My project is no so far advanced that I can no longer turn my back on it. I’m convinced of its beauty. For me, it was chance to speak from the heart, open and free. It feels like climbing a mountain or scaling a cliff. It was an opportunity for me to spend time alone, to go with the flow. Sometimes when certain doors shut, we shouldn’t force them open.
If we understand the signs life sends our way to steer us from errors, we can face our destiny head on. But we can’t do it alone. We all need a spiritual guide. My guardian angel, Lauviah, never leaves my side, guiding my path from danger and helping me to win people over. I count myself lucky to have the answers to my questions.
The rich beauty of Ethiopia calls to me. I explain the importance of this journey to my banker and he comes to see my point of view. I make a mistake, however. I bring with me technicians allergic to a country so different from their own. They can’t handle the strong smells, or the food of the Hamar tribe.
I head to this region still full of ancient customs and traditional lifestyles. As per usual, I paid no heed to people warning me of the many dangers. The area is in a state ongoing war between Kenyans and Ethiopians, fighting for retribution and stolen livestock. Not to mention mosquitoes and crocodiles, recent tourist deaths, or the dreaded traveller’s diarrhoea, turista. I ignore it all and stay true to my decision.
The logistics for organising this kind of expedition are not so easy. We managed to rent the latest model 4x4. It’s twenty years old and has hefty mileage. I looked sceptically at the pieces of string holding together parts of the engine. Our guides assured me, all smiles, that there was no problem, and that we could easily do without air-conditioning.
We have a journey of some XXXX kilometres to cover before reaching Lake Turkana on the Kenyan border, across mountains, savannah, lakes and dirt roads, accompanied by smiling children who follow the car dancing and shouting: “Haila! Haila!” as we pass. I later learn this means “empty bottle”. This must be the only place in the world where you don’t have to feel guilty throwing bottles out the window – the locals use them for carrying water. We give them note-books and pencils; protecting a cultural identity doesn’t mean staying uneducated. After all, knowledge is the key to asserting ones rights.
After stopping off in several not-quite five star hotels, we finally enter the Omo valley. In this stretch of XXXX, live five tribes, each as visually striking as the next. Under a burning sun, we reach a community of vociferous men and cross-armed women. We’d already encountered the hostility of the Banna people in Tsamay. Trying to explain the good intentions of our project seems hopeless. Long, exhausting discussions follow and, eventually, we appear to make some progress: the young girls seem to understand our objective and a session begins.
A man with his child crying under our lights triggers laughter and the atmosphere relaxes. I capture the enchanting expressions of these families. The young, the old and the animals, all draw nearer with curiosity, as they await their reward from these strangers. The aggressive women increase the noise level; the heat is unbearable. Despite a white canvas tarp, the harsh rays of the sun pound down.
The sunlight counteracts the flash and I can’t manage to get the backing quite right. The crowd becomes uncontrollable, knocking over my tripod and sending my equipment flying. I decide we need to leave as quickly as possible, throwing our gear into the cars. It’s at this precise moment that the cameraman foolishly offers up bar of chocolate; the rest of the crowd throw themselves against the car doors, preventing us from leaving. When we finally manage to break away, I rant, worrying the whole trip will be like this.
We continue our journey towards XXXX where the following day there will be a market with each tribe bringing its produce and livestock. Early in the morning, I set up my “studio” on a hillock that I spotted the day before. This time, however, I protect my equipment with rocks on one side and cords on the other. Later in the morning, amongst the crowds of people, I spot a tribe dressed in very distinctive clothing. I manage to convince them to enter my make-shift studio, but one half of the group refuse. Athletic bodies contrast sharply with those of old women, spent from numerous pregnancies. They are dressed in animal skins, their own skin patterned with decorative pigments. I try to communicate with them, but the photographic materiel, especially the camera flash, seems to paralyse them with fear. I know I have to make every shot count.
Happy with our days work, we fall asleep amongst the little cockroaches, which are begining to feel like a part of the décor.
We continue our journey across the valley in order to meet the Hamar, a calm and more approachable tribe. We accept the strange food and drinks they proudly offer us. They are welcoming and kind, allowing us to siesta during the hottest part of day. Believe it or not we stay in a place called “The Turista Hotel”! The only hotel in the region, the “toilets” live up to what the hotel’s name promises. But each village welcomes us with the same enthusiasm, the beautiful women constantly enriching my photo portfolio.
I still have two other groups to meet, the Mursi, diehard warriors two metres tall, and the XXXXX, who astonish with their bodies covered in geometric designs. We are expecting a difficult welcome and fear, even, that someone might get injured — the people of this area all armed. Reaching the village, we are confronted with a community whose appearance is almost other-worldly. I fail to notice the change in atmosphere that is quickly taking place. I speak to the guide, who speaks to the interpreter, who in turn speaks to the chief, who then speaks to his people. After a tense moment, they erupt in cries of: “No! No! No!”
I realise the message has been lost in translation. My guide tries once again to convince them, showing my government authorisation and my UNESCO references, but to no avail.
I attempt dialogue one last time, drawing on the ground and speaking calmly, smiling all the while. Finally they give me permission to set up my “studio” near a large baobab tree. Once the “studio” is ready, I choose one of the women. I realise what an achievement this is: I’m photographing something that no science-fiction director or punk could create in their wildest dreams. Their lips are enlarged by clay plates 30 centimetres across. Having convinced them to pose, I even manage to get the warriors to remove the Kalashnikovs they wear slung over their shoulders.
I’m completely at one with my work, finding the right lines and interesting angles for my project. But voices start to rise between our guides, our guards and the locals; the cameraman picks the wrong moment to step on an imposing warrior’s foot by accident. This doesn’t help matters. I tell myself it’s time to leave. Calmly, but quickly, we store our materiel while Lia and the sound engineer take refuge in the car. I take the time to say my farewells to the chief and to thank him for allowing his people to pose for the outside world.
Although I’ve taken some beautiful pictures, I’m not entirely satisfied. Having gone five hundred kilometres, we turn around and head back towards the Mursi, despite the danger. I know this is where the height of my project lies. After a round trip of one thousand kilometres, I’m lucky to meet a more hospitable tribe. They are receptive to my proposal and we share many laughs together. They opened up to us, explaining their culture and I understood their particularities, their way of seeing the world and their need to be respected to protect their way of life. There is a slight look of hopelessness in their eyes, as if they know that only a miracle can save their culture from here on in.
When I returned to Paris, my photos stirred a sense of unease amongst the public. “We have to do something to preserve this cultural diversity” was the general reaction.
I am pleased I took on this “mission”, and am thankful to those who come to understand what my work is about.