Photographer Jessica Antola’s fashion-focused, slice-of-life work has graced the pages of AFAR magazine a number of times, including a much-loved photo essay in October 2015 that featured the vibrant colors and patterns of West Africa. Many of those photos were part of an ongoing (and not strictly sartorial) passion project that sparked during a 2011 trip to Senegal. That trip inspired another and then another. Eventually the project evolved into her first book, Circadian Landscape, a quietly intimate snapshot of everyday life in seven countries.
Paging through the book is like hopping in the car beside Antola as she travels across West Africa and Ethiopia. None of the photos is posed; each captures a real moment of a person’s life. The images are reminiscent of quick periods of eye contact made with strangers on a daily commute, or vignettes caught through the window of a city bus, albeit cast in the bright hues and bold patterns that are such a hallmark of Antola’s work.
But more than just a collection of static moments in time, Circadian Landscape is a look at the way environment influences lifestyle. In an email interview, Antola notes that “Circadian rhythm is the 24-hour physiological cycle of all living things. The title of my book references this daily process and our everyday cycle of life from sun up to sun down.”
She continues, “Much of the book was photographed in rural areas where life’s day-to-day activities revolve around the daylight hours. Traveling by road showed me the overall lay of the land . . . and allowed me to connect the dots and see why people live in a particular region and how living in this location affects their way of life.”
The monograph is the result of three trips and countless hours of thought, research, and writing over the course of six years. “The first trip to Senegal in 2011 was only a week,” Antola says. “Then I spent a month traveling around Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivorie, Ghana, and Togo in 2014. The more I saw of Africa the more I wanted to see.”
While the photos speak for themselves, the book has engaging elements of travelogue as well. Antola weaves her reflections and experiences, which ranged from brief to deep, into detailed captions in the photo index.
Some are mostly description, such as the caption that accompanies “Gelede Dancer, Benin 2014.” In it, she explains the Yoruba masked celebration of Gelede: “During the ceremony, the figures on the performers’ masks moved and everyone was fixated on their messages, which resembled public service announcements. This one was about using a condom. Other topics included the importance of clean drinking water and preventing malaria by using a mosquito net.”
Other captions tell a more personal story, like the one for the cover image, “The Astronaut of Konso, Ethiopia 2013” (here, third photo from top). There, she details an encounter with the boy wearing glasses pictured: “The villages of the Konso are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for their protective, labyrinth-like stone walls. I met this boy while walking around the village with my Ethiopian guide, Assefa, who took one look at his hand-crafted wooden glasses and nicknamed him ‘The Astronaut.’”
Still other captions are more reflective. In the caption for the photo below, “Hamar Woman, Ethiopia 2013,” Antola muses on historical context. “Around 430 BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of Libyan women in garments of goat leather with hair ‘fringed at the edges, and colored with vermilion.’ I was reminded of this in the Omo Valley when I saw Hamar women with their hair covered in a mixture of red ocher and ghee wearing beaded goat skins.”
By bringing her own story into the project, Antola gives insight into her motivations as a photographer. In the book’s intro she becomes even more specific: “Behind the camera, I did not feel separated by the lens; rather, I had a way to connect and engage with people I did not know. It was a way to enter into people’s lives, to be not just a spectator. . . . I learned that while I could never walk in someone else’s shoes, with compassion and quiet observation I might learn from another’s experience and find common ground.”