Ethiopia is such a remarkable country….a land of astonishing physical beauty, the only place on Earth with the spectacular Gelada baboon, a country where our earliest ancestors roamed, a place with ties to King Solomon and events in the Old Testament, and home to some of the most colorful ancient tribes on Earth.
Lucy, one of our earliest hominid ancestors, was discovered in 1974 in northeastern Ethiopia by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson. Named after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” Lucy was dated to be 3.2 million years old (that’s a lot of candles on her birthday!), stood about 3 1/2 ft. tall and weighed about 65 pounds. Subsequently other older ancestors dating back almost 7 million years have been found in Ethiopia but none is as renowned as Lucy.
In the country’s Omo valley, indigenous tribes have been painting their bodies with pulverized minerals for millenia. In the Lower Omo Valley of southwest Ethiopia, eastern South Sudan and around Lake Turkana in north Kenya reside over 500,000 indigenous, tribal people. Many are agro-pastoralists who live close to the river or lake during the dry season but return to the grasslands when the rains come. The young men have the responsibility of grazing the cattle and they have long slathered on clay to prevent sunburn. Colors are used to designate position, for ritual, to ward off illness, to attract the opposite sex, to associate with family, a tribe or an animal, and in the last ten years… to impress tourists and attract photographers.
Photographers have been coming to the Omo to be able to capture portrait images like this one. She is the wife of a young man who acted as my guide during our visit to this village.
This is a natural light image. I placed her just inside the entrance to their abode and let the outside light softly light her face. I concentrated on ensuring that her closest eye was in perfect focus.
A few other helpful portrait hints….Keep the background simple and neutral. And side lighting (rather than direct head on lighting) gives a portrait more drama and character.
This mother is rocking a traditional look for women in her village. Her leather garments, snail-shell necklace and braided hair treated with local ochre colored mud are the hallmarks of the her Hamer heritage.
These girls and women in a remote Dassanech village are working hard grinding their local grain into flour.
This young boy getting a bath illustrates the water challenges of the village and of the region in general. Obtaining water is one of the major daily activities undertaken by women in Africa. This woman likely carried a twenty gallon container of water from the local river ( a 1/2 mile away) to her home. And most likely did it by balancing the container on her head! Her use of the water bottle to bathe her child is simply a judicious way of using the water that she worked so hard to obtain.
In some respects women are the pack mules of their families. This woman is returning to her village from the local town with her purchases of straw and other sundry items. I personally witnessed her walk 1 1/2 miles to this point and followed her with my eyes as she seemed to walk into infinity on this road. She wasn’t pleased that I took this photograph.
In our journey through Ethiopia, we overnighted in a small town and my colleague Dave and I decided to amble through the downtown area to see if we could stumble into anything interesting. We came across a small coffee cafe (Ethiopia is one of the coffee capitals of the world) and this fellow enjoying an afternoon cup of Joe. He was gracious enough to allow me to photograph him. It’s one of my favorite portraits from my trip. I love everything about this portrait….from the jaunty way his hat balances on his head to his character lined face.
Taken only a few minutes after the portrait above. As we wandered through town we eventually collected 25-30 children who followed us in our little photographic sojourn. We loved taking photos of them as they were so excited when we showed them the LCD images on the back of our cameras.
I was able to gather these five for a group portrait. Notice the facial expressions and reactions to being photographed. The two girls on the left (sisters) were very cool and collected, the young girl and boy in the middle are excited and the young girl on the right is nonplussed.
Such an incredibly photogenic set of subjects! The Omo Valley and it’s traditional and colorful set of tribes is a photographers delight. But the traditions and very existence of the ways of life are under stress for a variety of reasons. There are economic development water projects that threaten the downstream lifeblood flow of the Omo River, a growing tourist activity that threatens to overwhelm and change the local ways, and finally the normal march of progress that improves people’s lives.
Finally one last portrait. Notice the piece taken out of his upper ear…..most likely the result of a coming of age ceremony as a young man.
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