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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Allure Of East Africa

Beyond the dramatic wildlife, eastern Africa is also one of the richest tribal regions in the world. These unique cultures have drawn the attention of photographers since the medium’s beginnings.

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This Article Features Photo Zoom

To create images that show the rich tapestry of the people and cultures in eastern Africa, think beyond snapshots taken at a distance. To show the story, start by building trust. Above: A Kara woman looking out over the Omo Valley along the Omo River, southern Ethiopia.

From the thunder of the herds storming across the Great Plains to the elusive, but endangered mountain gorillas to the ancient tribes of the Omo, East Africa is a tapestry of dramatic ecosystems and ancient cultures. From the minute your feet hit that rich red soil, this magical world offers unparalleled diversity contained in a relatively small corner of the continent.

We all see things differently. It's why we pick up the camera, after all—to seek out places that we've probably viewed through another's eyes. A great photograph doesn't have to be new; it has to be you—your vision and your experience. As you travel through East Africa creating stories for the rocking chair, consider also the opportunity to be in the moment. Where do you want to see the footprints of your life when looking back through the photographs you've taken?

Portrait of a Kara woman preparing morning coffee in the Omo Valley, southern Ethiopia.
Photographing The People Of Eastern Africa
As a veteran who has led photo expeditions to the region, a frequent question often posed to me is how do I gain such close access to the people? The answer is deceivingly simple: I participate in their lives. Usually, I arrive at a village during midday, the harshest light, so I put off photography and instead take time to greet the chief and chat over an African-style cold beer. I camp in the village, participate in village life and partake in their ceremonies. Becoming immersed in the surroundings releases my creativity. Wandering slowly through the village, I smile, chat and exchange the greetings of the day, all the while, scouting for interesting backgrounds, studying any potential lighting challenges and noting the stories I want to capture during the golden hours. This familiarity pays off when I bring out my camera.

I also guide my subjects into participation, often handing them a camera (my guides think I'm crazy) so they might shoot alongside me. I enlist their help with the creative process, holding reflectors or speedlights. Trust builds throughout the session as does interest in seeing the photographs they create and the ones in which they pose. As in all aspects of life, it simply comes down to building relationships.

Success in East Africa comes from two basic tenets: Know your subject, and be open to their traditions and ceremonies. Your aim is to capture the important moments—decisive, riveting and emotional. This visual overload is particularly challenging to photographers in an exciting exotic location. Our instinct tells us to shoot everyone and everything that's happening. Showing patience is the most important skill to master; this is what will separate a good photograph from a truly great image. Slow down, observe, and be ready. That's when the magic of East Africa begins.


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