Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mursi Woman, Mago National Park, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, February, 2010

She stands with the sky as a background.

She is a woman belonging to the Mursi Tribe of Ethiopia, living in the Lower Omo Valley of Southern Ethiopia. According to the most recent estimates, their population is near 10,000.

This community is pastoralist in nature but prefer a sedentary life. Most from this community are illiterate and speak the language of their tribe. While some have converted to Christianity, most practice Animism, a belief that spirits exist in animals, plants and inanimate objects.

At an early age, the girls from this tribe begin the process of wearing lip plates, as well as plates in the ears. Contrary to some myths, the reason for such is esthetic, for the purposes of beauty and to attract a future husband. At the same time as the lip expansion, the lower front teeth are removed, thus enhancing the beauty sought after by the women in this community.

When we first arrived in the Lower Omo Valley, folks told us that this tribe would be the most aggressive. However, after four days of photography, they have proven to me that they are anything but aggressive. They allow us to photograph with little resistance and an easy approach to negotiation.

At times, the women do show a bit of aggression as they try to sell their goods, like good business people everywhere my mind accepts. They do however smile when joked with and accept a bit of humor in return.

This is possibly the most difficult place to reach during my time in Ethiopia so far. The mountains of the national park are difficult to climb with even a four-wheel vehicle, almost forcing us to stop on the third day when the truck broke down on the way back to the town.

That story will be reserved for another time.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Young Tsemay Woman, One Sunny Morning, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, February, 2010

We leave our rooms as the sun has yet to rise. We arrive at the village as the sun begins to show itself. We drive further up a dirt path until we see her small village, a group of homes numbering perhaps twenty. Most visitors stop on the side of the road, make snapshots of villagers near the road and return to their sports utility vehicles on their way back perhaps to their rooms. This is so routine that groups of individuals from this tribe wait alongside the road dressed in traditional clothing with items for sale. 

Every time a vehicle slows down, the tribe is ready. The day before, we went through what has become this custom. Today however we decide to go further up the road and search for a village unvisited by the tourists. Such is this young woman's village. As we finish our photography, the elders tell me that we are the first to visit their village from the United States, perhaps from a non-African State. We leave only after making the above portrait, first serious and then with a smile. We are instructed to spread their story and to share their photographs with the world outside.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Young Hamer Woman, Early in the Morning, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, February, 2010

On the same morning that we photography the Tsemay Tribe, a few Hamer woman walk by and decide to mingle with us. This young woman is one of them. While men stand by to her right, she starts off nervous and then explodes into a most vibrant smile. The Hamer People are mostly Sunni Muslim, mixed with Animism. While there are over 45,000 in their community, this represents only 1/10 of 1% of the Ethiopian population. They are pastoralists and value cattle highly, including the use of cattle for many important ceremonies. 

According to most sources, only a handful of individuals from this community have ever completed secondary education, with very few that can read and write. This results in extremely low representation and an almost invisible presence. Where this tribe and others like them find a presence is in the tourism industry. While many Ethiopians turn to industrial societies, the Hamer and others like them live as their parents and grandparents before them. 

Their traditional lifestyles are highlighted by the tourism industry of Ethiopia, allowing them and other tribes from the Lower Omo Valley to earn a certain living from the tourists that flock to this part of Ethiopia. As they collect food and materials from the market, they barely give notice to the tourists all around them. When tourists approach them for a picture however, their familiarity with tourism enables them to negotiate a price for the exchange. In addition to other means of making a living, they quench the thirst of the tourists for imagery by allowing them a picture in exchange for an agreed upon payment.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tsemay Child, Still from Motion, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, February, 2010

Just yesterday the thought of seeing this image on film seemed impossible, the result of a lens failure discovered the week before. Once discovered, a call was made to the photographic laboratory to process the last two rolls of my trip to Ethiopia.

The result: the rolls displayed streaks the length of the film.

After reviewing these two rolls as well as the rolls processed locally, it became clear that the source of the streaks was a shutter failure in the lens.

What did that mean? When did the lens fail? At the beginning of the trip to Ethiopia?

These questions filled my mind for five days this past week, until yesterday's phone call from the laboratory. After processing two rolls of film from each day during the trip, the possibility that the lens failed on the last day seemed more probable. All rolls processed beautifully.

