There is a particular obstacle that stands in the way of almost all travel, documentary and cultural photographers alike and, for some reason, no one seems to be willing to talk about it — so I’m going to.
The way I see it, that obstacle could be best described as ‘misconception.’ No matter how hard I try to prepare for what may lay ahead in my photography projects, it never ceases to amaze me how much of a difference there is between what I think I’m going to find and what is really out there.
So many times places I thought would be completely isolated from the outside world were overrun by travelers, and cultures I thought would be extremely protective of their arts turned out to be some of the most hospitable and welcoming people I ever met. My last photography journey in Ethiopia was a perfect example of just how these misconceptions can affect a photography project.
Note: The photos below contain some nudity.
In November 2018, I set off for my second photography journey to Ethiopia. Since I traveled in the northern part of the country before, I thought things would be somewhat similar in terms of how locals reacted to my work as a photographer and to me as a traveler. But, with this idea in mind, I didn’t plan to revisit the places I traveled to before and decided that on this trip I would head south to a place known as the ‘Omo valley’.
The Omo valley is a particularly unique area in Ethiopia for its high concentration and diversity of indigenous tribes, many of which still maintain their own traditional lifestyle and ancient traditions. I chose to go there because, based on the portfolios of my peers and many photographers that I look up to, I recognized that it could have great promise for me, in terms of finding interesting stories, as well as, beautiful images to accompany them.
It took us over 4 days of driving across the wilderness until we reached Karoduss village which is located on the shores of the Omo river. Karoduss village is home to a tribal community known as ‘Karo’ a name which loosely translates to ‘the fish eaters’ and was given to them due to their stronghold by the river.
The Karo people are visually distinguishable from other tribes because of their almost exclusive use of white color in their traditional body painting designs, they are also part of the last few tribes who still hunt crocodiles in the river – both of these were cultural characteristics I was eager to photograph.
But my misconception about the environment I thought I was going to work in became clear to me within a few hours of our arrival in the village. I hoped that the sheer challenge of arriving at this remote village, which involved crossing the vast harsh desert terrain and long days of non-stop driving, would be enough to ensure that we would avoid major influences of tourism on the locals, but as soon as I pulled out my camera I got my ‘wake-up call’.
I was walking around the village – trying to get a ‘feel’ for the place. I reached the edge of the village and was surprised to find old concrete buildings, harshly contrasting the common traditional huts that composed most of the village. Suddenly a young kid with white colors on his face tugged my camera strap and as soon as I turned to look at him, he said: “Hello, photo?”
Now, while I don’t usually like doing these random portraits, the peeling yellow walls of the abandoned concrete building and the character of the young Karo kid definitely seemed to me like a great and fun way to ‘kick-off’ this photography project. So I decided to give it a go.
But before I could even get my camera settings in order and figure out how I wanted to photograph this young kid, I felt another tug on my camera strap. Two more kids, with white colors on their faces, stood behind me and said “Hello, photo?” to which I agreed mostly due to the sheer peer-pressure of them standing there – the more the merrier, right?
Within less than 15 minutes it seemed like the whole village followed one another and gathered around us, young and old alike. All were either already decorated with the distinct traditional white patterns or were in the process of applying it onto themselves. All of them were constantly repeating the sentence “Hello, photo?” to me and my guide, as if it was a religious mantra of sorts.
I decided to go with it and let the situation unfold itself as to see where it would lead me but, I must admit, I had quite mixed feelings about it all. From a cultural point of view, this was an amazing experience for me since, in a relatively short and immediate time frame, I got to meet and interact with diverse group of characters from all over the community. This gave me a visual perspective and ideas about the kind of people I could work with.
But as a photographer, as soon as a crowd formed around me, I knew that this scenario was not ideal for making great photographs. Quite quickly everything turned into chaos; people were arguing about who was there first, who should have his body painted next and with some almost standing on me, blocking the light and making fun of whomever I was photographing. But most importantly everyone made sure that my guide and I knew how much they were expecting to get paid for their ‘modeling services’.
For me this was a bittersweet experience, while I managed to get a few decent portraits, this initial experience made me realize how I had a big problem. That night I didn’t get any sleep. I was lying in my tent, looking at the night sky and trying to figure out a way to penetrate this well-established barrier of “photo tourism” that stood between me and the villagers around me. I knew that if things kept going like this, I wouldn’t be able to build any kind of genuine relationship with the villagers or truly learn about their way of life.
That night I made the decision to focus my efforts on telling a story of a single character from the village, rather than trying to tell the story of the Karo people as a community. Early the next morning, my guide and I set off to visit a handful of huts we spotted the previous day standing far off the edges of the village. These families seemed to be living away from everyone else, I guess you could say they were the village’s ‘suburbs’.
As soon as we entered one of those huts, I recognized a young girl that I photographed the day before. Her name was Turrgo, I distinctly remembered her because of her unique personality. Unlike the other kids who were around her that day, she was very confident and independent, I remember that she insisted putting on the traditional white colors by herself and was more interested to talk to us than having her picture taken.
Turrgo’s family was extremely welcoming and they were more than happy to invite us into their world. Turrgo’s lifestyle was fairly simple, as she spent most of her days playing with the other kids, helping her family with daily chores, taking care of her baby brother and looking over the goats. I joined Turrgo and her grandma and as the two set off to a nearby forest to collect wood for a fire.
I loved the simplicity of it.
It was a stark contrast to what I had in mind before arriving at the village. Where I thought I would be photographing epic shots of the Karo people hunting the rivers for crocodiles, performing ancient rituals and guarding their village from neighboring tribes, I was amused by the fact that I ended up photographing a very relaxed and simple lifestyle, which was quite magical.
What I liked most about it, on top of the simplicity of it all, was the fact that everything was honest. For example, the act of applying the white colors on Turrgo’s face wasn’t a scared ancient ritual but more of a bonding activity for the family. Her grandma chose to wear her traditional cow-skin dress not because she saw me with my camera but because it was the best thing to wear while in the forest as the bushes and thorns couldn’t tear it.
The family’s isolated location outside of the main village meant that we were left alone, getting to know each other and staying away from the majority of villagers who were more interested in offering their “modeling services” to the stream of new jeeps coming to visit the village each day. The lack of pressure from others really made the difference for me, within a few days of working with the family I felt like we managed overcame the ‘photo tourism’ barrier I noticed before, as I was no longer treated as a photographer by the family but as a frequent guest – a small distinction which made a world of difference.
As photographers, when we set off to find new and interesting stories, we need to be able to overcome obstacles in our path in order to flourish, with misconception being probably the most difficult one to deal with. When we arrive at a situation which is completely different from what we were expecting, most of us have the natural tendency to mainly focus on what is wrong or imagine how perfect things would be if only ‘this’ or ‘that’ were different.
If you want to overcome the barriers that misconceptions present and become a better photographer or storyteller, you need to think differently. Don’t get fixed on what you wished was there and just let things unfold, allow the subject to lead you. As I once wrote, in a different blog you might want to check out later (link below), that as a photographer the question you should be constantly asking yourself is: “What can I fall in love with here?”
For me, that was Turrgo and her family, as we spent the rest of our time in the village together, both learning about each other’s cultures, photographing and even crocodile hunting with her uncle – but that is a story for another time…
About the author: Asher Svidensky is a freelance photographer specializing in art and documentary photography with a strong passion for mixing the two with storytelling. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Svidensky’s work has been published by international outlets including the BBC, National Geographic, The Guardian, and many more. You can find more of Svidensky’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.
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