Surma African Tribe 1

Surma Tribe Photography Project

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. This article originally appeared in Inspired Eye Street Photography Magazine.

(Contains Nudity)

Surma Tribe Photography Project

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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).

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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!

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Where was this project shot? What gear did you use?

omo valley

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.

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Is it complete or ongoing?

The project is complete.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 the Surma Tribe photography project 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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

21 thoughts on “Surma Tribe Photography Project”

  1. First of all, there are some wonderful portraits here. Jean Michel Voge’s discussion of why he chose his extremely simple backgrounds and how he made a connection with this community based on his respect for their tradition of body painting is also very interesting. Every other similar set of photos I’ve seen of “exotic” cultures have left me feeling, “Well, I’m glad someone documented this, but people can do some very strange things.” Mr. Voge’s insight that by this custom the Surma wear their own works of art, is very illuminating. The dignity the subjects display would still be apparent without that insight, but having it allows me to feel that, as I view these portraits, I’m making a connection with an individual displaying his or her creativity, not just viewing a record of the customs of a particular group. In all, this is a very worthwhile “read” and a great “view”, and I look forward to seeing Mr. Voge in the next issue of The Inspired Eye .

    1. Dear Ruby – Thank you for taking the time to write such a wonderful comment. I’m happy that you connected with both my work and my words. It’s a real compliment. J.M. Voge

    2. “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.”
      These pictures just made my day, a people with such a sophisticated and powerful sense of art and beauty. So far better the things I’m used to see in exhbitions.

    3. I enjoyed this very much … his resoect for this tribal people and his desire to ket them shine through it all and nit try to create more than the already unique art exoressions these owmeople took great kengths to develop on their own … thank you …

  2. August Eightyfour

    Love your work sir. And im having great respect on your skills and value as a photographer.
    I love it when you said ” I wanted to show their work (the painting) and not my work (the photography).”

  3. Thank you for your kind words, it means a lot to me to receive such praise. Photographing the Surma was a very poignant experience for me both personally and professionally. J.M. Voge

  4. Finally a photographer who ‘s aim it is to put people in the first place and not his abilities of photography (which by the way are great!!)
    Very often people fall in the trap to show what THEY see and not what the reality is I.e. Sylvester. His book is beautiful but it’s not about the Surma, it’s about his vision of the exotic.
    Whereas Jean Michel Voge has the right attitude to show the real people in very down-earth mode.
    Btw: I love the simplicity of the white background cloth – super effective.
    My compliments for a wonderful job.

  5. These are absolutely stunning photographs, thanks for this article. The interview also gives great context and further understanding to the photos (which don’t really need it due to their visual impact) and the photographer’s choices. Great stuff!

  6. As a child, I used to read National Geographic magazines and would devour photographs with my eyes. Whenever they had an issue involving tribes from far away lands I wanted to run away and meet these people. With your photographs (which are exquisite) I feel as if I have truly met these people..Your minimalist approach to shooting their pictures worked perfectly. The eye and soul of the viewer is centered on the subject. I can not pick a favorite here as they are all wonderful.
    Thank you for sharing these wonderful human beings with the rest of the world.

  7. I absolutely loved the project in itself, and the pictures. I just wish the small part of background than can be seen in two or three pictures where the white sheet wasn’t tight enough had been cropped or cloned, simply because it is distracting to the eye. I understand the philosophy of it all was to stay as simple/natural as possible, but it is just visually distubring the overall picture.
    Otherwise the pictures are truly beautiful, and I couldn’t agree more about the two last pieces of advice : if you’re a hobbyist, just shoot what you love, and find a camera you love to hold and operate. I do both and am profoundly happy with photography.

  8. Thank you for your comments ,for your information all photos are not cropped ,the détails out of the White textile it just a part of the story …it’s life ,perfection could be boring….just a little distraction to give the choise between in and out!

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  11. I think your attitude is spot on – “I wanted to show their work (the painting) and not my work (the photography).” Nevertheless, my comments are about your work (the photography) ; )
    The resultant photographs are truly wonderful, they are deeply human – every picture evokes a real moment, a real person, whilst also showcasing the beautiful painting tradition you set out to capture.
    I think the idea of the imperfect white background worked brilliantly too. If it was seamless and pure white, it would have lost the sense of realism. If you had included the environment in the background, it would have been a different type a photo. As you put it a “social portrait”, whereas you were looking for “not .. a social portrait but a portrait of the paintings and the tradition itself”. Bravo!

  12. Except opening the article by calling them primitive. “”primitive” refers to a society believed to lack cultural, technological, or economic sophistication or development. For instance, a culture that lacks a written language might be considered less culturally sophisticated than cultures with writing systems; or a hunter-gatherer society might be considered less developed than an industrial capitalist society. Many Western authors, such as anthropologists and historians, used it to describe indigenous cultures in their foreign colonies and in distant uncolonized nations. Assigning “primitive” to other people has been used to justify conquering them.”

    1. I’ll take the blame for the intro. “Primitive” is indeed an emotionally and historically charged. The intent was of course never condescending, but you are right and will use the term Indigenous instead.

  13. You have done your duty, I am totally in Love with what they offer you. The picture of the young men in the tree was so beautiful I wanted to cry and the young man who posed with the cloth on his butt was fiercely breathtaking. Thank you for showing these beautiful people as people who are simply beautiful.

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