It was the early-to-mid 80s, and Lindsey and myself were on our way back from Malawi, where we’d been working for two years, to the UK. We stopped off in Kenya for a couple of weeks and decided to go on a group trek with some other folk on the back of a truck up to Lake Turkana, in the far north. I’ve mentioned this trip before on this blog. We got as far north as Loiyangalani, half way up the east coast of the lake, it taking three days to drive there. There was not a great deal to Loiyangalani in those days – a small campsite, some basic Rendille huts down by the shore, and a small Turkana village. Nowadays there’s an airstrip, many more houses, and it has even been the setting for some scenes of The Constant Gardener movie. I imagine that it has changed quite a bit since we were there, although it is still fairly remote.
A wee local lad called Norrie, with a slightly gammy leg, had latched onto me, and was showing me around the place. Early one morning he came to my tent and asked if I wanted to see the Turkana village, which was up above the road, so I told him to lead on.
It was hot. As we walked through the village some kids started to throw a few stones at me, and Norrie suggested we duck into one of the Turkana rondavels. We went in, and there, highlighted by the morning sun streaming through the door, was the most stunningly attractive young Turkana woman you can possibly imagine. And I mean really stunning. 
I gawked at her, and she gawked at me. We both stood there, seriously gawking. Norrie said something to her, she responded, and then he said to me, “This one has not seen a white person before. She has just come from the desert”. Well, that explained her gawking. I was gawking because I’d never seen anyone so beautiful before. 
She had red ochre smeared all over her hair, a single cowrie shell in the middle of her forehead tied with some colourful beads, a thick multi-coloured beaded collar, all of which highlighted her pretty face which itself had an attractive residue of ochre as ‘makeup’, and a thin waistband with a two-inch wide, two-foot long beaded apron down the front. She wore nothing else apart from some ankle decorations.
I won’t go into more detail except to say that I was in an excellent position to tell, but she had a perfect physique. I noticed three distinct things about her, whilst gawking. Firstly, her skin-tone was completely unblemished pure milky chocolate. Secondly, her poise was as graceful and elegant as anyone or anything you have seen before except in an impala. Living in the desert, she had probably never sat on a four-legged chair in her life, let alone been stuck at a desk for hours on end. Thirdly, her eyes. I have never seen eyes like them. These were clear perceiving eyes for surviving in the harsh desert and bush. They were eyes with not an iota of defeat in them caused by modern western living.
I suddenly saw what she was gawking at, from her perspective. I was incomprehensible to her. For a start, I was wearing a hat (for the sun), rather than having decorated hair like a moran should have, to show off and accentuate his good looks. I wore spectacles, so I wouldn’t be any use at hunting. I wore a shirt – what sort of warrior wears a shirt? Instead of a kikoi, suitable and versatile attire for the bush, I had strange baggy shorts on. I had shoes – my feet were soft, no good for walking. And I carried a bag (camera, water, etc). What sort of man carries a woman’s bag? And that thing on my wrist – a watch? Who needs a watch when you have the sun to tell the time.
It was hot in the rondavel, and I wiped my forehead with a handkerchief. My goodness, the Turkana woman probably thought, he’s leaking from his brain! What is all this nonsense I have heard about white people, and their supposed advances that are taking over the world. This specimen wouldn’t last half a day in the bush. This ‘man’ wouldn’t be able to jump over cattle, or kill a lion.
And she would have been correct. If we had both set off walking away from Loiyangalani back to wherever she had come from far away, I would likely have lasted less than a day before miserably expiring, whilst for her it would have been a dawdle.
I made a mental note to myself that maybe I should man-up a bit, or at least try drinking more cow blood.
I also, for a moment, thought about taking a photograph of her. Then I decided definitely not to. I realised that in no way could I have captured even 10% of her raw spirit and beauty in a photograph, and it would have been an insulting clash of modern and traditional worlds to even make an attempt. Also, one simply must not desire to possess, for the longer term, pure experiences of this kind in such a way.
Having said all of that, I realise now that this puts me in a bit of a quandary as to how to explain the fact that on our recent trip to the lower Omo River Valley I snapped away at everything and everyone like someone with a bad dose of photographic incontinence, paying money where required for the privilege.
Well, one thing is that things have changed in the last thirty years. I don’t know how far or where you’d have to go, in these days of rapid, portable communications, to find a grown man or woman who’d never seen a white guy before, if not in person, then certainly on some sort of media. So, you’re far less likely to get the same sort of meetings with an untrammelled free spirit such as the Turkana woman. Therefore it just isn’t the same situation, any more.
