Nature’s Other Element: The Art of Photographing Extraordinary Subjects

by | February 9, 2012

© Piper MackayAs nature photographers and artists, we are enthralled with world. Though most of us shoot a rich variety of subjects, we are each drawn to special subjects that particularly inspire us.
Humans are as much a part of nature as the animals and plants especially those living in rhythm with the earth. The Omo Valley, home to some of the most ornate tribes in Africa, is an area such as this and one that has captured my soul.

As a professional cultural and wildlife photographer driven by my passion to record the impact of progress on sheltered cultures, I’ve spent much of my time in Africa over the past six years documenting both the people and the wildlife. My most recent foray was to southern Ethiopia, photographing changes in the culture and environment of the Omo Valley tribes. My drive comes from wanting to experience and photograph these extraordinary people with an aim to capture stories that reveal the strength and resilience of the Omo tribes before their beauty and traditions are soon watered down by the impact of the modern world.

Woman from Omo Valley tribe © Piper Mackay

While we’re all mindful of the rate that whole species are being lost, in fact, the world is losing traditional cultures at even quicker rates. The Omo Valley is home to many tribes—the Bodi, Daasanach, Benna, Kara, Kwegu, Mursi, Surma, and Nyangatom to name but a few. It’s also home to one of the few remaining pristine riverside forests in semi-arid Africa. But drastic change is happening—dams, roads, bridges, and cell towers are under construction along the Omo River and future plans call for factories along its banks. The world is changing rapidly and the opportunities to experience and photograph these extraordinary subjects are diminishing.

Omo Valley tribe © Piper Mackay

Rushing through a magical place with preconceived expectations can easily lead to missing the deep experience of a place, so when I arrive in the city of a new destination, especially in Africa, rather than flying into the remote area, I choose to drive. This gives me time to decompress from modern life and sink into the ambience, the beauty, and the rhythm of Africa. Slowing down allows me to experience the photograph and photograph the experience.

Dropping into the Omo Valley during my first trip was like being transported to an authentic Africa long past; the women dressed in their traditional beaded skins; the men with cloth wrapped around their waist like a short skirt. Rather than being nomadic like so many tribes throughout Africa, the lifeline of the Omo River has allowed many different tribes to live in close proximity to each other making the valley the richest tribal region in Africa.

Omo Valley, Africa © Piper Mackay

With colorful make-up, of bright yellows, startling whites and rich earth-reds created from the clay soil, and with flamboyant accessories and brilliant elaborate head decorations the tribes make extraordinary subjects to photograph. As a celebration of themselves, they delight in painting one another, their bold decisions about their outfits motivated by the sheer fun of creating and showing off to other tribe members. With such striking subjects, it can be too easy to simply point and shoot and thus, create a mediocre photograph of an extraordinary subject rather than an extraordinary photograph of an extraordinary subject. Photographing indigenous cultures or people means relating to them on a human level. Show genuine interest in their lifestyle and traditions and you’ll find your photographs become much more compelling.

Colorful makeup © Piper Mackay

Beautiful tribal makeup and hair decoration © Piper Mackay

What I often share with photographers just prior to arriving at a village is a reverse scenario: think about what it would be like having a few carloads of people rush up to your house and start madly photographing you! Even in some of the more remote areas this typical tourist experience has probably occurred – people arrive by the car loads, jump out for a half and hour, snap hundreds of photographs and leave, leaving the tribal people feeling more like objects than people. This sets a negative tone from the tribes’ view who have no reason to see your photo safari any differently.

When I travel solo I plan my arrival for noonish when the sun is harsh. This allows me to leave the camera in the car and spend time over coffee, tea or a warm beer, just engaging with the tribe. It gives me the opportunity to wander through the location relaxed and develop my vision of the place and what I want to capture in the golden light that evening. It also allows me to connect with the people and get a sense of who wants to be photographed and who does not. If I am invited to a ceremony, I participate by having them also paint my face and take part in the dancing and other rituals of the celebration. I believe the more powerful images come when you live the stories you are trying to tell.

Dusk © Piper Mackay

Before I travel into an area on my own for the first time, I spend hours, months and in some cases more than a year doing research on the place, people, traditions, and in finding the right guide as this could very well make or break the whole trip. If I don’t have the time to invest into researching an area—especially when outside of the African content—I will join a tour with a photographer who has extensive knowledge and relationships in that area. This guide can get me to the right places at the right time to maximize the short amount of time to create extraordinary photographs.

When I first started photographing tribal people, just as I do with wildlife, I worked solely from the use of natural light. But unlike with wildlife, you can employ a wider range of tools to create dynamic images of people. So now in my Kiboko bag you will find a couple of speedlights, diffusers, a reflector, and pocket wizards for off-camera flash. The vast majority of my photography is still done with all natural light but knowing your craft can also help you create your artistic vision and for me, telling the story means going beyond the portrait and details.

Remember, great photography is about honing your vision on a compelling subject that dominates your camera and the message you want to communicate. For me, the Omo tribes are my compelling subject; a people whose beauty, culture and pristine natural environment have captured my heart. Theirs is a story that deserves telling and I intend to be one of their voices.

Omo tribe at sunset © Piper Mackay


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