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The Omo Valley

There are many reasons for choosing to photograph a story. For a professional photographer, the motivation has to be important; providing information is both the responsibility and duty of a photographer. I always start with “the why” in telling a story: Why do we tell a story? What makes us do it? Why one story and not another?

The duty in providing information is to consider carefully the truth of the story. Personally, I believe that in order to fully tell a story, a photographer needs to have as much time as possible available to him, which is not always possible on newspaper assignments but can be for our personal projects. Examining in-depth a story is to examine in-depth “man himself”. To photograph man is to bear witness to the human race and to those things that disappear over time. Photography follows a story and turns it into memories.

Addis Ababa; a child outside a Coptic Christian church.
Addis Ababa; a child outside a Coptic Christian church.

The “why” behind my story of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia was this: to give memory to the ancient tribal rituals of the various tribes, that have accompanied man for hundreds of years and that one day will most likely disappear. In this sense, photography is documentary but also anthropological. Man is at the centre of the world in his continuous evolution. To photograph man is to take care of him. For photographers, the camera is your free pass, your access to the different worlds, yet it is not your armour. it is not your protection. Taking care of man is not just about taking his picture, but also respecting him. In this regard, the photographer is neither a hunter nor a predator.

The first place I go to see in Addis Ababa is the market that everyone calls “Mercatu”. It’s a great outdoor Bazaar, a nativity scene. Little shops created out of nothing, one on top of the other, forming tunnels, a labyrinth of sheet metal full of twists, turns and openings. I arrive in an area of this Bazaar where they sell animals, vegetables and spices. I see a red cloud coming out of one little shop and, curious, I ask what it is. I am told that it is chili powder, much used in Ethiopia. I had come across a little shop where they grind chilies. I go into the shop and I’m swallowed up in a red cloud. Three black faces turn to look at me from through this cloud; they stop working and start to stare, they are surprised. I am bewitched by the red colour of the chilies that covers the walls made of blue cloth. I take a photo of these workers, who pose proudly beside their work table, and then I slip away.
The first place I go to see in Addis Ababa is the market that everyone calls “Mercatu”. It’s a great outdoor Bazaar, a nativity scene. Little shops created out of nothing, one on top of the other, forming tunnels, a labyrinth of sheet metal full of twists, turns and openings. I arrive in an area of this Bazaar where they sell animals, vegetables and spices. I see a red cloud coming out of one little shop and, curious, I ask what it is. I am told that it is chili powder, much used in Ethiopia. I had come across a little shop where they grind chilies. I go into the shop and I’m swallowed up in a red cloud. Three black faces turn to look at me from through this cloud; they stop working and start to stare, they are surprised. I am bewitched by the red colour of the chilies that covers the walls made of blue cloth. I take a photo of these workers, who pose proudly beside their work table, and then I slip away.
 During the journey to the Omo Valley, I fall in love with a little gathering of huts immersed between the banana trees. The huts have walls made of mud mixed with debris; the circular roofs are made of dried leaves laid on a wooden structure. The children are free to run around and play outside of the huts.
During the journey to the Omo Valley, I fall in love with a little gathering of huts immersed between the banana trees. The huts have walls made of mud mixed with debris; the circular roofs are made of dried leaves laid on a wooden structure. The children are free to run around and play outside of the huts.
Road to the Omo Valley; a proud woman asks me to take a picture of her and her son.
Road to the Omo Valley; a proud woman asks me to take a picture of her and her son.

Rather, the photographer is a narrator and, in order to tell his stories, he must really know them in-depth. This prompts you to take your time with your subjects, to approach them with respect. There’s no special permission for taking photos of your subjects; your master key to your subjects is your heart and your ability to listen to their stories. There are wordless conversations that can happen between human beings. Your sensitivity will enable you to understand when a subject is ready for your camera.

The ‘Bull Jumping’ ceremony lasts for the whole day: the women do each other’s hair outside of the huts. In a clearing, some women start to dance and move in a circle that widens out and closes in continuously to the sound of trumpets and ankle bells they wear. These dances continue until after lunch, when the young man, surrounded by Maz – young men who have already completed the rite of passage – moves towards his trial, which begins by the whipping of the young women by the Maz; this suffering is a sign of their affection and they wear their scars with pride.
The ‘Bull Jumping’ ceremony lasts for the whole day: the women do each other’s hair outside of the huts. In a clearing, some women start to dance and move in a circle that widens out and closes in continuously to the sound of trumpets and ankle bells they wear. These dances continue until after lunch, when the young man, surrounded by Maz – young men who have already completed the rite of passage – moves towards his trial, which begins by the whipping of the young women by the Maz; this suffering is a sign of their affection and they wear their scars with pride.
The Hamer are mainly herders: the women dress in a few skins and they decorate themselves with shells. The typical hairstyle of the Hamer women is created of little plaits smeared with butter and red clay.
The Hamer are mainly herders: the women dress in a few skins and they decorate themselves with shells. The typical hairstyle of the Hamer women is created of little plaits smeared with butter and red clay.

Spending time together will tell you a lot about a person whose story you wish to tell; gradually, time shared with your subjects will open up their worlds to you and you will understand the best way to enter into their lives. The sensitivity with which you treat other people’s lives must always be an important element in a photographer’s ethics.

The Hamer men during the ‘Bull Jumping’ ceremony.
The Hamer men during the ‘Bull Jumping’ ceremony.
A Hamer woman during the ‘Bull Jumping’ ceremony with her Kalashnikov, a legacy of the Soviets occupation of Ethiopia.
A Hamer woman during the ‘Bull Jumping’ ceremony with her Kalashnikov, a legacy of the Soviets occupation of Ethiopia.

