Photographing the Himba and their unique way of life was a major highlight of my recent trip, and will likely end up on my top 10 list of my “All Time Favorite Experiences” when I die. It was that special.
Today, I thought I’d share a little of what the experience was like behind the scenes of the photo-series.
(For those of you not familiar with ONE, it’s an “international campaigning and advocacy organization of more than 6 million people taking action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa,” and co-founded by Bono. It’s a wonderful organization and worth your time, please check it out.)
Indigenous to the Namibian desert, the Himba live very much like their ancestors, raising goats and cattle, wearing sheepskin loincloths, and living in modest huts constructed from wood, dung and sand. And while they mix with tribes that have are relatively more modern and welcome travelers into their villages, most Himba have remained devoted to their ancient traditions.
Spending time with the Himba was a big factor in my decision to visit Namibia. I’ve always been fascinated with authentic cultures, seeking them out in Tanzania, Bhutan and Myanmar—people that by choice or by isolation or both, in the case of the Himba, have remained for the most part unaffected by the world’s progressive influence. Serra Cafema, the camp nearest the Himba, was the last stop on my itinerary and I while thoroughly enjoying my travels through Namibia, the Himba were never far from my mind. When the time finally came to meet them I was beside myself. So much so that when I jumped out of the jeep, everything I learned about composition and photography flew out of my head. Seriously. I created images worthy of a blind four-year old. There were shots with background objects popping out of people’s heads, half-closed eyes and crazy exposures. (And no, I’m not going to show you. Take my word for it.) I was so anxious to do it “right” that I did it all wrong.
By mid-visit I was a tad better. I’d settled in, the Himba settled around me, and I started to gather my wits, albeit slowly. To break the ice I showed the women and children their images on the LCD. It usually helps people to relax and enjoy themselves (including moi), making for better pictures. It was obvious that the Himba had seen their photos before but the children couldn’t get enough. They came at me from all directions, pushing the buttons willy nilly until the screen lit up, then giggling when an image of their friend or sibling appeared. They were so enthusiastic that they literally pushed me back off my knees and I found myself lying flat on my back in the sand. When I looked up at their shining faces I couldn’t help by snap away—I’m pretty sure they all thought I was crazy.
As night began to fall, the women laid their handmade jewelry on blankets in a giant semi-circle to see if there was anything I wanted to buy. How could I resist? I went back to camp with three beautiful pieces that now hang on my wall, each a different example of the jewelry I saw the Himba women wearing in the village.
That evening after going back and forth with myself incessantly, I asked to return to the village. The first time just wasn’t enough and I felt that many of the images were a disaster—I’d been too excited and my concentration faltered. Though I felt a little uncomfortable asking for more (most guests only go once), I sucked it up, telling myself that I’d regret it later if I didn’t at least try. To my delight, Denzel, the camp’s general manager, graciously arranged for me to go the following afternoon.
One of the camp’s maintenance men, named Wagga, was my escort. According to Denzel, my usual guide was busy captaining a boat down the Kunene River with some other guests, but Wagga was available to take me if I was amenable. He was the perfect companion for my adventure. He knew the members of the tribe well, spoke their language, and it was clear that they liked and respected him. It didn’t hurt that he was an absolute sweetheart. He sat and played games with the children and when I was off shooting around the village, I let him use my second camera to take pictures.
It was a lovely afternoon and I was thrilled with my pictures. It’s amazing how a little history—no matter how minute—made all the difference in the quality of the photographs. The women and children knew me by the second day and I knew what images I wanted to capture. I was calm and present instead of a complete internal wackadoodle. Ironically, traveling is often the least likely time you can slow down, especially if you have a lot of stops along the way. However, in future I’m going to do my best.
Over the last couple of years I’ve read a lot of interviews with the world’s top photographers where they’re asked for tips on capturing great images. At some point along the way they always reply, don’t shoot right away. Sit and get to know the place and the people around you. Then pick up the camera. At that point all the awkwardness that comes with new introductions and finding your way around will disappear, and your photos will be infinitely better.