Portrait of the Himba: The Story Behind the Story

Susan Portnoy - images from Himba photo series on ONE

Images from my ONE photo-series which you can see here:

This week I was thrilled to have ONE post my photo-series featuring my visit with the Himba, a fascinating semi-nomadic tribe, that live near the Kunene River in Namibia bordering Angola.

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.)

Himba children in Namibia

Lying on my back in the sand to take this picture. You can tell that the kids thought I was a little nuts

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 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 throughout 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.


Photographers shooting the Himba in Namibia

That’s me in the goofy hat shooting the Himba.. I look like a safari bag lady. OY…

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.

Himba children in Namibia near Serra Cafema Camp

Yep.. still lying in the sand the children still think I’m 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.

A rainbow over a himba village in Namibia near Serra Cafema Camp

So fitting that a rainbow would hover over such a magical village

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.







35 replies »

  1. Wonderful work, Susan! I particularly loved the portraits of the woman with a brown scarf smiling, the flirtatious smirk of Krocodile looking at the camera on the first group shot, Krocodile and the baby crawling, and the young child walking with a long scarf flowing in the air. The story about the children jumping on your camera and you falling on the sand is for sure a priceless moment. Just as a comment, I would prefer being able to see the captions of your pictures without having to click on some of them. Thank you for sharing!

    • Hi Jesus! Thank you for your thoughtful commentary. I am so glad you liked the piece and hope you return for more. FYI- if you hover your cursor over the photo, the caption will appear without you having to click on it. 🙂

  2. Well, it’s good advice to wait and get more familiar before taking photos, but I’m always too excited. Great article in ONE and I like the sepia effect. I absolutely love the shots of the kids when you were on your back. So glad you asked to go back. And now I Really want to go there.

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  4. Thank you so much Robin! It was an incredible experience.I wish I could have stayed longer. I’m glad you like the sepia.. I don’t do conversions that often – mostly because I need to improve my skills – but I liked how they turned out.

  5. Congratulations on the publication in One, Susan. I really liked your use of the sepia tone in the post for which you provided the link. Compelling images and a compelling story.

  6. Susan, I am so impressed with the story you’ve woven about these very special people, your photographs are tremendous and the expressions on their faces are priceless. Xx

  7. Very informative post and article in ONE. I imagine it would be hard to not feel like you want to photograph this once in a lifetime experience because you may never go back. And yet you need time to absorb what is around you so you can then capture the essence. Great portraits, Susan and I live the rainbow in the harsh yet softly coloured landscape.

  8. It would be cool if you ever go back to take a small battery powered 4×6 printer with you. Shoot Raw + JPEG allowing you to make quick prints from a SD card. What a instant reward the kids would have leaving them with a lasting memory.

  9. What matter is that you got such a wonderful collection of gorgeous portraits in the end. I especially love the photos of the children. Their little faces are so engaging and they are so expressive.

  10. What amazing photos! I love that last piece of advice about waiting before you start shooting. Get the know the place or people, and then shoot with intention using a more informed perspective. It’s always so tempting to click away, as if you’ll miss the moment. The result is you really miss the moment and its potential. Thanks for the reminder.

    • It’s so easier said than done… Most of the time when traveling you don’t have the option to return or hang around. It’s a quandary. I am glad in this instance I moved passed my concern about ruffling feathers and just went back to the village.

  11. Fabulous series of a fascinating people……and it never ceases to amaze me how the kids love having their photo taken and always went to see the shot on the screen after you’ve taken it….:0)

    • It’s so true Mark.. did you also notice that rarely do they ever recognize themselves? Makes sense since they don’t have mirrors but it’s such a foreign concept for westerners.

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