First Person: I Spent Three Years Photographing Glamour Shots Of Sacred Cattle
Armed with a Hasselblad film camera, Daniel Naude explored Uganda, Madagascar and India to capture the personalities of sacred cows.
BY AS TOLD TO BEATRICE BOWERS | Jul 14, 2016 | Arts
I read an article about the Ankole cattle of Uganda, which described how they were facing the threat of being outbred. The story of these long-horned cattle, who are part of a species that formed the world's oldest domesticated animals, kickstarted the entire project. I was very interested in how the Ugandan people were cross-breeding their cattle, and how the preservation efforts of the Ankole's ancient lineage required human intervention. At the beginning, I only intended to photograph the Ankoles framed by Ugandan landscapes, but after returning from my month-long trip there, I was in my studio looking through the contact sheets of all I photographed, and something seemed missing.
A year later, I went to a museum which had a display of a Madagascarian Zebu tomb—a tomb decorated in its entirety with the skulls of the Zebu cow. The Malagasy people of Madagascar use the Zebu in their sacrificial rituals as means to access the supernatural realm. That was it. I found the missing link I needed, which were varying points of view from different cultures pertaining to the deep, spiritual connection these people have with cattle. In Uganda, it wasn't as if the spirituality of the Ankoles were absent, but it was something only I experienced while photographing the cows.
I found the missing link I needed, which were varying points of view from different cultures pertaining to the deep, spiritual connection these people have with cattle.
Throughout my career, I've made peace with the fact that whatever you have planned for your project, your aims and your intentions, might never work out. I went in with the approach of having to work around things, especially challenges like language barriers. I'd always connect with a local guide before each trip, and tell them the gist of what I'd be shooting. The first 10 days or so are spent driving around, engaging with locals, sourcing for the best landscape and the perfect cattle. The areas I visit are extremely rural, it's hard to stick to a specific plan. I decided to capture everything on a Hasselblad film camera. Given how film photography is slowly fading away, I found that symbolic. Perhaps, in 40 years, when the Ankoles were extinct, film photography would be too.
Uganda was very memorable for me. At one of the villages, I lived with a local herdsman for a week. We couldn't communicate with each other as he didn't speak English, but through my expressions and gestures, he fully understood what my direction was for the project. A photo I took of an Ankole as the sun was setting cemented his idea of what I intended to do, and he helped me to herd the cows to achieve certain shots. I think he saw a kindred spirit in the way I spoke about my love for the cattles, and through the way I worked. It created an incredible synergy that defied language.
My first encounter with an Ankole was amazing. Each cow possessed such a presence. The gigantic horns mounted on their heads commanded attention, and all of them had an intrinsinc character. They looked almost unreal, in a way. During my trip, I had an instance where I was watching the Ankoles graze in a herd, and watching them move inspired me to pen this down in my diary—"Observing cattle for me, is a form of meditation. It's a type of therapy that actuates through intense visual engagement. The effects of this undertaking are similar to the serenity brought on by gazing at the waves of the ocean". Watching the cows graze, their horns were bouncing up and down, almost like waves. They were massive, practically Jurassic. It was such a moment, so visual. You can't explain it.
Observing cattle for me, is a form of meditation. It's a type of therapy that actuates through intense visual engagement.
Attempting to photograph these cows was very much a personal experience. I tried to portray reciprocal moments, a singular instance of engagement where I'd spot a cow, and think "This is the one. This is the perfect animal with the right personality". Trying to capture the cows' personality is a combination of many differing factors that instantaneously harmonises. The landscape, the expression of the animal, and the aura it emanates, whether the cow was proud, rundown, or tired. Every cow was distinct, but each of the Ankoles embodied a sense of imbalance that resurfaced in nearly all my photographs.
My photographs of the Ankoles were exhibited at Paris Photo, L.A. People would come up to me and say, "Great Photoshop work!". That reaction just proved how unbalanced and how surreal these animals look.
To complete my book, Sightings Of The Sacred, I went to Madagascar next. It was much harsher there, as the Zebu cattle were being used for labour, transportation, and as sacrifices. The Zebu were a tool for the people, to be used in daily life. The cattle owners would cut different shapes into their cows' ear to mark them instead of traditional branding or tags, which I found so fascinating.
From there, I ventured to India, and experienced the Mattu Pongal festival. Cows in India are sacred, worshipped, and not to be slaughtered. They were so serene as compared to the Zebu. In Madagascar, the cows were very skittish, almost scared when I'd approach, but in India, they barely reacted. I saw two men painting a bull's horns for Mattu Pongal, and decorating him with balloons. The bull was just calm. I thought it was such an interesting reflection between culture and creature. Every place I visited saw cows responding differently to me, mirroring how their culture treats and utilises them.
My entire journey with Sightings Of The Sacred solidified the magic of photography for me—being behind the lens gave me the opportunity to immortalise the history, heritage, and lives of these animals, as well as their individual experiences and expressions. It was incredible.