Sunday, May 30, 2010

Young Indian Girl, Rajasthan, India, November 1, 2009

The writing on this roll of film tells me that this is the eight exposure on the ninth roll of film in the afternoon on November 1, 2009. Behind her are the mountains surrounding her home and in front of her is her village. She is the very first girl that comes into my view when we stop for this afternoon's work and she hangs around until we finish. We photograph her twice, at the beginning of the session and then toward the end.

She is a natural, needing little guidance from us. She looks straight into the direction of the sun and does so with little effort. There are perhaps forty people in front of her and this worries her very little, even though many are the elders of her village.

She stands for a moment in defiance of the norms and in support of her sisters. Even though our work has taken us to the school nearby three years in a row, this is our first visit to her village. We always seem to go to the neighboring one and this time around we decide to visit her village. She is beaming with pride, with confidence and with happiness.

It is almost without exception when people look at her image that someone will think that she is a boy. This makes me smile. She represents youth, she represents hope, she represents our future, for all girls and boys. At the end of our session, a few of the girls follow us back to the truck. Just as we are about to say our goodbyes, four or five of the girls grab my hands and pull me to visit their homes. They do a pretty good job of getting me halfway there actually and the older people seem to enjoy the scene.

We wish everyone a good day and begin to head back to the truck. At that moment, I grab one of the girls and make a run for the truck, soliciting laughter and giggles from all of the girls and their parents at the same time. They see this interaction and with kindness say their goodbyes until next year.
Their children's laughter remains in my memory until then.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Young Mursi Girl, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, March, 2010

After resting from the morning, we decide to move onto the next group of homes a few kilometers away. The sun is high in the sky and clouds are nowhere to be seen. The key is placed into the ignition and silence is the result. The truck fails to start. We are in the middle of a national park with the nearest town almost a two hour drive away and on the other side of a series of mountains. A look of panic replaces one of rest on the driver's face. This is after all the company truck. Over the next hour or so, he tries everything and still fails to start the truck.

Then he decides that pushing the truck is a good idea, under the scorching sun. So we get behind the truck and push it for the next hour or so without success. Over and over again, the clutch is released and nothing happens. It is hot, dry and we are tired from the pushing. Seeing this, a few from the previous village come to help us. All of us push, the villagers without shoes, with the same result.
Just when we are about to give up, a truck appears on the horizon coming in our direction. We attempt to wave the driver down but he passes us on a one lane road at a speed dangerous enough to have killed someone. The local villagers smile and tell us that they know this man, that he is both mean and ill-mannered.

We continue pushing and finally give up, thinking that we will sleep overnight and photograph in the morning as well, a happy thought for me in effect. However, we do need to move out of this mountain range at some time and we try to come up with a solution. At that moment, another truck is seen coming our way. This time, we decide to block the road and the driver slows down. She has a few passengers with her but spares a moment to talk with us.

She tells us that she can take two of us with her and we offer the two tourists with us the option. Everyone agrees and she tells us that she will return after dropping off her passengers. With my mind at ease regarding the tourists, I grab my gear and start walking to the next village. Time is of the essence and we only have two hours before the sun disappears. We walk at a fast pace on a seemingly endless straight line. Three girls follow us and offer to help carry our gear. We accept and all of us walk the next two kilometers in silence, with the girls giggling at my clumsiness. It gives the walk a more pleasant, lighter tone.

As we arrive at the village, two trucks arrive behind us, having pulled our truck to a start with a rope. We wave goodbye to the nice stranger and the tourists and are happy to know that we will also be joining them in a few hours. We ask the driver to pull the truck up and leave it running while we photograph. At times, a few villagers stand on the bumper of the running truck to give me a better perspective. This is how her portrait is made, the young girl at the top of this entry.

The photography runs smoothly, with smiles all around. We bid farewell to the villagers, knowing that this would be our last time together this year. The sun is setting and we make our way up the mountain range. One request is made by me to the driver: 'can you kindly leave the truck in first gear during the hard climbs rather than trying to switch gears?'

