With an interview David Chancellor introduces us to a new part of the world

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David Chancellor is a multi award-winning documentary photographer.

His work brings him across the world, from the tribal lands of Kenya to the sombre mountains of Scotland. His interests are mapping that jagged and bloody line where Man and Beast meet. He has participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions, exhibited in major galleries and museums, and published worldwide. Recognized by World Press Photo, the Taylor Wessing National Portrait Prize and Pictures of the Year International, David published the monograph ‘Hunters’ in 2012. His work continues to examine mankind’s commodification of wildlife.

Visually reminiscent of 19th-century daguerreotypes, David’s photographs are arresting, engaging, and thought-provoking. His passion for his work allows him to consistently succeed in navigating the minefields surrounding his chosen subjects. The resulting bodies of work never fail to draw people in and create a space for a much-needed dialogue.

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About ‘Omo and Simien Mountains Ethiopia‘:

More than 3,000 different cultures live on our planet, cultures that survive through different rituals, beliefs and habits. We are used to seeing our culture, the Western one, as the best and the most evolved, as the culture that is more in step with the times, but every people, every group and every tribe live their time without paying attention to the evolution of things.

We Westerners, or rather Europeans and Americans, live our lives according to the trends of the moment, adorn our bodies with fashion jewelry and disguise our faces with make-up and masks. We live through technology and know the world through photographs, documentaries or journeys that, however adventurous they may be, never allow us to really get in touch with other world cultures. We are not wrong, we are not closed or bigoted, but we live simply in our time and in the way they have always taught us. We are children of evolution and development, we are children of scientific discovery and technological progress and it is physiological to let ourselves be carried away by all this. Who more or less, for fear of admitting it or a different education, are victims of this system that leads us to always feel “evolved”. It’s not so bad, some say we’re more than lucky and I’m sure too. Who says there is no other way to live or to go on but the world is so great that there are so many ways to live a happy life and keep up with your moment, because there is no right moment or wrong one, there is only one moment.

That enormous vastness called World has generated and welcomes a myriad of populations of which, in most cases, we don’t even know its existence. There are places in the world where the sun is only seen for a half of the year, and in the other half the darkness reigns; there are places where you can fish with your hands and you live in contact with nature every day, places where you surf on small rafts, places where to say I love you you gently rub your nose with each other. The list would be endless, it’s endless, and it would amaze you to know that there is no right or wrong way to live.

David Chancellor decided to take us to a remote place in the world, precisely in the Omo Valley, in southern Ethiopia. It’s one of the last corners of the world where ethnic groups live that seem to stand still in time and have handed down their ancestral culture for millennia. Here, the tribal culture is still alive and emerges overbearing in the meetings with various ethnic groups, such as the Hamers and the Mursi, artists in the decoration and the scarification of the body. They live almost naked in straw villages with an economy of subsistence that is firm to the protohistory, to be precise at the Neolithic age, based on the breeding of cattle and sheep (zebu and goats), a little agriculture, hunting and fishing. Their beautiful women use imaginative hairstyles and striking tribal scarifications, while men dressed in skins, when they are not naked at all, have their bodies and faces painted as if they had just come out of a photo of an imaginary world. A world that doesn’t seem to have changed almost for nothing since the time of the great explorer Vittorio Bottego.

Initiation ceremonies, animal sacrifices, communication with nature, talking with the wind and feeling the spirits all seem like crazy things, out of the ordinary or nonexistent but exist and give life to cultures left in the shadows but who are living their time to the their way. Far from everything that is normal for us because, as already mentioned, normality is not universal and this is what makes the world an enchanting place.

Hi David, please introduce us to Omo and Simien Mountains Ethiopia

In 2006, upstream of the Omo River Valley, the Ethiopian Government began constructing what was described as ‘the Pride of Ethiopia’ the Gibe III hydroelectric dam. Construction of this dam would make Ethiopia a major energy exporter and open up otherwise remote areas along the Omo river to large scale irrigated agriculture, including the state-owned Kuraz sugarcane scheme and foreign ventures in cotton, rice, and palm oil. The government is now transforming more than 375,000 hectares (926,000 acres) of the lower Omo into industrial plantations. Virtually all of the big sugar lands are adjacent to the west bank of the Omo River, which is vital agricultural and grazing land for the local tribal communities.

The Ethiopian government views the Gibe III Dam as essential to its economic advancement. The dam rises 243 meters (797 feet), can hold back 14.7 billion cubic meters of water, and has a planned hydropower capacity of 1,870 megawatts. The filling of the reservoir behind the dam on the Omo River will hold back the water needed by indigenous people in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya to sustain their food production and livelihoods. Gibe III is the third and largest dam of five dams to be constructed on the Omo. It is intended to supply half of Ethiopia’s electricity, as well as provide power to export to neighboring Kenya, Sudan and Djibouti.

