I have to think in poetic terms watching the sun set in this Namibian Eden. The fall of night creates an astonishing technicolour display. White clouds fill my eyes and glide through the sky, pink, yellow, blue, before dissolving into darkness. I thank Heaven for giving me so many chances. My driver does everything he can to spoil me. A fire warms my back and the smell of cooking food stirs my taste buds. We’ve travelled and entire day and, as much as I want to take in this vision of passing giraffes, gazelles and warthogs, I can’t keep my eyes open. My lids close, heavy from exhaustion.
Every time I half-open my eyes, I’m amazed by what I see. However, my biggest surprise came yesterday after 15 hours of hard flying and four more hours on the road: we arrive at an entrancing farm. After a well-deserved shower, we set off down a dirt trail. We come face to face with wildebeests and gazelles, who sniff the air for the smell of my soap. We approach cautiously before settling into half-hidden wicker chairs. It feels like we’ve been transported 200 years backwards. Time has stopped. It feels like a world without wickedness — as though war and pollution, thieves and killers had never existed.
Eleven thousand kilometres away from Paris I feel complete peace. The customs officials here all smile at me. They ask me how to say “thank you” in French. My expensive photography equipment doesn’t interest them in the least.
With a name straight out of Shakespeare my guide calls “Dinner’s ready!” I lift my head and see a meal cooked over an open fire. Despite my hunger made worse by wine, I stay stuck in place. The million dots glittering in the moonless night have me transfixed.
Seeing me at the table, Cornelius comes over with a plate, wafting delicious African smells and burning with exotic spices. Tastes race across my tongue as I sit eating remarkable new foods in one of the oldest parts of the world. I can’t thank you enough Cornelius. Regrettably, I don’t manage to make it to dessert. I fall asleep again, my eyes overflowing with images.
When we arrive at the village, I think of our Amazonian failure and start to worry again. I know exactly what I’m supposed to do, but a child’s death three days earlier has brought tragedy to the village. With dignity and sorrow, the villagers stand around a central fire. We’ll figure something else out and we drive quietly away. I wonder if my crazy antics mightn’t help these people to forget about their grief for a while. We turn the 4x4 around and park outside the camp’s wooden fence. I hope our love is enough to bring us together. One person, then another and eventually the whole village all come out to meet us. I offer them tobacco and polenta bought the day before. The chief invites us into the village. I shake his hand long and hard, wanting to feel his energy. Smiling, he gives us permission to go ahead.
The first Himba woman I meet stands out from the others. The light of the sun intensifies the colour of her skin, her skirt, her smooth breasts. Covered head-to-toe in a cream made with red ochre, decked out in her jewellery, she looks more like a Parisian model than a member of a threatened ethnic minority. The most striking thing is her delicate, silk-soft skin, the colour of an unknown flower.
I’ve never thought a woman’s beauty could be so concentrated. Although I’d already known about this colour, looking at it in person had me spellbound. It’s like in the olden days when people were married to someone they’d seen only in a photograph or painting.
I couldn’t help but wanting to brush up against them. To my enormous surprise, it was they who touched me! They’re intrigued by my skin, my photo equipment. They caress my head, my hands. I blush with the sensuality of their touch, the ochre stains showing up my shirt.
The photoshoot isn’t ready yet however. I need to prepare the ochre backdrop, tinted with the same mineral the Himba use on their skin. I know the ochre powder is precious — the only source is several days’ walk away. I hope there will be enough to dye the 15m2 of fabric I need. The Himba women, who’ve appointed themselves my assistants, begin to paint the backdrop, inch by inch while others start grinding more ochre. The result is a backdrop that perfectly matches their skin. Our project attracts the attention of the whole village. Even the elders settle in to watch the free show: a crazy photographer trying to, in one of the most remote corners of the world, in the middle of the Namibian bush, recreate the latest, high-tech studio.
