Omo Valley Photo Tour Trip Report – by Mike Dexter
“There are big days and there are small days – which will it be?” This line from Warhorse played on my mind as I struck out from Johannesburg for Addis Ababa to lead my first Ethiopia photography tour. Not only was it my first time to the country but the photographic focus of the trip, indigenous cultures and the people who embody them, meant that my comfort zone remained resolutely grounded behind me – my usual subjects being significantly hairier, toothier and with somewhat longer tails than most humans.
Fast forward 1 flight and 2 days of driving and we (‘we’ being Marius Coetzee, Henock our Ethiopian guide, our 4 guests and myself) had entered another world, the world of the Suri. To set the scene you must understand that here there is no tourism infrastructure to speak of other than ORYX’s mobile tented camp which provides a perfect balance of rusticity and comfort. The camp lies in Kibish, the verdant green heart of Suri territory, wedged between a mountain range to the north and a fast flowing river to the south. Contrary to popular belief most of Ethiopia is mountainous, green and fertile and the land of the Suri is no different with tall trees, long grass and dense bush dominating the landscape.
Upon arrival in camp that first afternoon on our Omo Valley Photo Tour we were told of a wedding that was on the go not far off. We weren’t about to gate crash with cameras blazing but the opportunity was not to be missed. Without delay Henock was off to negotiate permission from the bridal party and 20 minutes later he was back, permission granted. We followed a muddy trail through the woodland to a clearing with a few grass huts, a small maize field, about 50 Suri women and children dancing, jumping, singing and chanting and 1 large tree providing shade for the onlooking men. We walked among them, surrounded by opportunities for one of a kind candid images. The frenetic energy and raw authenticity of the scene was intoxicating and I had to force myself to pause, step back and appreciate where I was and what I was experiencing.
In the 3 full days that we spent with the Suri, each of our guests built an exceptional stand alone portfolio of unique images, each one accompanied by an equally exceptional, equally unique experience. Only a quarter of the way through the trip and all of my expectations had been left in the dust, far exceeded by the beauty of the land, the ORYX camp staff and most of all by the Suri people themselves.
It was 2 long travel days to the next destination for our Omo Valley photo tour, which was the southern Omo Valley itself, where the plan was to photograph 4 of the tribes that inhabit the area. Due to its (relatively) easy access, the Omo Valley sees substantially more tourism than Kibish so it’s reasonable to expect to bump into other tour groups every now and then. Our approach however, of rising early to be on site at first light, paid off and we had each and every shoot entirely to ourselves.
There are pros and cons to photographing people who have been photographed many times before. On the one hand, it is more challenging to create truly unique one of a kind images, on the other it is a pleasure to shoot portraits of people who are accustomed to photographers and are therefore more relaxed in their presence. At each of the 5 villages that we visited in the Omo Valley itself we created strong standalone images that truly did our subjects justice. We did this by being there at the right time of day, having the best local guides available, being respectful at all times and by throwing a ton of creative out-of-the-box thinking into the mix.
On the plane home somewhere between Tanzania and Zambia, I was lost in reflection on the Ethiopian photography tour I had been. It was far more than the words ‘photo tour’ convey, it was an adventure, an exploration into a place, its people, their culture and way of life that is further from my own than I ever imagined. I arrived in Ethiopia with a mixed bag of emotions, excited yet apprehensive, confident yet questioning and left feeling grounded, centred and calm as if my time there had recalibrated my internal compass.
If this has whet your appetite to embark on your own Omo Valley photography tour, then feel free to consider one of the following two options: