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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

Work / Photography

Photographer Sophie Stafford on shooting the Saharan desert’s largest celebration

To bring in the new year, the desert oasis of Douz in Tunisia transforms into an anarchic and event-packed four-day-long festival celebrating northern African Berber traditions. Featuring horse and camel racing, falconry, dancing and parades, it’s a visual feast as well as an important part of Tunisian heritage – a wonderland for a photographer keen to capture the heightened emotions of two worlds meeting.

London-based photographer Sophie Stafford first found out about the festival mid-way through a YouTube vortex, and her curiosity was immediately sparked. However, no amount of trawling through online footage could prepare her for what to expect once in the middle of the havoc. “Within half an hour of getting to the festival on the first day I realised it was not what I expected,” Sophie tells It’s Nice That. “It was so much more youthful – the chaotic side really dominated the festival.”

The main spectacles take place in a huge grand-stand where rivals meet to compete in front of everyone they know. But it’s after the official events end that the fun really begins. “One of the more interesting parts of the festival was the aftermath, when the crowd became their own entertainment and carried on the festival after the main event ended,” explains Sophie. “There’s a culture clash between the traditional aspect of the festival with the young local Tunisians that make it their own, by showcasing their skills and making new traditions.” Fearless, unpredictable amateur driving shows, for example, bring in quite the crowd. “The clear mix of the old and the new make the festival something quite special to encounter,” she adds.

Given the energy and lack of a strict schedule, Sophie communicated with people she met via instagram, who would tip her off when exciting moments were about to occur. “At times it was claustrophobic and hard to move, let alone take any photographs,” Sophie says. She’s currently in the process of making the series into a book, which will be designed by Bruce Usher.

“I want to show more of contemporary Tunisia,” says Sophie. “The festival is a celebration of desert Arab-Berber heritage, but it’s also a place for people to hang out with friends and family, show off their bikes and new clothes, drink some fizzy boga, and celebrate bringing in the new year. I wanted to show a side of rural Tunisia that isn’t always pictured in mainstream media.”

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara

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Sophie Stafford: Festival of the Sahara