The indigenous communities of the Omo Valley, including those of the Dassenech, Hamer, Karo, Kwegu, and Mursi tribes, rely on the natural flood cycles of the Omo River for their sustainable practices of flood-recession farming, fishing and livestock grazing. Like generations of their forebears, they plant sorghum, maize and beans in the riverside soils after the yearly flood, relying on the moisture and nutrient-rich sediment the Omo deposits each year. With the filling of the Gibe III reservoir, the needed water hasn’t reached the tribes’ riverside lands, curtailing harvests and grazing. 

I wanted to see how the filling of the Gibe III reservoir; and what the Ethiopian Government defined as progress, would effect the tribes’ of the Omo riverside lands.

How did you manage to get in touch with this wonderful people? What struck you most about this community with traditions very far from ours?

I can thank Sir David Attenborough for introducing me as a child to those extraordinary images of people who marked their bodies with ornamental patterns of scars and who cut and stretched their lips to accommodate clay plates that, while shocking then to me with a Western eye, were emblems to the Suri and Mursi of elegance and wealth.

I travelled to the Omo River Valley in southwestern Ethiopia to see those tribes and also the agriculturalist honey-gatherers known as the Kara, the statuesque pastoralists called the Nyangatom, and the Hamar, whose women daub themselves for hygiene with ocher and butterfat, and to seek out the Dassanech and the Kwegu, the latter a benighted group kept by stronger tribes in a state of semi-slavery. 

To the wider world, to me, the Suri are known for one thing. They are the lip-plate people, the ones I encountered so long ago in my parents’ living room whilst sitting riveted to Attenborough’s extraordinary documentaries . They were early proof of a world beyond my front door that was wondrously strange. To ready her for eventual marriage, a young Suri girl’s bottom teeth are removed, her lower lip pierced and stretched to allow for the insertion of clay lip plates. Over years the plates get larger and there are tales, perhaps apocryphal, of some having attained 16 inches in diameter. 

They say that Africa is a place that captures the spirit, how did you manage to capture its soul through photography? What does photography mean to you and what photography can communicate about these tribes?

At a Kara village I witnessed an Orwak ceremony, a rare invitation from a village headman to watch soothsayers foretell the future by reading the entrails of a goat. A sacrificial ram was slaughtered and receiving the carcass, the soothsayers spread its cleaned entrails across an upturned calabash. The elders appeared to predict a good spate for the Omo River and another year of bountiful crops. It’s rare to bear witness to traditional ceremonies like this. The very real fear is that these are very quickly being replaced by other and more destructive forms of magic. Already Ethiopian telecommunications companies are erecting cell-phone towers in the Omo River Valley for Turkish and Korean agribusiness. Likewise, British oil exploration has led to the construction of more new roads built with foreign financing.

Seen from the air Africa can appear as an illusion, rich velds and dramatic rifts, wide deserts and thundering rivers, these seemingly vast stretches of unfettered, unpopulated wild ostensibly forgotten by time and people. At a glance it could be a repository for all our ideas about wilderness at its wildest. And yet today no patch here goes unclaimed, whether it’s marked, monetised, or fought over.  With more than half the planet’s population living in cities, our relationship with the wild has been increasingly divorced from our everyday reality. We’re now less a part of that wild world from rain forest to veld than consumers of it. Photography allows me to reconnect those who no longer appreciate the global significance of their actions, with the effects of those actions upon wondrous worlds beyond their front door just as Attenborough did for me many years ago (and still does !!) 

Working on this project, did you take inspiration from some artist or movement? What is your greatest source of inspiration?

My greatest source of inspiration is found in the wild. I am always humbled by those who give me both the opportunity, and the time and space, to understand a little more about the challenges that they face in their everyday lives. The camera is an incredibly powerful tool, one we should as photographers treat with great respect and use respectfully. It was Eve Arnold who said ‘if a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given’ she also said ‘if you are careful with people, they will offer you part of themselves. That is the big secret.

What is truly beautiful? Don’t think about it too much, reply by instinct

So many things go through my head … the smell of rain in the desert. The sound of rain on a tin roof. The sound and swish of an elephant walking through thick vegetation. The fearsome growl of a leopard deep in the night. The rolling call of a lion. Watching my son eat without fear of it being his last meal.

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Time to read
15 min
Words by
Alice De Santis
Published on
21 November 2018
Filed under

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