When photographer Louisa Seton heard about the construction of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia she knew she had to photograph the tribes in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia before it was completed, as its social and environmental impact could greatly affect the tribal groups in the region.
To achieve this goal, she stayed in Kibish - a very small village located in the upper Omo region where some Suri reside alongside other Ethiopians. It was necessary to pay an elder to camp on his land and use it as a base while she drove with her guide to surrounding villages. Rather than the typical tourist experience, Louisa preferred to spend time in each village, meeting with the people and getting to know them before pulling out her camera.
Louisa feels that there is certain etiquette that every professional photographer should adopt when photographing people from different cultures, and this involves building trust and acting intuitively. During her time in the region, she had a guide from Addis Ababa who spoke English and Amharic. Her guide then hired a local in each village who spoke Amharic and the relevant tribal language to ensure that Louisa could fully engage with the people.
She felt it was an interesting experience as a photographer to see how this has developed into a trade for these tribes. A lot of money is initially exchanged as village fees and then more is paid to individuals to take their photos. Due to money being such a big part of the process, Louisa soon realised that she couldn’t actually take the most authentic shots. So she accepted this factor and decided to set up a cloth backdrop as a 'studio' in the middle of a sorghum field. This allowed her to then ask specific people for their permission to take their photos, and her guide conducted the negotiations if they agreed.
The situation also stirred up a debate within her about cultural tourism and its pros and cons. However, one of her hopes is that tourism may actually create a space for cultural traditions that would otherwise be lost. The exchange may not only provide a source of income for isolated communities, but her hope is that it could encourage different tribal groups to preserve any unique practices that they still feel comfortable with.
Louisa can attest that the tribes do still dress in their tribal attire, which is sometimes nothing but a cloth. The people of the Hamer tribe, in particular, dress in goatskins and wear jewellery every day. However, for the purposes of the shoot, some tribes people did decorate themselves with clay, wear local flora on their heads and put lip plates in their lips, which is usually reserved for special occasions and ceremonies.
Ethiopia’s Tourism Minister has recently announced the country’s new tourism slogan to be ’Ethiopia - Land of Origins’, and this gallery highlights the people at the heart of this fascinating country and its culture. Just click on the 'Next' button above each image to follow Louisa on her journey with the Suri, Mursi and Hamer tribes, and learn more about her experiences in the accompanying excerpts.
To find out more about this fabulous photographer, head to the last page of this gallery.