Now, the film from the last day is to be processed so as to ascertain the exact moment of failure, hopefully limited to the very last day.

My hope is that the above child, as well as the other children, are represented on film as well as in still images from the motion footage.

Over and over again, my friends hear from me stories of dreams, dreams where the camera breaks down, where the tripod is forgotten, when the rolls were confiscated and so on. These dreams usually occur a month or so prior to a trip. They are usually hollow, having never become reality.

This past week, one of those dreams became a reality. Hopefully that reality is limited to a few rolls at the end of the trip. Soon we will know the truth.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mursi Girl, Mago National Park, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, February, 2010

Unlike advertisements praising Ethiopia's thirteen months of sunshine, my time seems plagued by clouds and a general lack of sunshine during the early and late hours of the days, traditional times for my photography.

As a result, we spend almost six days near the Mursi Tribe attempting to photograph three small villages. The driver and guide are tired and weary of the driving, making the decision halfway through to camp near the Mursi villages for easier access.

The Mursi Tribes are a nomadic people, cattle herders traditionally. Most estimates put their population at less than 7,500. They are located in the Lower Omo Valley of Ethiopia, surrounded by the mountains of the Mago National Park, one of the most isolated regions of the country.

They have their own language also called Mursi and follow a religion that is classified as Animism. While some do speak a second language, the overwhelming majority speak their own language only and have an illiteracy rate of 97%.

The women are famous for wearing lip discs made of clay by the women themselves.

During our day, we witness the women sitting and making these discs, at different stages of production. They use a sharp tool to place patterns into the discs and then place the discs into the sand for curing.

Now and then, they walk up to me and place a disc in front of me to see. As a reaction, my hand takes the disc and then the realization that they have walked away expecting payment sinks in. Most of the time, they do take the discs back with a smile.

Today, four discs are purchased by me, four different sizes and four different patterns.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tsemay Man, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, February, 2010

He walks up to the scene as the session ends, with a toothpick in hand. The last of the boys steps down and this man takes his place, with the outline of the moon above him. He belongs to the Tsemay Tribe, which numbers about 10,000 according to most estimates and lives in the semi-arid region of the Weyto Valley of Ethiopia. They are both pastoralists and agriculturists, growing such crops as millet and sorghum. 

 The photography is calm. Almost everyone stands behind me and shows their support with words and gestures. Most of the time, the sitters respond with a smile or an expression. This man's village is a distance from the road, off the beaten track followed by tourists. As a matter of fact, the men tell me that we are the first visitors to their village in a long time, certainly the first outsider that they have seen. As we are leaving, the men tell me to tell others about their tribe, about their lives. They ask for nothing else.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Arbore Boy, One Very Hot Day, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, February, 2010

On our second day in this part of the Lower Omo Valley, my body begins to feel weak. The sun has shown me its strength during the first few days in Ethiopia and the food its bacteria. We arrive at this village early, about two in the afternoon, and decide to sit under a tree with the villagers, answering their questions and following through with the negotiations.

As the sun begins its motion down, the photography begins. It makes sense to me to set the equipment up under the shade of a home. The subjects are asked to stand about five meters away, in front of their homes. The images are made from a distance and include the homes in the background, a shift from my typical form of photography.

This pleases me even though the decision to do so reflects my inability to do otherwise.

We begin with the boys, then the girls, the men and the women.

The Arbore Tribe exist as agropastoralists, with cattle seen as their most important possession. While tourism is important to them as well, growing maize and sorghum through an intricate irrigation system supports their existence, in addition to their livestock. Their knowledge of botanical species is also well known, as is their skill in painting their faces and bodies.

Many of the girls wear helmets made from a type of gourd, as well as an intricate arrangement of beads around their necks. They are also known for wearing a black cloth to cover their heads, a cloth that is used on our second visit to make portraits of the girls without any other evidence of their identity showing.

They live near Chew Bahir, with their population hovering around 4,000.

We make images today for about two hours and then head back to the place that has brought a sense of sickness to my body. My hope is that time will heal me and that the photography will continue. We do return to this tribe later in the month to make a second set of images, well rested and in a better state of mind.