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Droughts are frequent and severe in many cities of Sub-Saharan Africa. Danish photographer, filmmaker and anthropologist Christian Vium spent a year documenting Nouakchott, Mauritania – one of Africa’s strangest and most unassuming capital cities. For his project “The Nomadic City”, Christian captured the largest city of Sahara. Vium has been awarded the prestigious “Prix HSBC Pour la Photographie 2016” for the project.

Christian Vium was born in 1980 and he is currently based in Aarhus, Denmark. He shoots a lot of documentary, landscape and travel photography. Christian holds a PhD degree in social anthropology (2013), as well as an MA in social anthropology (2009) and an E.MA. in Human Rights and Democratisation (2007). In addition to his photography projects, he is currently in pre-production with three documentary film projects.

The on-going project ‘The Nomadic City’ tells the story of Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, through an ethnographic juxtaposition of my photographs, archive images, newspaper clippings, appropriated photo albums, film footage, objects trouvés and a variety of edited written sources such as interviews, letters, diaries, notes, maps, news bulletins, journalistic articles, and anthropological essays.

Since 2010, I have been systematically mapping the urban landscape of one of the least known, but fastest growing, capitals of the earth: Nouakchott in The Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Engaging with the porous interstitial ’spaces’ that emerge at the intersection between nomadic and sedentary worlds, or desert and urban worlds, ‘The Nomadic City’ maps a particular form of emergent potentiality emanating from these fringe landscapes. Using an analogue medium-format camera, a notebook and a handheld GPS, I have systematically mapped the city of Nouakchott aiming to provide a nomadic reading of urban ephemerality in a unique setting: a city which was constructed ex-nihilo in 1957 and now harbors more than a million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom have partaken in nomadic livelihoods now shattered by recurring droughts in the Sahara and Sahel region.

By Juxtaposing a variety of photographic practices and ethnographic methods, the project affords a kaleidoscopic view upon urbanization from below – that is from the global fringe – inviting inhabitants to participate actively in the writing of the history of the city. Paraphrasing Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (Mille Plateaux 1980), the project chronicles the conflation of ’smooth’ and ’striated’ space, collapsing the rigid dichotomy between the nomadic war machine and the State apparatus.

During my doctoral research in visual anthropology (2009-2013) I have conducted a total of 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Nouakchott, obtaining access and rights of use to a variety of local archives (photographs, documents, film footage, maps, satellite and aerial images) in addition to doing photography, film and in-depth interviews and photo elicitation with inhabitants of the city. Through this work, I have collected a wealth of material, which will be edited into a book documenting the history of the city of Nouakchott from its rapidly developing margins. The book will engage a variety of themes such as the changing urban landscape, interiors, portraits, life histories, vernacular photographs in a historical perspective.

I consider this project historical, in the sense that it, through the systematic GPS logging of images, enables future generations to revisit the places photographed and witness the changes that have occurred. The material I have collected will be made available to the city of Nouakchott as part of a planned exhibition at the Centre Culturel Francaise in Nouakchott. An important part of the process of editing and analyzing the material produced and collected is to develop a ‘photo-ethnographic’ methodological framework for the qualitative mapping of urbanization in rapidly developing cities in the world. Such an endeavor may be of use to a wide variety of audiences such as urban planners, architects, urbanists, historians and infrastructure developers, activists and political decision-makers. Hence, the project constitutes an ongoing laboratory, which is intended as an experimental template for a larger project, that compares several rapidly developing urban areas across the globe.

The Nomadic City was selected as a Jurors Choice at the 2013 Project Launch Competition by CENTER Santa Fe.

Christian Vium