires” collective) and try to publish artifacts to a group of photographers from Antananarivo.

This is of course still a work in progress. My second stay is planned for the end of 2015 and the AlaReLa team and I already have some ideas to go beyond what was done in phase one. However, the results from phase one are very encouraging and some of the objectives have already been reached.


POW: from Zoology (behavior of monkeys) via forestry (behavior of trees under changing climate and disturbance regimes), to complexity (monkeys, trees, non-tree environments, and people). Co-founder of Madagascar Wildlife Conservation; Madagascar Conservation & Development scientific journal (MCD) editor. Currently post-doc-ing at ForDev ETH Zurich and coordinating the AlaReLa project.

ADG: from manufacturing engineering and design (sociology of metrology, integrated design of MEMS) to forestry (sociology of forest management around ski resorts) to innovative eco-technology (Mycoremediation with Polypop Industries) and ethnophotography of sciences… BOP president and co-founder, editor and designer of the BOP Photo Analogies magazine; MCD layouter.