The Himba: a cultural experience
Namibia has interested me for many years - for at least as long as I have been obsessed with photography. It has extraordinary landscapes but also most of the well known large African wildlife species including the 'big five'. Of course like all African countries it has a rich and diverse cultural history and a mix of tribal groups, each with their traditional lifestyles. Fortunately, as a travel destination, it is (by African standards at least) a safe and stable country with a decent economy, reasonable roads and good tourism infrastructure.
I finally got to travel to Namibia recently (May/June 2014) to photograph some of the many highlights it has to offer. I traveled with fantastic Australian photographer Ben McRae on a camping based two week tour. Ben has been visiting Namibia on a yearly basis for some time so his knowledge of the locations was invaluable. However the cultural centrepiece of the tour was an opportunity to visit a Himba tribal village which Ben knows well.
Ben has formed a friendship with the families and the elders of the Otjomazeua village over the years so he has a comfortable relationship with them, something that made our visits to the village more authentic than the average tourist visit. We made two visits to the village, one in the evening and the other on sunrise the next morning. The visits were timed to get some nice soft natural light and also to take advantage of the more busy village life at those times of day.
The evening visit started with visiting a group of ladies who were grinding up Ochre (a type of red rock) to make the powder they use for their adornment. The powder is mixed with fats or Vaseline to form a paste then coated all over their bodies and hair pieces to give them the distinctive red colour the Himba are known for.
Typically, there are not as many men in the villages as they are tending to livestock or travelling elsewhere or have simply moved out, which is why most of the photographic opportunities are the ladies and children. The men do not use the Ochre skin treatment or wear as much jewelry. Maybe because of this it seems to be predominantly the women who are preserving the Himba culture as their own traditions are the most visible.
As the evening wore on the village livened up. Fires were started, goats were milked, goat kids were let out of their pens and Himba children played happily amongst the huts. The relaxed nature of the visit (at least on the part of the Himba) allowed us the opportunity to do some candid as well as some posed photography using both natural evening light with fast lenses and an off-camera flash fitted to a hand held Softbox. The off-camera flash technique allows for some nicely lit scenes that were otherwise not possible, especially inside the huts and when the light levels had dropped right down.
The Himba villagers seemed perfectly happy and even honoured to be having their pictures taken and laughed appreciably when shown their images on the camera LCD's. I was grateful for this relaxed atmosphere as it would have felt like an intrusion otherwise. As it was I still found the experience a little awkward. As I have discussed in my blog post about my Masai village visit there can be a slightly voyeuristic feeling to this type of cultural photography as though the people's "poverty" is being exploited for artistic purposes. (I use the word "poverty" here reluctantly as that is what it looks like to western eyes but maybe the term needs redefining for this type of context.) This feeling seems one sided as the lovely Himba ladies are proud of their traditions.
As is customary we had a Himba guide with us who also knew many of the villagers and was able to translate our conversations. He was very helpful and told us a bit about the cultural history of the Himba tribe and its original origins in East Africa.
The morning shoot started at dawn just as the villagers were waking up and lighting fires to begin breakfast preparations. The goat herd was also in the village where they are kept nightly for protection. Again we were able to use flash techniques and later natural light and fast lenses to get some beautifully lit shots that you just can't get during the middle part of the day with its harsh lighting.
The experience ended with one-on-one thank-you's and pleasantries with the village matriarch in her hut, translated of course by our guide. She thanked me for my visit and welcomed me back when I suggested I may come back some time with my own family to see them.
Throughout the two visits I used my Canon 5D mk3. My 24-105 F4 zoom saw usage mostly with the flash photography and my 50mm F1.2 prime was used for natural light and casual shooting. Both lenses are kind of the perfect combination for people photography, the 24-105mm giving versatile framing options and good depth of field, the 50mm giving that shallow depth of field look and easier low-light shooting.
I can't speak highly enough of Ben McRae's rapport with the villagers and the access this granted us as his guests. The photo's I was able to get simply would not have been possible without this relationship. So the most important photographic lesson I took from the experience was nothing to do with gear or techniques it is that people photography is about people and if you take the time to talk and be respectful that is when the photographic magic can happen.