Uncontacted Communities Discovered Through This Explorer's Lens

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INTERVIEWS | 9 minute read | 239 Likes
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Travelling almost always offers insights into a country's culture and traditions. Divulging into a cultural experience different to ours can be a fantastic way to find our muse and get started on the path towards new found creative adventures. One such stimulating story is that of Sydney based photographer, Louisa Seton.

Louisa’s tales of travel, keenness to understand isolated cultures, combined with stellar photographs of lost communities, serves as a guide of inspiration and an instruction manual for first-time explorers.

Louisa Seton

Tell us what inspired you to be a visual storyteller and give us an insight into what triggered you to choose an offbeat career?

Growing up in Kenya, I interacted with a variety of different communities which helped inspire a deep respect for the people I encountered and the ways in which they live their lives. Language, race and religion were never a cultural barrier, they rather stimulated a natural curiosity in me that went far beyond my formal education and made me want to learn more about the people and planet we live on. I have always been creative and photography came naturally to me as a creative outlet. Combining my love of travel and interest in people, photography became my visual gateway.

When did you first visit the Omo Valley tribes and what motivated you to document their life story?

I first went to the Omo valley in April last year. I had photographed the tribes in northwest Kenya up in Turkana many times and the Omo region is not far from the Kenyan/Ethiopian border. I had always wanted to venture further up across the border. When I heard about the Gibe III dam being constructed, I knew it would have an effect on the indigenous tribal communities who are living in the Omo Valley and the tribes in Turkana, Kenya as the Omo river runs into the top end of the lake. Damming the river would have a profound effect on this region already prone to severe drought. The social and environmental impact is a subject of huge controversy and I wanted to venture into the Omo region of Ethiopia to see for myself how the tribes were affected.

Language, race and religion were never a cultural barrier, they rather stimulated a natural curiosity in me that went far beyond my formal education and made me want to learn more about the people and planet we live on.

Could you share a memory of staying with the tribes and reflect on any ritual or tradition that you found interesting?

There are two tribes in the Omo region that wear lip plates the Mursi and Suri. Collectively known as the Surma. The first time I saw a women with a lip plate I was incredibly excited. I had heard about this tradition and was intrigued by it. The women explained that having a large lip plate is a sign of beauty and social status.

Although I didn’t get to see the practice being performed they told me what it involved. When a woman comes into marriageable age, about 14 to 15 years old the woman’s bottom two teeth are knocked out by a rock. A very archaic procedure! Once the teeth are removed the bottom lip is cut by a razor, a small wooden plug is then inserted. A larger plug is inserted and so on until it is stretched enough to fit around a large clay plate. The bigger the lip plate the larger the dowry price. I later found out that there is a theory suggesting that the tradition initially started to deter Arab slave traders from taking blemished women.

tribe portraits

In some of your photographs of the people of Omo Valley, you have removed the backgrounds and taken them out of their natural setting so you could take portraits of them. What was the reason behind this?

I have a fine art background and I love black and white photography. The clean backdrop creates defined portraits that look like they’ve been taken in a studio. By isolating your subject you really get to see the features without any background noise.

Tell us about your experience in Papua New Guinea and did you find any similarities in the lifestyle of the tribes in this region, to that of the people in Omo Valley?

I went to a SingSing in Papua New Guinea, a large tribal gathering where different tribal groups come together to show their distinct culture, dance and music. It’s like a large traditional tribal dance festival. PNG has over 800 tribes so to be able to see a vast quantity of different tribal groups in one place is amazing.

A majority of tribes in Africa are very earthy, they tend to use natural ochre and clays for painting their bodies, putting in their hair. In PNG the tribes have an African feel, but also a majority have a more vibrant look because of the very bright colours they wear, their head pieces have amazing vibrant feathers from the tropical birds, some have bright coloured face paint, they are more forest people. Depending on where you are there definitely are similarities in the village style community way of life.

Some of your photographs look dangerous, as the tribes have weapons in their hand. Have you ever felt scared or put yourself in danger to take these photographs?

I have been in a few situations that weren’t desirable where I’ve felt vulnerable and unsafe. In these instances I use my intuition and intelligence to remove myself from the situation in the most diplomatic way necessary. If I am feeling even a small inkling of danger or if there is a possibility that things are not what they seem, then I try to get out as fast as possible.

While I was in the Upper Omo I did have a situation that wasn’t very pleasant. I managed to talk my way out of it and told my guide it was too risky to return back to our camp, my gut feeling of danger in that instance was too strong to ignore. So we left the area immediately. In some of the very remote areas a call for help isn’t going to do you any good. No one will find you. So it’s best to avoid risky scenarios where possible.

I think from growing up in Kenya and going in to communities that are culturally different where you are in the minority, you learn to behave and act in a certain way in order to maintain a calm and respectful presence. If I am relaxed and happy generally others remain at ease when I pull my camera out. In some communities you have to approach people in a certain way, you need to build trust and obtain permission, negotiate before you can go in and take photographs. There is definitely an art to making people feel relaxed and not feel threatened in front of the camera.  

You’ve travelled extensively, observed communities in various settings, most of which have been culturally contrasting – so how has that mentally and spiritually affected you as an individual.

In the West, we often lose sight of the simple things in life that matter most. We take for granted that we have taps that flow with clean water, education, health systems in place. It’s nice to get a reality check sometimes. It’s humbling to be asked to sit in a mud hut and be offered a cup of hot water knowing that usually a woman or child has probably walked half the morning to collect the water from a well.  

In the Omo I was asked if I was married, if I had children then if I had any cattle. To all I answered no. These tribes measure their wealth entirely differently to us and in their eyes I wasn’t blessed with wealth at all because I had no husband, children or cattle. You realise that materialism doesn’t matter to these people and I think mentally it helps you reassess what is actually of importance in life. Observing different communities makes you more aware of different perspectives, ways of life and it teaches you respect for different cultures, religions and traditions.

I think I have become more spiritually aware from my experiences and interactions. Some experiences are mentally challenging, some utterly beautiful and I’m grateful that they have served me well in expanding me more as an individual.

tribal women omo valley

As a frequent traveler, how do you stay motivated and do you have any advice to people who wish to pursue a similar career to yours?

I love travelling it’s the university of the world. I tend to travel mostly to underdeveloped countries. It can be tiring moving around, but it’s also exciting. I love adventure, meeting people, observing different cultures. I’ve always been a traveller, I started young doing three month overland trips on different continents and really I’ve never stopped wanting to see more of the world. I think I am slightly addicted to exploring. I get bored with routine so it’s natural for me to go out and discover more. We have an entire world to uncover.

My advice is to do what makes your heart sing, if that’s photography, go for it. Things may not work out in the way you imagined, but don’t let that stop you pursuing your dreams. Take the risk, keep learning, so what if it doesn’t work out, at least you have figured out if it’s the right direction to go in.

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