Three decades ago, photographer Harry Hook took portraits of nomadic Kenyan women with a view to casting them in a Hamlet with crocodiles. What happened when he set off to find his Ophelias again?
It was lucrative, but Harry Hook was bored. After years of shooting television shows for others, the film-maker and photographer decided to embark on a much more meaningful project – one that would take him back to his first love, Africa, where he grew up. It was not without its risks, however.
"We had to drive through bandit country," recalls Hook, who directed the 1990 film version of Lord of the Flies. "And buses were hijacked further down the road. We had ransom money taped around the car, just in case. But you just have to rely on good faith and talk your way out of situations."
The result is a remarkable BBC4 documentary in which the 54-year-old tries to track down five women from the semi-nomadic Samburu tribe of northern Kenya. He first photographed them 30 years ago and wanted to trace how life had panned out for them. Refreshingly, Photographing Africa moves the continent on from the cliches of picturebook or horror story. Animals are raised or hunted for food rather than treated with a sense of wonder, while poverty, disease and war are addressed only in the context of individual experience.
What emerges is a portrait of a changed continent. Hook's search takes him through dwindling communities of hunter-gatherers and extraordinary initiation ceremonies. Two of the women have settled in homesteads, sprawling urban developments having squeezed the territories of tribes and made an itinerant life almost impossible. Various tragedies have befallen some of the others.
Hook first encountered the women in the mid-1980s, when he was looking for an Ophelia to star in an African version of Hamlet for the nascent Channel 4. The auditions, Hook remembers as we talk in the comfortable but vaguely impermanent surroundings of his Bristol flat, were "breathtaking". But the project foundered due to the sense of mischief that has always coloured Hook's work and thwarted his career: "I wanted Ophelia dragged into a muddy river and eaten by a crocodile, not drowning decorously in a babbling brook, as Channel 4 would have preferred."
Hook thinks back to his family set-up in Kenya, where his ex-military father had started a photographic safari business. "We rented our house and didn't own any land," he says. "It meant my parents were regarded as visitors and made very welcome. The people around us were mostly farmers, very proud of not being bossed around by white people after independence [in 1963]. We employed people, but my friends were African kids."
Hearing the grim, vivid stories of the staff sowed the seeds of his award-winning debut, 1987's The Kitchen Toto, which viewed the Mau-Mau uprising of the 1950s through the eyes of a Kenyan houseboy working for a white policeman. "The reprisals against anyone connected with white families were extreme," says Hook. "The cook's daughter had her ears cut off."
The tribal divisions festered for years. Hook's film, which depicted them unflinchingly, was banned by Kenyan dictator Daniel arap Moi. Hook saw this as "a badge of honour".
Lord of the Flies, filmed in Jamaica, was not without its problems either. Leading boy Balthazar Getty broke both his arms shortly before filming began, then underwhelming early performances meant Hook had to face down studio bosses wanting his young star fired. A little later, Hurricane Gilbert destroyed most of the set. Somehow, Hook managed to steer the film to the screen. It was a modest commercial success, but a reputation for cussedness had been established.
"I wouldn't fit in," he says. "I was too young and hot-headed, turning down too much material I didn't rate." The penny dropped during a trip to a multiplex. "I watched five films, all of which I'd said no to directing. One was Thelma and Louise. That was the point at which I started saying yes to everything."
Hook's moment had passed, however, and he slipped into a comfortable but unfulfilling rut of TV dramas and celebrity-fronted travelogues. His scripts, often featuring men striving against impossible odds (the irony isn't lost on him), never found financial backing.
Photography, a hobby pursued between film projects, became Hook's new passion. When I ask to see his studio, he laughs and points to a pile of poles and black curtains on the floor. "We find a good tree, erect the tent, and it's like the circus coming to town. People just appear. They can present themselves how they want – and participate in the process. It creates a formality which the more conservative communities respond to."
Hook's portraits have a compelling purity, a directness and unforced exoticism belying lazy ideas of Africa as a homogenous mass. The black backdrops emphasise different skin tones, and individual personalities burst from every frame. Even those taken outside the tent have a humanity and humour.
Hook's most intriguing collection, still ongoing, came about quite by chance. Four years ago, he was giving a lift to a Masai elder when he noticed a familiar name on the man's beanie: Obama. So the Obama Wear project was born. Hook sought out everything similarly emblazoned – from T-shirts to sarongs to branded underpants – worn by people of all ages and ethnicities across six countries. The contrast between the traditional surroundings (the mud hut, the donkey and cart) and this very contemporary figure, often shown in front of stars and stripes, is striking and frequently funny. But it's no fashion statement. Obama retains a totemic quality across much of the continent. Indeed, the cumulative power of these photos lies in demonstrating how his actual political accomplishments in the region – as sparse as his visits – pale alongside the simple facts of genealogy.
"Who is your father?" is the question underpinning patriarchal societies across rural, sub-Saharan Africa. Obama's was of Luo stock: a pastoral people of west Kenya. But the president transcends the region's ever-simmering ethnic tensions. He is simply "one of us", a son of Africa and the most powerful man in the world. "The only place I never saw any Obama Wear was South Africa," Hook says, "but then you don't see Mandela's image used in that way [anywhere else]. Wayne Rooney, on the other hand …"
Hook was arrested during the filming of Photographing Africa. The police asked to see the photographs he had shot. "I couldn't because they were on film," says Hook with a laugh. "Everyone shoots digital these days – so they assumed I was a spy."