We move for about one hour before, as expected, he decides to switch gears on a very steep climb. His timing is poor and the truck stalls. A sigh can be heard from all in the truck. He tries to start the truck but the engine fails to ignite. We are now in the middle of a mountain range, in the dark, up a steep hill and without a single line of communication. In short, we are stuck.

Tempers rise and word are exchanged, everyone is tired. In this moment of anxiety, he decides to attempt a start in reverse, down a steep hill. His attempt almost results in the loss of the truck as the rear of the truck slips off of the road and down the hill. He is fortunate to have prevented its loss as well as serious harm to himself.

We now stand with the truck, half on the road and half off the road. Just as we are about to call it an evening, the lights of a large construction truck become visible. We wait twenty minutes and the truck arrives at our side. We ask for a ride and he accepts to do so, with twenty or so Ethiopians already in the back of the truck.

Our driver also asks for a tow and a jump, the driver of the larger truck also agrees. For the remainder of the trip, I sit with the rest of the people in the larger truck, even as the engine of our truck starts. For some reason, sitting with complete strangers in the back of a large truck engenders a feeling of safety, of kindness. These wonderful strangers help me with my gear in my climb up and help me with my gear in my descent.

We return to the town and are happy to arrive safely. The tourists are waiting for us with smiles.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Teenager, Dorze Community, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, March, 2010

She can be from anywhere, yet she is from Ethiopia. She seems out of place here, yet she is from the Lower Omo Valley. Her features are universal, yet she is from Africa. She embraces all of the above and is limited by none of the above at the same time. She is a stranger to me yet she smiles as if she has known me in another life.

She photographs in one outfit and then changes into another for her second portrait an hour later.
In both instances she is perfect, listens to our requests and translates them into movements and expressions, all with ease and kindness. We ask her to look right, to look left, to raise her head, to smile and in every single instance she bends to our requests while retaining her spirit, her beauty, her strength and her fragility.

While everyone around us watches, they see another side of the girl familiar to them. She shows them as well as us who she really is, who she wants to be. We finish the photography on top of a hill and head down to rest in a local lodge.

Everyone follows us and we exchange words in the courtyard. The feeling is friendly, the mood kind. They hear my words through an interpreter; they hear that they are part of my photographic family now, that their brothers and sisters from around the world will see their faces, will hear their stories.

Few want to leave but need to do so as the sun is setting. We go to sleep rested and wake up the next day to photograph the same faces before moving onto the next community.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Arbore Boy, Design on Face, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, March, 2010

After five days with the Mursi Community, it is time to head back for the capital. Before we begin our drive north, we decide to photograph one more tribe a second time. Ten days ago we visited the Arbore Community and made portraits from a distance, with a home providing protection from the sun for me. The session happened in the middle of my sickness and being out in the sun was unbearable for me.

We arrive today a bit early, but healthy. The children recognize us immediately and call on the rest to come quickly. We do all we can to tell them that we have at least one hour before we can begin but they continue coming. We end up finding a place under a tree for all of them to use as shade while I walk around this time and make still images of their homes, their environment.

After about an hour of hearing their giggles, it seems time to begin the work. We choose to photograph the young boys first, then the girls, women and men. The boys line up according to height, making it easier for me to adjust the tripod down rather than up and down.

They pose beautifully, none of them shy perhaps due to the fact that many tourists visit their community. Other evidence of this happens to be the designs on the faces, made mainly to attract the attention of foreigners as they drive by.

We finish the photography of the boys and then the girls begin to line up, according to height again. In this community, the women and girls will wear a black fabric over their heads. We decide to use this fabric for the images and all of the girls take their turns arranging their pieces of fabric.

The images are exquisite, my mind is giddy with disbelief. This is my last day and the images are out of this world. People will view them and think the Middle East, Africa, Islam or Animism. In the end, what happens to these negatives is a story for another entry. It will be sufficient to write that the spring for the shutter snaps before the very first negative of the girls and that the rest of the negatives from this day are lost to history.

This very single moment will be the reason for my return next year, if nothing else.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Mursi Man, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, March, 2010

Upon unzipping the tent, it is clear to me that the sun will shine unhindered. The sky is full of stars and the wind is almost missing. We rise out of our tents, get everything packed and head to the first collection of homes less than one minute away.

