The Fulani Project – Photographs by Tariq Tarey | Interview by Wesley Verhoeve

Tariq Tarey is a documentary photographer based in Columbus, Ohio. He is currently the Director of Refugee Social Services at Jewish Family Services in Columbus, Ohio, and also serves on Ohio’s New African Immigrants Commission and the Franklin County Board of Commissioner’s New American Advisory Council.

The Fulani Project is born out of Tarey’s longstanding interest in documenting and preserving the culture of refugees across the world. In this project, he turns his lens closer to home, focusing on members of the Fulani community who have migrated to the state of Ohio from Senegal, Guinea and Mauritania.

In this interview for LensCulture, Wesley Verhoeve speaks to Tarey about how he arrived at this project.

From “The Fulani Project” © Tariq Tarey

Wesley Verhoeve: Tariq, can you tell us how you arrived at your ongoing series The Fulani Project?

Tariq Tarey: I learned about the Fulani people through a friend, Amadou Kane, who I worked with for over 15 years. I saw the similarities between my own Somali culture and his. I visited Amadou in Senegal in 2018 and wanted to aid in raising funds for a small NGO in the area. While there I wanted to meet the original Fulani people which led me to Koalack, Senegal to photograph women who were farmers.

I came about the idea of the project through meeting my friend, Mariama Ba, who as a first generation American has the appreciation of a culture that she came from but did not experience firsthand. Through her I was able to see the nuances of that culture and the significance of maintaining it within a country that forces assimilation. America can be a graveyard of languages and cultures, so it is essential to preserve the Fulani culture for future generations.

From “The Fulani Project” © Tariq Tarey

WV: How does your Somali background impact your artistry and the way in which you tell stories? Can you trace some of your process and methods back to the culture you were born into in Mogadishu?

TT: Through my experience as a refugee who moved to the United States in my late teens, I witnessed the way in which displaced immigrants have to change their language, their dress and accessories to adapt. I wanted to keep a record of my people before they adapted, in their original cultural clothing. The goal of this project is to create an archive of these images before the Fulani people change to fit this new country. I want people to have the ability to look back on their original culture and see it as it once was before the passage of time and space.

From “The Fulani Project” © Tariq Tarey

WV: You call yourself a “visual ethnographer.” What does that mean to you?

TT: Visual ethnography means being as authentic as possible. I instruct participants to dress in their traditional clothes but they have the autonomy to choose the clothing that best represents who they are within the context of their experiences and identity. It is important to keep the photos as authentic as possible.

WV: How does The Fulani Project differ from your previous projects about refugee stories in Greece, Nepal, and elsewhere?

TT: There is no difference except for having endured a violent displacement from the continent of Africa before arriving here in Ohio. The focus is not on this journey but on the Fulani people themselves—a window into their culture rather than their process of arriving in the US.

From “The Fulani Project” © Tariq Tarey

WV: In what way do you keep your local Columbus Ohio community in mind when telling the stories of refugees?

TT: I photograph and document refugees to create a dialogue and harmony between the groups of the guest and the host. With respect to the Fulani project, it is about finding who Fulani people are, where they came from, and keeping a record of their archives. Fulani people are established in Columbus but they have not been highlighted.

WV: Do you have a specific vision for the future of The Fulani Project? What kind of format do you imagine you’ll share the work in once it’s completed?

TT: The production aspect of the project will continue into 2022-2023, and by mid-2023 there will be an exhibit of text and black and white photographs at a local museum. The intention is that this exhibition will travel across the United States over the next seven or so years. The negatives and text will be archived in one of the universities in Ohio. The purpose of this project is to have Fulani people viewed as equals—as people in Ohio and the US who contribute to and interact with the community.

Editor’s note: Arrivals is an ongoing column focused on remarkable projects by new voices in photography, curated by Wesley Verhoeve. Read more about him here.

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