When the “background” is finally ready, I’m entirely covered in ochre. All my equipment, all my computers, everything dusted in this beautiful colour. I feel like laughing, but I worry about the effect of so much ochre powder on electronics. This whole project is wrapped up in these tiny gadgets and I’d like very much for them to hold up just a little while longer. Thankfully, everything works fine, but I certainly don’t think that SLR camera inventor, Victor Hasselblad, had this kind of work in mind while he was sitting in his Swedish photolab.
My mouth is like sandpaper. The little water I had brought with me got knocked over on the ground. At times the Himba pose for me calmly, demure, covering their nudity. At others, they are unbridled and enthusiastic. The temperature begins to climb — 40 degree days in sharp contrast with the coldness of the night. I try to translate onto film the coy nature of these women, their faces and smiles, these expressions of beauty which I know is scheduled to disappear.
Thirst overtakes me and I can no longer talk. I can barely even smile my approval when one of the women puts on a beautiful expression for me. I offer a change of pace in their daily routine; I’m recording their fragile existence for future generations. How much time do I have left to use my project to show the government the huge mistake they are making? When the photoshoot is over, everyone starts to applaud. Surrounded by smiles, I pack up my equipment. I leave the Himba, covered in ochre kisses. I also leave a hope for the elders: that this crazy photographer might be able to warm the cold hearts of a few short-sighted politicians.
The Himba fill me with a sense of the universe. I’m overwhelmed with emotion and I must thank my three guardian angles. In the back of the 4x4 are three years of dreaming, two months of preparation and two days of travel to get six hours in my most profound photoshoot of the year.
What a contrast to the shoot I did fifteen days earlier in southern Tunesia for Valeo, world-wide car parts manufacturer and my constant patron! I had enormous resources at my disposal: a team of 18 people including two Bedouins and their camels, an expert cook, good wine, two jeeps with guides and drivers who knew the slightest dune. Our Berber tent was so large that the entire team could come inside if a sandstorm blew past. But compared to the Himba, the work here was grueling. I needed all my concentration to make it though my last session and left feeling utterly exhausted.
We arrive in Opowo, a village where we try to stock up on water. I appreciate that once a throat is totally dried out, drinking becomes painful. Only drop by drop can I manage to unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth. We are in the town for a half an hour and I learn of an exceptional gathering between two tribes that will take place tomorrow. The Demba of southern Angola have planned to meet with the North-Namibian Himba in an area not far away. This time I don’t leave anything to chance. I buy as much water as I can then ask Cornelius and my new Himba assistant to wait for me a kilometre away from the lively crowd. I don’t want to draw unnecessary attention as I wander amongst the two groups who speak different languages, communicating in the frenzy over bites of food and laughter.
I’m disoriented. These people are so different to us: their clothes, their customs. I hold off taking photos to keep a unity in my project. Then I see a group of women who I approach cautiously, to explain the goals of my work. They are interested in it too and agree to come back in an hour, giving me time to set up my “studio”. Soon there is a group of Himba, joined by many other people, crowding around me. Half of my models from before show up, enthusiastic to take part in this novel attraction. I go about setting up the rest of the “studio”: lights and tripods, backgrounds and specialised equipment to perfectly record skin tones and captivating glances.
For two hours I struggle against the push of people around me. My assistants try in vain to help control the crowd, but there are constantly more and more people. My local guide attempts to draw the brunt of the people away from the “studio”. At one point, an old Himba man, drunk, pushes his horse into the crowd. Thankfully the horse is clever and manages to get away without knocking anyone over (unlike New York police horses!). The crowd seems to take no notice, much more fascinated by the show I’m putting on. I quickly forget about the old man’s horse too, putting all of my attention in my photography. I feel almost as though I’m having an out-of-body experience. Time slows down and I somehow manage to run in all directions. Lenses changed, children posed, memory cards found, lights arranged. A giant smile on my face, I don’t know how I do it all at once, but I do. I’m even able to keep an eye out for the old man and his horse. All of it so that I can press the shutter button on my Hasselblad and record these images on film –but much more importantly in my heart– forever.