There they are, waiting on us from yesterday. Today is a calmer day than the one previous when the market was open and full of tourists. We speak to the men and make arrangements for the photography. Although this community is quite active, we manage to select from the crowd and gain the cooperation of all.

We begin with the younger girls and manage to make some portraits until, out of nowhere, a large cloud appears and threatens our morning. To my dismay, it moves in the opposite direction of the sun and we achieve sunlight in less than one hour. We call on the men at this time and they pose for us happily. They have seen us around and know that we have done as we have spoken.

Some of them carry a utensil, some of them rifles. The man above is an example. They stand on the bumper of the truck at times to gain height in relation to my lens. This gives the perspective seen in the images. The sky in the background just disappears with the film selected, the process in the darkroom.
During much of my time in Ethiopia the thought of returning seems to fade away. While the children in the communities and many of the adults give of themselves, many of the rest seem quite indifferent, understandably so due to the intense touristic industry in the region.

Everywhere we go, someone has their hand out figuratively, whether that takes the form of yet another guide in addition to the other guide following us or in terms of the official tourist collectives that demand our patronage even though we are trying to mind our own business. At one point a group of unmarked men advise us to put our equipment away, telling us that it looks professional.

However, with the benefit of time and the development of the images, my camera yearns to return, as does my mind.

Monday, May 10, 2010

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

Standing on the bumper of our truck, this portrait is made. This is the most distant of the villages we visit during our time near the national park. Once again, according to all accounts our work will be difficult.

Contrary to the best intentions of our advisors however, we are met with smiles and body adornments for sale. Sure we need to negotiate our photography; then again all of the tribes in this region of Ethiopia ask for the same courtesy.

Since we are limited with time and with funding, we decide to select the ones most interested in the photography. We begin with the children and work our way to the adults. On this day, the market nearby is closed and so only the people from this village are present. Yesterday, many more were present due to the fact that tourists were sure to visit before and after the market.

On this day, everyone decides to take a seat behind us to the left and wait for their turn. They are very patient, knowing that we are limited in what we can do. Every now and then, a woman will walk up with a small child; but for the most part the hour or so on this late afternoon is calm and orderly.

This is most important because the clouds are moving in and we still need time to set up our tents. Every few minutes or so, we look behind us at the sun and continue with the photography. Every few portraits, a small cloud appears and we wait until it passes. Now and then, a few men decide to cut in line. These are men with rifles and other weapons and, even though everyone around me tells me that the rifles are rarely used, it makes sense to allow them their minute in front of the camera.

We then return to the girls and then the women. There is one girl missing though. Yesterday she was there, when the market was open. She followed me everywhere, asked for nothing and just wanted to satisfy her curiosity. My friend kept smiling, telling me that we have found the star of this village. She never once spoke a word, only smiled. In a land and among people very different on the surface from me, here was this little girl that treated me like her big brother.

Today she is missing. We look for her without success. We acknowledge our loss and finish our afternoon, hoping that she'll be present next year. Like all previous times in different nations, there are faces that keep me coming back. Her face is etched in my mind.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mursi Man, Walking Stick, Mago National Park, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, March, 2010

So we finally decide to get out of the truck and complete this village. We have been waiting since the morning session under the hot sun, under the shade of some short trees on the side of the road. The men of the village have been waiting beside us as well. They have been playing a game, talking and just enjoying each other's company.

So we find a spot about 50 meters from the shade of the trees. We go to call the first man and the mood is different. It seems that they have changed their minds about the negotiated price. In the morning, we photographed the children and the women for an agreed-upon price. The men now feel that their portraits are worth more. The young man above is in charge of the negotiations on behalf of the men.
The men with me begin talking once again. The conversation goes back and forth with nothing accomplished. The men grow impatient, complicated by the fact that a few of them have begun drinking the local alcoholic beverage. This worries the guides because of stories they have been told before our arrival.

As the sun begins to drop, it becomes more apparent to me that we need to move forward. With my guide's permission, I ask to speak directly to the older men, with the help of the young man above. My english is translated to Amharic by my guide and then to Mursi by the young man above, under the Surmic family of languages.

