The Surma tribe’s naked dignity
In Southwestern Ethiopia lives an indigenous tribe called the Surmas. While they have been on the receiving end of the lens before, photographer Jean Michel Voge opted to capture them in a different light. Here I interview him about his project and the Surma tribe.
Jean Michel, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a retired Photographer enjoying to shoot for myself in France. I started my professional photography career in 1978 after my university studies and after 3 years in an audit company (It’s very far from photography… but I practiced photography ever since I was 17).
One day a friend of mine, who writer in a French magazine asked me to take some photos for her next article because she could not get what she wanted from her photographer. A month later my photos were published, I quit my job and my new life started!
Where was this project shot? What gear did you use?
The location of the shoot was South Ethiopia, in the Omo valley close from North Kenya . I used a Contax 645 with a 120 macro lens and as film I used Kodak Portra 160 nc 3 [Negative Film]. Everything took 3 days on location and a total of 7 days to go to and from France.
Is it complete or ongoing?
The project is complete.
What is it about?
It’s about the Surma’s tradition of body painting. They do this twice a year, for the planting season and the harvest season. Also, each year the men fight to designate the tribe leader for that year, the last man standing is considered the strongest and therefore gets to be the chief. It’s quite violent but didn’t shoot any of it, I wanted to show the body painting aspect of the Surmas.
By the way, there is no religious significance to the body painting. It’s like tagging a wall or some sort. They have nothing, no sheets, no walls, plus they are nomads so they don’t stay long in the same place, so they paint on their own bodies. They go to the river and select pigments and rocks and paint.
It’s a you-pain-me and I-paint-you attitude, at least for the face paint, the rest of the body they mostly do themselves. So it’s very much an exchange, a social act. The middle of the river becomes their makeup room.
Why did you want to shoot it?How did you gain access to the Surma?
I had access to a Tour Operator in Ethipia who in turn knew a Guide who was familiar with the Surma tribe. The magazine I was working for, Le Figaro [Famous French Magazine], was very unenthusiastic. They said it’s been done and seen before. Since I worked there a long time, I asked them to trust me. In march 2006 I traveled from Addis Abeba, the capital of Ethiopia to the Omo valley.
It took 3 days by car to arrive there with the guide who knew the tribe. That’s about as far at the planning went, there was no prior contact made with the tribe. Once in the village, the guide knew the chief and he explained what I wanted to do: Take portraits with white sheets in the background.
After negotiating, he accepted. When I came back to Le Figaro, they were all exited, they never saw things like that. It’s always been the ethnographic aspect “That bugs everyone” that’s been presented so far. In the work I showed, it’s calm and the paintings can be enjoyed.
Why did you choose to shoot it the way you did?
I was fed up with the previous reportages and books on the Surmas, I think the staging was over done. A lot of the photographers went there in order to promote themselves, I went there to promote the Surma’s tradition. I wanted to show the richness without the superfluous, so I shot with the absolute bare necessities so that you can focus on the subject itself and not the photography. I wanted to show their work (the painting) and not my work (the photography).
Hans Silvester for example shot the Surmas, there is lots of vegetation, nature, it’s very romantic and I find Colionalist. It’s very easy to fall into exotism, and I wanted to avoid that. Some went down there with their studio equipment, backgrounds, strobes, umbrellas, of course you are going to say “What a beautiful picture”, but you won’t come back to it because there’s nothing there besides the photography.
A Photograph with effects, you won’t come back to. When there’s no effects you put see what you want to see and come back to it. Being in the Omo valley is already exotism, so I didn’t want to ad to it, so my photographs were intently barebones in order to bring the Surmas in front. I made other work with a radically different approach, I find reality boring, but for the Surmas, the reality was so noble that I couldn’t resolve to add to it, it would have made me uncomfortable. My photographs are about observation, so I aimed for the least presentation as possible.
You opted for a very crude, white background that’s not even seamless. Why did you do that? Why not show the context of where they live?
I wanted to show the beauty and dignity of the Surma’s body painting. The tradition itself. If I showed the background your eye would wander all around and you would be able to see the poverty. These people are extremely poor, 10 can live in a single tent and have very little possessions, if I showed you that, the painting and the tradition I wanted to show would be lost.