Thank you to my guides, both on Earth and above, who helped the mountain come to me. In one day, I’ve captured some of the most beautiful images in my career as a photographer. Smiling, elated, I tell Cornelius “I’ve accomplished my work with the Himba. It’s time to go to the desert.”
I sleep through the night, dreaming peaceful dreams. The next day we leave at dawn for the desert sands. We’re headed for the lions, monkeys and rhinoceros of Etosha National Park, 230km2 large. We’ll sleep under the stars and scarlet skies, in amongst the animals and pestering mosquitoes.
Before leaving Opoho, I come face-to-face with two women, one of them with a baby on her back. She has a beauty that leaves me amazed. Her mouth is outlined in ochre perfection, a slight shade different from her skin. Her hair, an ideal frame to her penetrating, curious gaze. I explain my project. She poses in her leather skirts, her baby’s tender ochre face resting on her back. It will be my most beautiful photograph.
Before parting ways, our hands press together in a moment of tenderness and understanding, peace and love. I feel her past and her present as I look at her in wonder; her eyes are the same colour as her skin, the same colour as her baby’s fingernails. It’s love that I want to show in my photographs. I want to help her and her family. I want to stop the construction of a hydro dam being built to make money and being built without regard to Himba culture. A way of life forever buried at the bottom of a man-made lake. Their lands gone, the Himba will have no choice but to live in shanties at the edge of town, the women selling themselves in order to survive. In our seconds together, from the depths of our eyes a million images pass between us. I can’t stop looking at her as we drive away. I consider myself extremely lucky. I’m leaving with this woman and her beauty existing forever in my heart, in my mind, in my photos.
We arrive late at the gates to the park. Luckily, in the failing light we manage the last 50km to the sleeping shelter — much to the dismay of the big cats who stalk their prey night. The landscape unfolding before my eyes is spectacular. I’m mesmerised by the slow-motion giraffes and the psychedelic zebras. I savour a leg of antelope cooked in a recipe stretching back to the colonial period. This is a flower-strewn heaven on Earth. I wish I could stay forever.
I think of all the planets where life never had the chance to take hold. The Earth has been lucky. The very place where I’m standing is the result of a miracle. Why are people fighting so hard to destroy it? Why do we dump tonnes of pollution into our oceans every day? When are we going to take responsibility for our actions? When will we respect our heritage? Are we really so stupid to not recognise the beauty of the world? Why don’t we ever stop and take time to look up at the stars? Each person on Earth is responsible. We have to act. We have to protect all life, the beauty in every living thing.
We’re lucky. We choose the world we’d like to live in, the world we’d like to feel and see. Those of us living in developed countries have the opportunity of choosing the lives we want to live. I’m fortunate to have these experience to make me realise that.
The desert is becoming more intense and we stop. The plants have thinned out in this corner of nowhere. The sun is beating down. We try to hide in the shade of the only tree still living. It’s over 45 degrees. The heat is unbearable, but worse still is the shrill buzz of hundreds of flies, swarming around our ears. Why do they pester us incessantly, droning around our heads? Is it because they want to be heard? Or because they find it funny seeing us smack ourselves trying to keep them away?
My wonderful guide has prepared sandwiches and fruit for the road. Despite the sun’s blinding heat, I look around at the spectacular moonscape surrounding me. Climate change has caused the Namibia’s famous dunes to turn suddenly green. It’s rained so much recently that the ground is carpeted with the greenish flowers of long-forgotten species whose seeds were buried is the sand and dust hundreds of years ago. I decide to rest in the middle of this tinted landscape, despite a violent wind blowing sand into every crevice of the equipment and every pore of our bodies. We climb the dune ridges looking for the hematite rock used to make ochre. Insects have scratched paths that lead to the unfathomable come-and-go of their lives. I tumble down the shifting dunes and I nod off in a happy sleep.