This post is also available in: French
My project has now passed the point of no return. I’m convinced of its beauty. For me, it was a chance to speak from the heart, open and free. It feels like climbing a mountain or scaling a cliff. It was an opportunity for me to spend time alone, to go with the flow. Sometimes when certain doors shut, we shouldn’t force them open.
If we understand the signs life sends our way to steer us from errors, we can face our destiny head on. But we can’t do it alone. We all need a spiritual guide. My guardian angel, Lauviah, never leaves my side, guiding my path from danger and helping me to win people over. I count myself lucky to have the answers to my questions.
The rich beauty of Ethiopia calls to me. I explain the importance of this journey to my banker and he comes to see my point of view. I make a mistake, however. I bring with me technicians allergic to a country so different from their own. They can’t handle the strong smells, or the food of the Hamar tribe.
I head to this region still full of ancient customs and traditional lifestyles. As usual, I paid no heed to people warning me of the many dangers. The area is in a state of ongoing war between Kenyans and Ethiopians, fighting for retribution and stolen livestock. Not to mention mosquitoes and crocodiles, recent tourist deaths, or the dreaded traveler’s diarrhea, turista. I ignore it all and stick to my decision.
The logistics for organizing this kind of expedition are not so easy. We managed to rent a 4×4. But it’s twenty years old and has hefty mileage. I looked sceptically at the pieces of string holding together parts of the engine. Our guides assured me, all smiles, that there was no problem, and that we could easily do without air-conditioning.
We had to travel some 6000 kilometres to reach Lake Turkana on the border with Kenya. We pass mountains, savannah, lakes and difficult roads, accompanied by smiling children who follow the car dancing and shouting: “Haila! Haila!” as we pass.
I later learn this means “empty bottle!”. This must be the only place in the world where you don’t have to feel guilty throwing bottles out the window – the locals use them for carrying water. We give them notebooks and pencils; protecting a cultural identity doesn’t mean staying uneducated. After all, knowledge is the key to asserting ones rights.
Tribes of the Omo Valley
After stopping off in several less than five-star hotels, we finally enter the Omo Valley. In this stretch of a few hundred kilometers, live five tribes, each as visually striking as the next.
Under a burning sun, we reach a community of inhospitable women and noisy men. We were aware of the hostility of the Bena and the Tsamay.
Trying to explain the good intentions of our project seems hopeless. Long, exhausting discussions follow and, eventually, we appear to make some progress: the girls seem to understand us and the photo session begins.
A man with his child crying under our lights triggers laughter and the atmosphere relaxes. I capture the charming expressions of these families. The young, the old, even dogs and monkey all draw nearer with curiosity, as they await their reward from these strangers. The aggressive women raise their voices. The heat is unbearable despite a white canvas tarp meant to provide shade from the harsh sunlight.
The sunlight is brighter than my studio flashes and I can’t manage to get the backdrop quite right. The crowd becomes uncontrollable, knocking over my tripods and josteling my equipment. I decide we need to leave as soon as possible, chaotically piling our gear into the cars. It’s at this precise moment that the cameraman foolishly offers chocolate; the crowd piles up around the car, preventing us from driving off.
When we finally manage to break away, I ask myself, rather annoyed, whether the whole trip will be like this.
We continue our journey towards [Weyto?] where the following day there will be a market where the various tribes bring their produce and livestock.
Early in the morning, I set up my “studio” on a hillock that I spotted the day before. This time, however, I protect my equipment with rocks on one side and cords on the other. Later in the morning, amongst the crowds of people, I spot a tribe dressed in very unusual clothing. I manage to convince some of them to enter my fenced-off studio, but others refuse. Athletic bodies contrast sharply with those of old women, spent from numerous pregnancies. They are dressed in animal skins, their own skin patterned with decorative pigments. I try to communicate with them, but the photography equipment and especially the camera flash equipment seems to paralyze them with fear. I know I have to make every shot count.
Satisfied with our results, we go to sleep amongst all the small cockroaches, which are beginning to get used to.
We continue our journey across the valley in order to meet the Hamer, a calm and more approachable tribe. We accept the strange food and drinks which they offer us with pride. We relish their hospitality and they allow us to take naps (siesta) during the hottest part of day. Believe it or not, we stay in a hotel called the “Turista Hotel”! The “toilets” live up to the name of this unique local hotel.
But each village welcomes us with the same enthusiasm, the beautiful women constantly enriching my collection of images.
Mursi and the Karo
I still want to visit two other groups: the Mursi, fierce warriors that are often two meters tall, and the Karo, who paint their bodies with impressive geometric designs.
We are counting on a difficult welcome and even worry that we might get injured — the people of this area are all armed. Reaching the village, we are confronted with a community whose appearance is almost alien. I fail to notice the change in mood that is taking place quickly. I speak to the guide, who speaks to the interpreter, who in turn speaks to the chief, who then speaks to his people. After a tense moment, they erupt in cries of: “No! No! No!” I realize somehow communication has broken down.
My guide tries to convince them once more, showing my permits from the Enthiopian government and my letters of recommendation from the UNESCO. But all this doesn’t help.
I make a last attempt and talk to them calmly, while drawing on the ground and with a big smile. Finally they give me permission to set up my “studio” near a large baobab tree. Once the “studio” is set up, I select one of the women. I then suddently realize what I am about to achieve: I’m photographing beings that no science-fiction writer (or punk rocker for that matter) could imagine in their wildest dreams. Their lips are enlarged by clay disks 30 cm [hmmm. Translation problem?] in diameters. Having convinced them to pose, I even manage to get the warriors to remove the Kalashnikovs they wear slung over their shoulders.
I’m completely absorbed with my work, finding the right compositions and interesting angles for my project.
But the tension start to rise audibly between our guides, our guards and the locals; our cameraman picks a really bad time to accidentally step on the feet of one of these 2 meter tall warriors. This certainly doesn’t help matters. I tell myself it’s time to leave. Calmly, but promptly, we pack our equipment while my wife Lia and the audio technician get in the car for safety. I take the time to say my farewells to the chief and to thank him for allowing his people to pose for the outside world. We give them whatever we have for them plus whatever they fancy, including my wife’s necklace which I can offer him.
Revisiting the Mursi
Although I’ve taken beautiful pictures, I’m not entirely satisfied. After five hundred kilometers, we turn around and go back to the Mursi, despite the danger. I know this is where the best part of my project lies. After a round trip of a thousand kilometers, I’m lucky to meet a much more friendly tribe. They are receptive to my proposal and we share many laughs together. They opened up to us, explaining their culture and I understood their particularities, their way of seeing the world and their need to be respected to protect their way of life. There is a slight look of despair in their eyes, as if they are aware that only a miracle can save their culture.
When I returned to Paris, my photos stirred a sense of unease amongst the public. “We have to do something to preserve this cultural treasure” was the general reaction.
I am pleased to have embarked on this “mission”, and am thankful to those who are discovering why I am doing this.