Eye on… tribespeople

Photographer-geographer Trevor Cole tells us how he approaches photographing the people he meets in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley and South Sudan, among other travels.

With intriguing ways of life, idiosyncratic style and sometimes flamboyant attire, the world’s tribal cultures have long been a draw for photographers such as Trevor Cole. But there’s a fine balance between documenting a timeless way of life to help support its survival and turning people into a human zoo.

Trevor Cole
Mundari cattle camps ©Trevor Cole

Trevor Cole has an acute understanding of this: the inextricable connection between people, landscape and their way of life, and it shines through in his award-winning photography. But it’s his previous career as a geography teacher that informs his ‘geographer-photographer’ approach as well as his drive to capture these tribal traits and traditions before they’re lost to westernisation. We spoke to him about his recent experiences in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia and with the Mundari in South Sudan.

“We live with such ease here in the west whereas these people grow up and start working at the age of five or six. Many of them don’t ever get the chance to go to school, they’re just working the land, working with their parents and that means everything to them.”

The Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia is home to a number of tribes including the Suri and Ari whose cattle graze and crops grow on the pastures of the fertile plains. With the Gibe III dam already constructed and operational upstream their way of life is severely under threat. Trevor is motivated to make work that celebrates their ancient traditions and cycles of life before they disappear but with the sincere hope that sharing their stories will help ensure their survival without tourism impacting too heavily and accelerating change. 

During his time as an international school teacher, he spent several years working in Ethiopia and made good connections with local guides. “You need to get yourself into pretty remote locations, it’s truly the access provided by the guide that enables photographic opportunities. Your guide is everything, really. My guide, Dagmawit Tadele Ayele (known to everyone as Hodi), probably the only female guide in Ethiopia, is fabulous and she has this incredible ability to interact well with the men and women of the tribes. It makes such a difference and is an easy way into taking photos.” 

Through his guide, who speaks a few of the Omotic languages (there are 85/86 languages in the country as a whole), Trevor can begin to connect with the villagers before even taking the camera out of its bag. “The tribes love it if you spend time with them, see them as equals and take a real interest in their cultural traditions. That way they’ll invite you into their house and it’s incredible to see the calabashes or the dried grain hanging inside.

“No matter where you go,
humans are humans”

“In some of them you’ll see the animals in the same house – the cattle with a little fence between them and the living area. I love the whole process of meeting and socialising – maybe it’s because I’m a bit Irish – I do love social interaction and I think that enables people to feel comfortable.” 

“No matter where you go, humans are humans; they have the capacity to laugh, understand a joke – albeit maybe through a guide. I like to spend time with people, I never like to go into any place where there’s human habitation without spending time chatting first and then I feel more comfortable taking photographs.”

This investment of time into making personal connections has led to some incredible encounters. “One particularly memorable occasion was with a Suri village chief in a place called Tulgit, in the Upper Omo Valley of Ethiopia. This guy had a baboon hat on his head and the most amazing character. I sat down with him for a moment, put my hand on his shoulder and I just felt this amazing human camaraderie.

It’s just wonderful when you have moments where real characters emerge and relate to you. It’s a human chemistry that goes beyond language because it’s a feeling rather than something that is communicated through words.”

Another favourite is a little boy called Abusha; “he’s quite well known to photographers because he has blue eyes. He’s from the Ari tribe and lives in the Jinka area and such a nice character. He lives in an urban area and I always bring him something. I’ve also started seeing pictures of his little brother who also has blue eyes and his mother has one blue eye and one brown eye.” 

Abusha ©Trevor Cole

Over the border in South Sudan life for tribespeople is similar but it was relatively closed to tourists until it gained independence from Sudan in 2011.

“I first went about two or three years ago and it just blew me away, especially the Mundari cattle camps on the banks of the Nile; the dust, the dirt, the light, the people, their cows, and the whole cyclical process day in day out. It was incredible.”

“Much of South Sudan is still very traditional. The Laarim tribe live among these amazing granite hills. Over a huge amount of time, I don’t know how many years, they make these grinding pits carved out of the granite so it’s like a hollow.

“The young girls and the elder women fill them with sorghum and get a stone and they push it back and forth grinding the flour. Their ancestors were probably doing the same thing three or four thousand years ago. It’s fantastic to watch and they’re not doing it for us, they’re doing it to make flour.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like that before. I’ve seen it in the Omo Valley – you see them doing it between two stones but I’ve never seen these kinds of pits hollowed out of the granite rock that have been made so smooth.”

“They’ve gone from riches to rags because their goat skins and beads are gone… it’s really sad to see.”

Trevor has been visiting tribes all over the world for more than thirty years and has noticed distinct changes over that time. “I used to teach about the impact of global culture on tribal people and how they’re becoming increasingly acculturated. ie their cultures are being swallowed up by westernisation. You go to these tribes and one thing you see increasingly is people wearing fake Arsenal, Manchester United etc. football shirts made of this horrible synthetic material. So the traditional, durable attire goes and it’s replaced by these incongruous football shirts that makes them look impoverished within a week because they get so dusty, dirty and full of holes. They’ve gone from riches to rags because their goat skins and beads are gone. This Western idea of everybody looking the same starts to impact on the tribes and it’s really sad to see.”

