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Technische Daten

Dieser Artikel ist leider nicht verfügbar auf Deutsch
June 2011

At the time, during late 2009 and early 2010, I was involved in photographing a number of different stories in the Sahara, of which Timbuktu was just one. It was going to be a smaller ‘shoulder piece’ for another story for National Geographic Magazine, but it became apparent that there was enough material on Timbuktu for us to create an independent feature that could stand alone – this turned out to be much more of a cultural piece.

© Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images

Local women restore ancient manuscripts at the Mama Haidara Centre Juma Almajid Pour La Conservation et la Restauration des Manuscripts A Tombouctou, 7 September 2009. Shot on the EOS 5D Mark II at a focal length of 19mm, the exposure was 1/80sec at f/4, ISO 400.

Tourism has declined massively in Timbuktu because of the presence of al-Qaeda in the region so, obviously, the written National Geographic Magazine article mentioned that, as well as the related presence of the US military. But my pictures for this story were not about those issues – it was really about looking at a legendary city today and asking: What does this place really look like? What’s changed and what hasn’t changed? Not much, frankly. The advent of the motor vehicle has changed things but, essentially, many aspects have remained the same. 

On the first occasion I had to go in and make a connection with the librarians who have these incredible, ancient manuscripts. That took a little time; it’s hard to access these scholars. These manuscripts have been hidden for a great deal of the last six centuries; as the region underwent occupations by different powers, manuscripts were often kept secret and buried in the desert for safekeeping. I had to win the confidence of the ‘gatekeepers’ before I could be allowed to photograph. I made pictures on the first trip, but it was a lot more about creating a sense of trust so that people would show me their manuscripts and let me in their homes.

These guys are very conservative, so to make pictures that look natural, where they’re not looking at me or refusing me permission to photograph, took a little diplomacy. People were generally nice, once they got over the fact that you weren’t a tourist, and allowed me to work. The first trip [to Timbuktu] was three weeks and the second trip was two weeks, in between that I worked in different regions of the Sahara on other themes.

These manuscripts have evolved into a serious business. That started in 2001 when Thabo Mbeki, then President of South Africa, went to Timbuktu – he’s a real African-Nationalist and is very concerned with issues of African pride. He saw in these manuscripts what he regarded as a written history of Africa, which has traditionally been perceived to be an oral thing. Mbeki’s involvement helped to create a groundswell of support and now the Ford Foundation and others, including a South African agency, support the recovery and documentation of the Timbuktu manuscripts.

© Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images

Ancient manuscripts from the 16th century depicting the grave of the Prophet and two partners and the Mosque in Medina, 16 September 2009. These manuscripts are part of the Biblioteque Sidi Zeiyane Haidara, a well-run private library in Timbuktu. Shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark III at a focal length of 38mm, the exposure was 1/125sec at f/3.5, ISO 400.

It’s fascinating to see the amount of effort that goes into the recovery of these manuscripts, and then to see what lies within them, in terms of how African history could be re-defined and understood in a different manner because of them. There are now whole foundations dedicated to recovering the knowledge of these manuscripts and preserving that for future generations.  

Most of the photography of the manuscripts was done with four different Canon flashes with very tight snoots and filtration. I used [Speedlite] 580EX II flashguns, and these are just all synched up on different slave settings on manual. They are on small tripods and I just move them around. The scholars don’t move very much when they sit and do their studies – pages turn and so on, but that made it easier for me to light their hands and the manuscripts as a still life. The picture that you see of the guy’s hands – that’s in a guy’s private home. He still teaches his kids from these manuscripts; some of them have been in his family since the 16th century.

To a large extent Timbuktu seems a very similar place to what it was 1,000 years ago. The priority is still education and scholarly pursuit. It’s still a trade centre that people travel to and from and the motivations for doing that have remained the same.     

© Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images

Timbuktu Marabout Mohamed Lamine ould Seeing Almoustapha counsels a psychologically disturbed man who is chained to a post in the Marabout's home, 19 September 2009. Marabouts are the Timbuktu equivalent of a therapist, but with more than a little of the supernatural thrown in. Shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF35mm f/1.4L lens, the exposure was 1/125sec at f/2.8, ISO 400.

There are a number of different ethnic groups in the area and these groups have had very traditional roles for a very long time. The Songhay people do a lot of manual labour and they’ll be dealing with agriculture etc. The Tauregs and the Arabs are businessmen and control things like the camel trade, camel caravans and salt trades, as well as tourism.

One thing I remember clearly was the Marabout curing the psychologically disturbed man in his own home by chaining him to a post. That guy practices a form of healing, essentially half mysticism and half traditional medicine. It’s just one of those things where you think: “Alright, well this works for a whole culture, so I can’t really judge it.” But it was a little jarring to see that and find out later that that same guy was manufacturing protective talismans for al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

Al-Qaeda is a small but deadly presence in the Sahara and they have committed acts of terrorism in Timbuktu. That’s been devastating for the local economy, so there is a Mali Army military base in Timbuktu as a precaution. They’re there because of various multi-national initiatives to prevent northern Niger and northern Mali from becoming another Afghanistan. They want to make sure that they can minimise the fundamentalist influence.

There have also been a lot of drugs moving through the Sahara. These areas are being used by cartels to move drugs through the desert, on little known routes into Europe, so there’s a lot more going on in that area than people think.      

© Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images

The end of the day as seen from a high point overlooking children at play in the streets of Timbuktu, Mali, 19 January 2010. The heat of the day normally sees most activity in the streets occurring late in the day, when the city becomes alive with pedestrians on their way to market, or to the mosque, or just socialising in the streets of this mythical city. Shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark III at a focal length of 27mm, the exposure was 1/250sec at f/4, ISO 200.

Timbuktu is not an obvious place to make pictures at all – much as people might think it is, unfortunately it isn’t. Parts are picturesque, but it’s also a dusty little town on the edge of the Sahara and you have to really look for your pictures. You are always aware that Timbuktu has such an extraordinary history, so it’s a little optimistic to think you can sum all that up in one image.

It was great to go to Timbuktu a couple of times – I’ve been very lucky – my job has taken me to some very remote places. I get to see more than most people and get paid to be there, that’s a very privileged position.   

I was using the EOS-1Ds Mark III, EOS 5D Mark II and EOS-1D Mark IV [cameras] for this job. Most of the time I shoot with the EF35mm f/1.4L USM, the EF24mm f/1.4L II USM, and the EF50mm f/1.2L USM [lenses] – that’s what I prefer to work with at the moment. Lately I’ve been shooting with the EF135mm f/2L USM, which is a pretty phenomenal lens – that’s been really amazing. These are the lenses I’ve been working with the most.

I used to shoot a lot with the EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM and the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, but I’m trying not to use those lenses at the moment, although I always have the 24-70mm with me. There’s no question – it’s the lens I have used most.   

Biografie: Brent Stirton

Brent Stirton

South Africa-born Brent Stirton is a senior staff photographer for Reportage by Getty Images. He specialises in documentary work and travels an average of 10 months of the year on assignment. His awards include five World Press Photo awards, International Photographer of the Year 2008 (Lucie Awards) and he’s been honoured by the United Nations for his work on the environment and in the field of HIV. Brent works on a regular basis for a variety of charities and he has been published regularly in National Geographic Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Le Express, Le Monde 2, GQ, Geo and on The Discovery Channel and CNN. He is currently shooting a long-term project on threatened species, amongst other assignments around the world.


The end of the day as seen from a high point overlooking children at play in the streets of Timbuktu, Mali, 19 January 2010. The heat of the day normally sees most activity in the streets occurring late in the day, when the city becomes alive with pedestrians on their way to market, or to the mosque, or just socialising in the streets of this mythical city. Shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark III at a focal length of 27mm, the exposure was 1/250sec at f/4, ISO 200.