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Michele Sibiloni captures the otherworldly atmosphere of grasshopper hunting by night

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Nsenene trapping is an important part of Ugandan culture, but insect numbers dwindle as a result of climate change and deforestation

Awash with a spectrum of shimmering and ghostly greens, Michele Sibiloni’s new photobook Nsenene – published by Patrick Frey Edition – follows the nighttime harvesting of long-horned grasshoppers in Uganda. These insects are a sought-after commodity and only migrate en masse twice a year, so those hoping to catch them must be ready. In towns across the country right after the rainy seasons, traps are set.

“Grasshopper (or ‘nsenene’) hunting is an important part of Ugandan culture,” Sibiloni says. “Grasshoppers are a delicacy, and because the value is high, demand is high. People can make good money from hunting them – it’s a phenomenon that’s financially changed the lives of some trappers.”

Born in Italy in 1981, Sibiloni has lived in Uganda since 2010. The idea for the project came to him in 2011. As he sat on a late night bus, he passed through landscapes illuminated with brightly-lit traps. “I was mesmerised, and I told myself that as soon as I had time, I wanted to explore this industry,” he says. Finally, in 2015, he began. 

I’m interested in documenting the night in general, and after my previous book Fuck it, which was shot in the urban area of Kampala, I wanted to be closer to the countryside,” the photographer explains. He began making time for nsenene seasons, and travelled around meeting as many trappers as he could. “The people in my images are trappers, but also ordinary people who come out to see the spectacle – sometimes they catch a few in their hands to sell or eat the next day too.”

For the more serious trappers most nights are about waiting, planning and hoping that the swarm will come. Many conditions have to fall into place – the right wind speed, for instance – but when they do, Sibiloni describes a majestic and electrifying atmosphere. “The whole sky turns green,” he says. “Some people take pictures and everyone is happy, because money is going to be made.” A swarm normally lingers for two or three days and competition among trappers is rife during that time. 

Some of the images in Nsenene show the heart of the action, but many more of them are abstract shots of silhouettes, lights and smoky skies. “I took a lot of portraits at the start, but over time I realised that my interest was more about the atmosphere of the phenomenon itself, so on return trips I tried to create a cinematic journey instead, guiding viewers through the night.” The pictures appear otherworldly as a result, like scenes from a post-apocalyptic film – full of tension, excitement and intrigue. Many of them are bathed in green light too, which was a happy accident achieved by the photographer’s camera reacting to the type of lights the trappers use.

Meanwhile, three texts by important Ugandan figures including Bobi Wine – the popular musician-turned-political who advocated for young people – accompany the pictures in the book, helping to frame the cultural context.

Sibiloni’s time spent shooting Nsenene revealed some deeper truths about the social, political and economic conditions in Uganda. “There’s a high unemployment rate, and it’s the youngest population in the world with 77 per cent being under 25 years old. Many youths without a direction join trappers and live with them in precarious conditions, sometimes making no money at all,” he says. He acknowledges that over-trapping has become a problem for the same reason. Meanwhile, numbers of nsenene dwindle due to climate change and deforestation. Sibiloni is now working on a film to accompany the stills, hoping to be able to unfold some more of these related issues through that. 

michelesibiloni.com

Nsenene is published by Patrick Frey Edition and is available now

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London

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