At one point on the Omo trip we found ourselves two hours down a dirt-track, absolutely in the middle of nowhere. In front of us was a young lad herding some cows. He carried a stick, was wearing a kikoi, and a belt from which hung a knife…and a mobile phone.
I used to be quite good at speaking clear but simple-to-understand English to people for whom it was not their first language. I seem to have lost the knack. On this trip when I tried to do so, those who couldn’t speak English didn’t understand what I was saying, and those who could thought that I was insulting their intelligence with simple-speak. Fat Mac was a bit like this in India, earlier this year. He’d say, slowly and loudly but still in a broad Scots accent to a completely perplexed waiter, “Twa…pints…o’…Gunn…iss…fair…moi…Jimmy. Aye…twa…jez…fair…me. Rodz…kin…order…fair…heez-sel”. Lindsey isn’t like this, and she got talking to one of the locals in the Karo village we visited, whilst enjoying a cold Coke from the fridge (the Karo are well organised for the tourists). Anyway, it turned out that this chap had perfect English, was at college and just back for the weekend. Yet he had painted himself in white. I could not figure out how much the villagers were doing this as a tradition, and how much for a ‘show’ for the tourists.
The incredibly photogenic people you see in places like the Lower Omo Valley are almost certainly not the complete innocents you might romantically want to think they are. If you look in the background of some of the photos on my post about the markets at Key Afar and Dimeka, you will see plenty folk dressed in traditional attire, often wearing goatskins, with ochre in their hair, and with cowrie shells as decorations. This is how many of them dress in the normal course of things. However, most, but not all, of the individual portraits of people in my recent posts are of local people who have dressed up a bit, for the tourists to take their photos and the chance to make some pocket money.
This was definitely the case at the Hamer village visit. We arrived, had a look around, took some photos (the women knew the best spots for photographs) and then settled down whilst the braai was set up. Later on we were joined by some of the people we’d been photographing. I didn’t at first recognise them without their regalia, but Eric perceptively pointed out that they were ‘now out of their working clothes’ and wearing T-shirts and kikois.
Thirty years ago you’d find people in Developing Countries who didn’t like the idea of tourists taking photographs of the locals because they thought you would go home, show the snaps to your friends and laugh at the basic way they were living. This wasn’t true then, of course, but nowadays the tourist boards positively encourage you to take photographs and tempt you with their own images of locals.
I’m not a photographer, and I found the experience of paying people in public to take their photograph very intense. I merely wanted some photos of often attractive men and women in traditional garb plus cute kids in home-made natural clothes, to go along with the photos of dramatic landscapes that I’d been taking on the way down to the Omo. But imagine if I’d done this sort of thing in the UK – that man, chasing around after children and taking their photos, a pervert, lock him up; why is that man asking to take photographs of complete strangers in the market? A nutter; look at that chap taking close-ups of old people, has he no respect for the elderly?
If you wanted a close-up portrait of people at the markets or villages (apart from the Daasanach village where there was a group deal, with hilarious results as described here), you had to ask the person in question if it was OK to take their photo and then agree a price. I found this process a bit uncomfortable at first, but them got on with it. I noticed one Japanese tourist with a very long lens taking photos at a distance at the Key Afar market. Either he was taking non-posed shots, or he was avoiding having to pay the locals. If the latter, then it was a bit mean of him.
In the villages, we were told, they share any money received from photographs with all the villagers. The explanation of why, when you had just agreed to take someone’s photo, to then have two, then three or four, others line-up beside the original person, was that for each person in the photo you have to pay the original agreed price, and you can therefore be separated more quickly from your stash of small notes. This means that sometimes you have to, in effect, politely shoo some folk away. They are all extremely aware of how much money you have from the moment you first reach into your pocket to peel off a small note.
When we first arrived at the Mursi village, we were able to look around and take in how the locals lived in what semed quite a harsh environment. It was only when the cameras came out that things became a bit over-excited.
I’d no sooner taken the photo shown above at the Dimeka market, and still had the SLR camera up at my face, when I experienced a sharp shove from my right. I thought at first it was a tuk tuk or motorbike that had hit me, as the market was very busy and I was standing in the middle of a path, but when I looked around, there was this muscular Hamar man who was shouting and coming towards me in no uncertain terms with a club.
I thought, “Well, I’m going to die…but at least I got the shot.” 
Just then, and very thankfully, our local guide for the day stepped in and shouted something to the Hamar man, who was probably the woman’s husband, and he immediately backed off. I was impressed by the guide’s effectiveness. Imagine something similar happening along Lothian Road, Edinburgh, late on a Saturday afternoon. A drunk comes over to a tourist enjoying a walking tour of the city, who hasn’t even taken his camera out but is simply and innocently looking at passers by:
“See yooo Jimmy! Uz yooz lookin’ at ma gurrrrelfriend?
