In January 2014 Trupal Pandya and Alexander Papakonstadinou, 4th semester photography students, traveled to Ethiopia to document the vanishing tribes of the Omo Valley. The tribes’ way of life is already stressed by hunting restrictions (tourists can hunt game, tribal members cannot). Soon a new dam will flood the valley as well.
“I was working with Magnum photographer Steve McCurry, who does a lot of trips to Omo Valley,” says Trupal. “He had just come back from Ethiopia. I was looking through his pictures and found them inspiring. That’s when I decided to document the tribes in my own style. I wanted to bring studio lighting to the remote areas of the Omo Valley to create modern-style portraits.
“We found that the way the tribes dressed, and their lifestyle, is still traditional. Visually the tribe members were very beautiful to us. We wanted to document that before it vanished. It is already under stress from globalization and development. Dress is changing, customs dying.”
“Every time the strobe went off the people thought that it was draining their blood and made them uncomfortable, so it was a difficult thing to do,” says Trupal.
Alexander shot in a completely different style, black and white 35 mm film. “My way of shooting was more documentary. What’s happening in their everyday life, capturing their expressions without them knowing, focusing on details, finding patterns. It helped me realize how uncluttered their life is. There’s no materialistic pleasure. It’s peaceful.”
Trupal and Alexander spent 10 days travelling within the valley and had the chance to reside with some of the tribes, which brought them closer to the culture.
“We were really lucky to find the right fixer who gave us access to these tribes,” Trupal says. “We took huge sacks of coffee or corn whenever we went to a tribe so they would let us stay. Sometimes it was money, sometimes clothes, sometimes food. It was always a bartered thing.”
They visited the Benna, Mursi, Hamar, Arbore, and Ari tribes. “Our tents were right next to their huts,” says Alexander. “We ate the same food. We exchanged food. We gave them canned food in exchange for their local chicken and lamb. They didn’t like the canned food of course.”
“We had a lot of mentoring,” said Trupal. “Our professors really inspired us to do something out of the ordinary.” Alexander and Trupal credit Ron Amato, Jessica Wynne, Brad Paris, Max Hilaire, Brian Emery “and all other faculty who played a role.”
The students showed tribal members some of the photographs they took; for some it was the first time they were seeing themselves in a digital form. They are planning to go back to the Omo Valley with the prints with a touring exhibit in their villages. “I’m planning on doing this with tribes of India as well” says Trupal, who grew up in Gujarat.
From now to the 4th of April some 40 of their photographs are in exhibit at the Marvin Feldman Center, Fashion Institute of Technology (C Lobby). There is a sense of regality to them. And that beauty in its natural form is what they want to show the world.
Trupal and Alex will be there to talk about their photos on the 25th of March from 6 pm onward.
Opening: Trupal Pandya & Alexander Papakonstadinou “Vanishing Tribes of the Omo Valley” photos in FIT C lobby, March 21 – April 4
photos used with permission