Photographing strangers is always tricky. The essence of documentary photography demands that subject be unaware in some regard as a means to preserve the sense of objectivity of the moment. Asking for permission usually results in a posed photograph, which may not be what you are looking for. The general rule I go by after all these years of photographing food markets and street scene is to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. If someone makes it clear that they do not want to be photographed, I am always respectful and I find another shot elsewhere.
Occasionally, people will ask for money to have their photographs taken and I have made a policy of not paying…that policy is about to change.
In the Lower Omo Valley, if you’d like to visit the tribes, you have to pay. There is a fee for the local guide and a fee to be in their village or to witness their ceremony. This feels different than all the other circumstance I’ve been in before. I am entering their property; their homes and I can understand their desire. Aside from the fees being a source of incomes for the tribes, I see it as an act of respect. They are asking me to extend some form of respect for them, their way of life and in their homes. What I didn’t anticipate is that you would be asked for a fee in addition for taking photographs of them.
The first tribe I visited is the Hammer Tribe. I witnessed the Jumping of the Bull ceremony, where a boy jumps across 8 bulls and becomes a man, and is now ready for marriage. There is an incredible sense of dignity amongst them. Quiet, assure, and solid. They didn’t demand anything, respect is assumed….you will show them respect and they will return it in kind. With respect being the under current, the exchange of payment to take part of their ceremony, to witness, feels…honorable.
The experience with the Hammer tribe is contrasted with the Musi tribe. The Musi are known to be more aggressive over all and the women cut their lip to insert a large (about 5-6 inches in diameter) disk in the opening for ceremonial occasions. This is done in three stages, with each disk larger than the previous, enlarging the hole bigger each time. Wearing the dish is usually reserved for special occasions but it is now done for the tourists. There are competing accounts for the reasoning behind the tradition. One version says the women did so to make themselves less attractive to the slave traders and as time goes on, it turned to be seen as a beautifying trait. Another explanation simply says that it is thought to be beautiful.
I paid the fee for the local guide and the village. We are swarmed upon the minute we enter the village. Everyone wants their photos taken and wants money in return. There is something so different here and I can’t quiet put my finger on it. Our guide walk us through the villages and tell us various details about the tribal life but it is hard to escape twenty different women and children tugging at you, demanding you take a photo of them. Sensing our difficulty our guide walks us to a different part of the village and asked all the tribes to stay behind. Except everywhere we go, we are being pounced upon. Musi women with a baby in toll, disk in their lips, nearly forcing us to take a photo of them. I do not like this at all. I walk back towards the car to meet Chapy, away from the local guide, Casey and Dylan and the tribe.
I refuse to participate. This does not feel right.
Gradually, Casey, Dylan and the local guide joins us by the car. I look back at the tribe, the women are standing in line, decked out in their finest, waiting for their photo to be taken. The men are standing under the tree, with their rifle or spears in hand, waiting for their Kodak moment as well. The guide asks us one last time, if we are sure. Yes. I am sure. I do not want a photo of this, as amazing as it looks. Something about this exchange here does not feel good nor right. I can live without this photo.
In the car, I puzzle through the difference between the Hammer, Karo and Musi tribes and why the same set of interactions can feel so radically different. When the Hammer tribe felt like an act of respect, the Musi felt as if I am participating in their exploitation.
The Musi tribe’s insistence and lack of ease takes away their sense of dignity and self-respect. Without self-respect, it felt like they are treating themselves as zoo animals, on parade for the visitors and it appalled me. I didn’t want to be a part in that.
The issue of tribal rights, the long bloody history of how they been treated by the foreigners and the feasibility of them continuing their way of life with any possibility of economical prosperity or stability is complicated. Tourism brings a healthy amount of sustainable income for the tribes and in some ways they are simply repeating learned behavior patterns from previous interactions with foreigners. However, the feeling you get from one tribe to another is so drastic; one incident is an act of respect while the other is an act of exploitation. I have no good barometer to gauge any of this on other than my gut feelings and my own sense of what is right….its not infallible but sometimes that is all we have.