“I was thirty-five years old and I was blowing in the wind”.

                     - Mirella Ricciardi


Right before signing the book deal that would become ‘Vanishing Africa’, in which these photos first appeared, Mirella Ricciardi, left her husband to whom she had been married for ten years. With her first baby in her arms, she refuged at her mother’s Left Bank Atelier. At age thirty-five, her life as she knew it was vanishing.

Perhaps it was being around her parents who had honeymooned to Africa and never left, that reminded her of her homeland of Kenya. It was here she had grown up on the banks of Lake Naivasha in an environment deemed wild and free. The contrast to her life now, was drastic. Enveloped by its burdens, she felt as if her “African roots had been severed” and that she was “slowly wilting”

In 1966, the same could be said of native Kenyans. With over fifty distinct tribal groups, Ricciardi found only six that were “free of the ever spreading marks of western civilization”. And so armed with her camera, the focus of her life and lens became to photograph the customs of these six tribes, before they too decomposed.

Ricciardi’s photos showcase a sculptural quality of her subjects whether silhouetted from a distance, or probed close up. A way of looking that her mother who had studied under Rodin had provoked. “Ever since I could remember, my artist mother had pointed out to me the beauty of black people. She looked at them with the eyes of an artist and made me aware of the way they walked the way they stood, the way they moved their hands and held their heads”.

Some photos show indigenous tribes harmonizing with their landscapes as if born from it. For Ricciardi, this was the thing that struck her most, as she spent two years exploring Kenya with her camera, meeting locals. “The tribes I visited varied greatly from each other, but they all shared the one characteristic that I had ignored, but was essential to the survival of the human race. They had adapted to their surrounding environments”.

The photos of ‘Vanishing Africa’ are the story of its indigenous people, documenting their ways of life,  and in some small way trying to ensure their survival. But they also hint at the survival of their photographer. Shooting these photographs, Ricciardi too adapted. In the land of her birth, she became “tough and sinewy again.”

Text by Shana Chandra S/TUDIO