If the guide stepped in at this point he’d merely be the first to get a kicking.
The incident at Dimeka, however, shows that not everyone has bought into the photographing the locals malarkey. It is not always a comfortable situation.
Now we come to the nudity issue. Some of the men and women shown in my recent blog posts are not wearing many clothes. When checking one of my short video clips on YouTube, once it had ended some further videos were suggested by the website. I watched one about someone’s recent visit to a Mursi village, and was saddened to see images of Mursi women running up to the cameraman whilst undoing their tops. The commentary was in German.
I have just had this horrible image in my mind of what might have happened if Fat Mac, who is not always known for his political correctness, had been on the trip to the Omo Valley, and of him shooing some folk away whilst announcing, “Ah jez wan ra snaps o’ ra nekked wans”.
Things seemed to be at their most relaxed and natural at the Daasanach village, where it was hot and no-one seemed to wear many clothes before, during or after our visit.
If you were particularly sensitive to this sort of thing, you might take so many photos that one of them would be bound to turn out like the one above, where just about everything seems to be strategically placed.
Or you might take one like this from behind, with this result.
Or you could crop.
But otherwise you could just snap away whilst thinking to yourself, “they have a different attitude towards nudity here”.
There was one incident that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with on our trip, in this respect. It was late afternoon, and I’d gone for a walk by myself in the dried up river beside the Buska Lodge near Turmi. At first I went upstream, but then noticed a couple of lads get up and start towards me. I couldn’t be bothered with all the Hello Mista, where you from, do you want to sponsor me, stuff, so I turned round and walked in the opposite direction.
In the distance I noticed a Hamar woman crossing from the other bank, and she waved at me. I waved back, but continued walking. Eventually I turned round and made my way back towards the lodge. Just before the drive up to the lodge, there was the woman again, sitting on a rock talking to a wee girl. She indicated that I could take her photo.
It was when I looked at the resulting photo (shown above) later that evening that something struck me. This was, surely, provocative posing. I think that the Hamar woman knew exactly what she was doing in this respect.
There was another peculiar incident. It was on the way to the Karo village, I think, when Sally took some photos of a secretary bird from the car window. From nowhere a cattle man appeared, stood in front of the car and demanded to know what we were doing. We all noticed that he had a rifle. Alex, the driver, asked Sally to show the man the photograph she’d just taken, which she did, and he immediately backed off and allowed our car to continue. What was that about? We asked Alex. The man thought you’d been taking photos of his cattle. If you had been, then he wanted money.
The real situation with respect to photographing locals is surely quite like that scene from Crocodile Dundee:
Neville Bell (the Aborigine): “Oh no, you can’t take my photograph“.
Sue Charlton: “Oh, I’m sorry, you believe it will take your spirit away”.
Neville Bell: “No, you got lens-cap on it”.
Does all of this stuff about taking photos of locals mean that we’re creating a human zoo? It is interesting to read that Exodus, the adventure travel company, has abandoned its Omo Valley tours. A spokesperson for the company said, “Rather than going for a special experience, the Omo Valley has become a place for tourists to simply gawk at the tribes who live there, without respecting their lifestyle and traditions.” They lament that tribal culture will be lost by the influx of more and more tourists. Well, like everywhere, as the years go by the traditions won’t be so authentic, that is surely inevitable, but possibly tourism will actually help to keep some culture alive by bringing in money and audiences. The article continues by asking what do the tribal communities want? “This becomes complex as the communities often do not share the same opinion. Some see tourism as an intrusion from which they see little benefit, others see it as one of the only ways to earn an income and improve their lives”.
But is there any difference between taking photos of locals in the Omo valley, and taking photos of men in kilts posing for tourists on Princes Street, Edinburgh with bagpipes, or people dressed up in Victorian gear at Old Town tourist attractions and elsewhere?
Or is it simply enough to be aware of all of the various issues, then ignore them and join in yourself, like I did? That’ll be 5 Birr for the photo above for me, please, plus 5 Birr for each of my new friends.
. If you want to know how attractive the Turkana woman was, imagine a combined Kylie, Natalie Portman and Michelle Pfeiffer, but with dark skin and the poise of 100 Joanna Lumleys.
. Apart from, obviously, my wife Lindsey.
. This is a pretentious reference to John, the photographer, as he lies dying in the movie Salvador, after being machine-gunned by an aeroplane, (Can you breathe? … I got the shot, Boyle. … You got the shot.)