This sensitivity will enable you tell the truth of a story, and of life, and you will be sure to get truthful images that depict the reality as authentically as possible. For a good feature, it is essential to prepare yourself for the story you want to tell, which means gathering as much information as possible about the place you will visit; you can start at home, using all the available sources, from the internet to newspapers. It is also very important to exchange views with those who have already been in the place we would like to visit. When you are in your story location, it’s important to make contact with as many people as possible, to talk to them and explain the reasons behind the work you are doing.

What we will witness is a young Hamer’s rite of passage to adult life. This passage is marked by a trial called ‘Bull Jumping’. The chosen boy must demonstrate strength and courage by jumping without falling over the backs of seven bulls lined up in a row; only by doing this will he become a ‘Daala’, or real man. To a great uproar, the young ‘Naala’ begins his trial: whilst his female relatives are whipped as they dance, he climbs onto the bulls and runs over their backs at speed several times without falling. Thus he becomes a ‘Daala’, a true man. From this moment, the young man has a month to find himself a wife, for whom his father will pay her family with cattle, goats and a Kalashnikov.
What we will witness is a young Hamer’s rite of passage to adult life. This passage is marked by a trial called ‘Bull Jumping’. The chosen boy must demonstrate strength and courage by jumping without falling over the backs of seven bulls lined up in a row; only by doing this will he become a ‘Daala’, or real man. To a great uproar, the young ‘Naala’ begins his trial: whilst his female relatives are whipped as they dance, he climbs onto the bulls and runs over their backs at speed several times without falling. Thus he becomes a ‘Daala’, a true man. From this moment, the young man has a month to find himself a wife, for whom his father will pay her family with cattle, goats and a Kalashnikov.

The place will always turn out to be different from the idea that you got at home and you have to be ready for this unexpected change in perception. Mixing with the local people will be fundamental to understanding the world around us and how it moves.

When we set off again on our journey, we meet many armed men on the roadside. I ask the driver who they are and he replies that they are herders. I ask why they are armed and he explains that it is a legacy left by the Soviet Union. I ask him to stop beside one of these nomads but he warns me that it’s risky. I insist; I see that he is worried but he gives in. We single out two armed men and we stop. The driver negotiates with them and they agree to be photographed. Whilst I am taking their pictures, a person who is travelling with us gets out of the jeep and starts to take pictures too. The two men get nervous, tensions rise. Nothing to fear; we stop taking photographs, apologise and everyone gets back in the jeep and on with our long journey. Knowing how to handle things with sensitivity is absolutely essential in dangerous countries like Ethiopia.
When we set off again on our journey, we meet many armed men on the roadside. I ask the driver who they are and he replies that they are herders. I ask why they are armed and he explains that it is a legacy left by the Soviet Union. I ask him to stop beside one of these nomads but he warns me that it’s risky. I insist; I see that he is worried but he gives in. We single out two armed men and we stop. The driver negotiates with them and they agree to be photographed. Whilst I am taking their pictures, a person who is travelling with us gets out of the jeep and starts to take pictures too. The two men get nervous, tensions rise. Nothing to fear; we stop taking photographs, apologise and everyone gets back in the jeep and on with our long journey. Knowing how to handle things with sensitivity is absolutely essential in dangerous countries like Ethiopia.

It is important to listen, and it is even more important to show respect and interest concerning their culture. In Ethiopia, for example, you eat with your hands; I adopted this custom straight away, refusing cutlery even when I had the choice. This opened a lot of doors for me, allowing me to connect with the local people.
It is very important to put yourself on the same plane as the subjects you wish to photograph; the people with whom you are forming relationships will pick up on this. I always avoid treating the people with whom I come into contact in a superficial manner, and this puts me in a positive light in terms of our relationship.

Members of the Mursi tribe that lives in the Omo Valley. The women of this tribe characteristically wear a clay plate in their lower lip. The incision is made at the age of 10 or 11 and, over time, the plate is substituted by ever larger ones; anthropologists believe this to be a custom that marks the passage to adulthood and is needed by the woman to find a husband.
Members of the Mursi tribe that lives in the Omo Valley. The women of this tribe characteristically wear a clay plate in their lower lip. The incision is made at the age of 10 or 11 and, over time, the plate is substituted by ever larger ones; anthropologists believe this to be a custom that marks the passage to adulthood and is needed by the woman to find a husband.
Children in a village in the Omo Valley.
Children in a village in the Omo Valley.
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The Kenyan border: a river separates Ethiopia from its neighbouring country. A boy approaches with a jerry can on his head for collecting water. He must have walked a long way; he stops and stares at us from across the river and I do the same.

Knowing the country and the people you want to photograph is also a way of making sure you stay safe. Understanding how to manage photography within different cultures helps to avoid any unpleasant incidents; even when you don’t have time to develop a relationship, it’s always best to ask before taking a picture.

A woman in her hut in a village in the Omo Valley.
A woman in her hut in a village in the Omo Valley.
Two women pose outside their hut in a village in the Omo Valley.
Two women pose outside their hut in a village in the Omo Valley.

I never normally raise my camera straight away; aiming your lens at a subject can be a problem in some cultures and, furthermore, you must never feel that you own a place and this will make it easier to avoid any nasty surprises. Our journeys to discover the Earth are our journeys to discover man. We use a camera to bear witness to this; it is not a weapon of invasion. The camera is to be used to enhance our vision of man, not to control him.

During our return journey, our road is suddenly blocked by boys on stilts, covered in body paint. We look at each other but there’s no tension, no challenge. I ask the driver who they are and he tells me that they are children from the Benna tribe. This is my final salute to Africa.
During our return journey, our road is suddenly blocked by boys on stilts, covered in body paint. We look at each other but there’s no tension, no challenge. I ask the driver who they are and he tells me that they are children from the Benna tribe. This is my final salute to Africa.
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