Many found that cutting the Surmas from their context was not right. I was not after a social portrait but a portrait of the paintings and the tradition itself. These people may be financially poor, but they are rich in many ways. By removing the background of financial and material poverty, their richness can be appreciated.
The only thing I did was put a white sheet in between two trees, the Surmas themselves did the pictures. They were not part of my show, they were the show themselves. The chief himself thanked me afterwards, “I am extremely happy to see my kids, my adults, the motivation they had to do this, it solidifies our tradition”. It was very important to him.
Everything I did, I tried to be as humble as possible. I didn’t ask for extravagant things, I shot everything in front of their own homes. I also shot everything with the least amount of equipment as possible. Simplicity is complexity resolved, and I took risks for that simplicity: I only took the bare necessities for the shoot. The way you work is a disruption, and I couldn’t see myself setting up a studio with strobes and all, I wanted to be as small as possible so that they can do their thing without being overwhelmed.
When we have means, we can make things happen. You can barge in with violence with means and money, but the relationship would be unequal. You have to find a healthy middle ground, somewhere you can meet as equals, even if you are separated by a gap of knowledge and riches. I didn’t barge in their life and forced my way, they were willing participants. It actually became a little competition between them to see who could get the best body paint. They opened up to me because I minimized myself.
Any anecdotes you can share?
I was there to photograph the Surma’s body paintings, but what they got is a theater right in front of their homes! Everyone joined in for photographs and had a good time. I can share two specific stories.
The first one is about this photograph:
I found that the boy had a really strong gaze, he had a mysterious edge that provoked imagination. I asked if the girls could close their eyes. One of them responded that it was day and that she could not close her eyes, she would be afraid. “I close my eyes at night, there’s no reason to close my eyes when the sun’s outside”. Some things are done at night, some things are done during the day. She complied but she was trembling and holding her girlfriend tightly.
She probably thought “You poor idiot, you ask things that make no sense”. Somewhere along the line of progress we lost the signification of such things.
Here’s a second story:
I spent 3 days in the Omo Valley, the 3rd day, before heading back I wanted to see the river one last time. To my great surprise, the kids where there, posing by themselves in front of backgrounds that they chose. During those days, they got the hang of it. But this boy:
He just posed himself like that, the cloth on his butt, just like for a fashion photo, even if he has no idea what fashion is. He looked at me straight in the eyes, with an attitude “So, are you going to take that darn picture?!?”. It was wonderful, a lot of pride and nobility.
How did this project change your life? Were you influenced by their way of life?
I’m used to traveling so no. Just because I spent some time with Buddhist doesn’t mean I am going to become one! But when you meet a way of life completely opposed to your way of life, it teaches you. You lean by opposition, the more opposed, the better the learning.
They have such a simple way of life and there’s a lot of issues that they do not have. You close your eyes at night and you open them for the day, they stayed there. We have scientific, intellectual research, entertainment and all, they can’t escape their lives, all their strength and energy is focused on the here and now, on the present situation of survival. We resolved survival, we can work and develop more and more things because we are not worried about finding our daily bread.
They have nothing, and I wanted to show that the poorest of people seem to have a more complete life than ours. They are richer and more sincere than us. We had the wisdom of living but we lost it. We might have financial wealth, but they have the wealth of life. This allows me to relativize my own life.
When you get mad about your TV not working, it’s a luxury, some people don’t even know what it is. Our problems seem so big, and we are unhappy. These people have nothing and have their heads high.
Any closing comments? Doesn’t have to be about the project
Sure! To do photography, consider what you like. Through doing what you like, maybe you can find a public for your work. The joy of Photography is doing what you love. If you are not a pro, you have no set standards to reach, no client to please. Take pictures the way you like and be happy.
Also, love your camera. It’s an extension of your hands, so find the camera you like, love it, smell it and shoot it. There’s no such thing as the best camera, you have to find the one you are comfortable with and use it. If you don’t like your camera, you won’t want to use it.
These are two things I had to learn the hard way and it’s sound photographic wisdom. Thanks you Jean Michel for this nice photo essay and pertinent answers. You will see more of Jean Michel’s work and words in the next issue of Inspired Eye Magazine.
Jean Michel Voge was born in 1949. After studying Law and spending 3 years in an audit company, he started to be a professional photographer in 1978. He spent 28 years as a staff photographer for Le Figaro magazine until 2010. From then on, he’s been doing personal work and re-editing his archives. Website.