“Tourism can be both damaging or a positive force, depending on how it’s carried out. I’ve seen both sides of the coin. In 1989 I went to the hill tribes of northern Thailand and, wow, it was fantastic. They were dressed as they’d always been dressed, their hair in braids and with wonderful silver jewellery beads. But I went back ten years later and they were in their jeans and t-shirts, yet if a tourist turned up they’d go and put on their traditional dress. 

Another example is when I first saw the Suri tribe in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia I saw the most incredible stick fight. It’s called a Donga; the men are stark naked and they cover each other in mud before they start. It would probably make some British men feel very uncomfortable! It’s amazing the bond they have with each other. I watched them fight and I thought it was incredible; this is for them. The art of putting paint on their faces is an ancient tradition that was done for a marriage or baby naming ceremony. But now when they see a tourist coming they will rush and adorn themselves. There aren’t that many tourists in these areas but the tribespeople know it’s going to make them a bit of money – so you can’t blame them. But then you might take the argument that it’s enhancing their tribal traditions. BUT there are some new things they’re doing – I call it the reinvention of the tribe – they get flowers and they put them all over their heads and sometimes it looks ridiculous but also fantastic. That’s definitely a recent thing and it’s most certainly for the visitor. I get a bit annoyed when photographers say this is an ancient tradition… it’s not!”

“If you go along as a photographer and you take photos of their beautiful traditions they start to take a bit of pride in it too. For example, I visited the Toposa tribe in South Sudan and some of them have the most amazing scars; they scarify their faces so sometimes they have little bumps all over their faces. When we went along to a village which was really quite remote they decided to dance for us. So they put on all their goats skins and beads and clothes. It was just fantastic to watch because they took real pride in their looks and it was so much fun to watch them be traditional. It was obvious we really liked this look rather than the western look.”

“The Mundari and Dinka tribes really
don’t mind you taking photos”

– Trevor Cole

To create these timeless portraits, there’s sometimes an element of art direction in the poses of the people. “Sometimes I’ll see someone I just have to photograph and I’ll ask them to stand in a doorway so I get a black background or a shape. I’ll occasionally ask the guide if she minds taking them and having a laugh with them first to make sure they’re relaxed. If there are things in the background that are distracting and will ruin the photograph later I’ll ask to move them. At other times I’ll try to take candid shots, especially in places like the cattle camps where you can shoot with a longer lens and capture the moment without anyone really knowing you’ve done it. The Mundari and Dinka tribes really don’t mind you taking photos at all so they’re not going to get upset, they’ll probably just wander over and take a look.”

There’s also an art to omission and the thorny issues of synthetic t-shirts is a good case in point “I do sometimes photograph people wearing western clothes, if only to say look at what’s happening; this is the impact tourism is having. Certainly as a teacher I would. But if it’s a group of kids I usually do ask them to take it off or extract that person from the scene.”

Fair exchange is a very important part of the photographic process. If you ‘take’ a photo, you must give something in exchange. “I think it’s really important photographically to show that it’s sustainable, that I can go back again next year and not have done something that encourages begging. I don’t give sweets but it’s good to take food; salt is always useful, plus a lot of them smoke long pipes so tobacco is a good present. You’re not changing anything but you’re just giving them something they need and use. They also like money but that often goes to a central fund in the village. We’re trying to get away from paying them individually. Never give them anything unsustainable. I watch some certain cultures on this earth who are very inclined to look at these kids and think “oh, poor you, here you are”. One thing I do sometimes give them is little mirrors, the girls love them. They’re using them to put on their face paints. If you give them a little mirror they can do it to themselves, otherwise they do it to each other, and they love looking at themselves. They also love seeing their photo on the back of your camera. That generates laughter and fun.”

“As you might imagine, many people get very upset if you take their photo and you haven’t paid for it. You have to be very careful. Once business is taken care of and the head man says it’s ok, off you go. It’s far more relaxing, knowing we’re giving them something, we’re not just taking their photos.”

If you’re interested in photographing tribes with Trevor Cole, he runs very small group tours through his company Alternative Visions. “I don’t like taking big groups, just a few people who are good photographers or want to learn. I will teach you whatever it happens to be – the technical camera stuff or composition. But I always say you might do it differently to me; you’ve all got your own eye.”


More information on Trevor Cole

If you’d like to see more of Trevor’s work he’s on Instagram and has two websites –www.alternativevisions.co.uk and www.coleimages.com. But you might also see his images alongside the work of Survival International as he gives them full rights to use them to help promote their work in protecting the rights of indigenous peoples around the world.

Published

By Diana Jarvis

Diana is a writer and editor at Eye for the Light. She has a BA in History of Art and an MSc in Environment and Sustainability and has worked in travel publishing for 18 years as a photographer, book designer and writer for a wide range of publications. She’s also the Publishing and Photography Director at the British Guild of Travel Writers and undertakes travel and tourism photography commissions. You can see her work at www.dianajarvis.co.uk.