The point is simple; we agreed on a price in the morning, photographed the girls and women and now would like to do the same for the men. We feel that an agreement has value and we also feel that all are equal in our eyes. Therefore to value one person's photograph over another's portrait is inappropriate.

After hearing this, the men agree to be photographed for the same price as the women and the photography begins, to everyone's amazement. While surely naive of me, this experience reaffirms my trust in the general human experience, in a universal understanding.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mursi Man, AK-47, Mago National Park, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, March, 2010

So many men walking around with guns. Everywhere we visit, such is the scene. Even more surreal is their reaction to my direction. This man for instance poses as directed: turn to the left, turn to the right, point the gun at the camera. He responds calmly, like a man being photographed with his prized possession, all the while with his finger behind the trigger. It is such moments that give my connection to strangers even more significance. 

Over and over again, people that have never met me show me a respect and dignity perhaps only earned over a lifetime between the closest of friends. This confluence never ceases to surprise me. One such convergence happens tonight, when a sweet soul from the West Coast named Jessica decides to send a note. After seeing an image from Ethiopia, she shares her thoughts with me as naturally as she might with a dear friend. She reaffirms my trust in the everday and in the power of the image: 'It seems that the people closest to you know you the least until they look and try to understand what it is you love to do.' 

This happens on location in Ethiopia and happens between two people meeting through the photographic medium. By seeing the portraits, Jessica sees the subjects as well as the photographer. By reading their stories, she remembers her past. In her words: 'I visited Togo, Africa for two weeks around a year ago to help build a school in a small village and since then my idea of beauty has extended past American ideals. In addition to the way that you evoke emotion throughout your portfolio, a large part of why I am so inspired by your work is because I have heard the stories of people from many places and you capture their stories in your art.' When requesting her permission to include the above words, Jessica responds with trust, with kindness. 

The people in my images will one day be proud to know her, to have their portraits next to one of her in my portfolio. As for the man above, it seems that the expense of the bullets keeps him and his friends from using the gun very much. This helps put me at ease as he points the gun at the camera. The Mursi Community, as noted in an earlier post, shows us only respect and kindness, coupled with a sense of humor as seen above in the man's smile.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mursi Woman, Feather, Mago National Park, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, March, 2010

Five days are spent in this area, five days spent driving over mountains to reach these villages. On many days, the clouds appear just in time for the photography. During the middle of the day, the sun rules. Then in the afternoon, the clouds appear, lasting until the evening when the skies become clear once again.

This ritual remains constant during our stay here. Just when we think the sun will remain, it is covered by the clouds. One day we decide to take our chances and stay overnight in the park. We arrive in the afternoon for a day of photography with the sun intact until the early evening. We then set up the tents, get some water boiling for the corn purchased the previous day and have our short dinner.

Seated next to us is a Mursi guide with his AK-47. Even though darkness prevails, the men from the nearby tribes have very little trouble finding us. They join their fellow Mursi man and decide to hang out with us until the morning. Most of them are also armed with the same hardware. Contrary to my presumptions regarding the presence of guns, sleep is easy to come by this night, especially after a little corn.

We wake up in the morning to a glorious, blue sky. The feeling is hard to explain. We decide to hurry to the first village and begin. Upon arrival, negotiations are initiated and we quickly start. We are able to make portraits for about one hour before the clouds hide the sun.

The aggravation is easy to see on my face and the tribe wonders why we have stopped. We point to the sun hiding behind the clouds. The guide insists that the sun will reappear and, to my surprise, it does so one hour later. The angle of the sun is still more than acceptable and we continue with our portraits until all are photographed.

Almost everyone prior to our arrival warns us with respect to the Mursi Community: they are most difficult, they are forceful, they attack tourists and their trucks.

Contrary to all this talk, the Mursi Community accepts us with open arms. We sit alongside them under the trees, the continue their conversations without noticing our presence. We spent days with them. Sure, they approach me and put their lip plates in my hands, walk away and then speak prices to me with a smile. However, they also smile back when I walk over to them and place the lip plates back in their hands. At times, we speak directly with them, sharing with them our limitations. They accept them, they allow us to stay.

In the end, this is a tribe that I will visit for the rest of my life.