Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is that part of the world where every “adventurer of style” dreams of going. Located in southern Ethiopia, the Omo Valley is one of those few places in the world that is still home to many tribal peoples, whose population is about 200,000 in this region. French photographer Eric Lafforgue (National Geographic, Lonely Planet, etc) has travelled there several times and photographed beautiful and colorful portraits of the tribes of the Omo Valley, where tribal styles sometimes meet surprising accents of modernity.
“Made in China” plastic hair clips, old watches and beer caps as decorative wigs, second hand football t-shirts, SIM cards transformed into earrings – these are some of the looks being worn by Ethiopian tribes such as the Banas, Dassanech and Tsemay, who are mixing in contemporary objects and clothes into their ancestral styles.
The Other interviewed Eric Lafforgue to find out more about his journey to meet these tribes and to discover their fashion between tradition and modernity.
When did you first go to Ethiopia? What were you first impressions?
I first went to Ethiopia in 1973, when I was a child. At the time, the country was still under developed. Horse carriages were the means of travel and houses were made from cob.I then returned in 1998 and I have been five times since then. I first saw the tribes in 2009. It was a positive shock, to see that a 2-day car ride away from the city (soon just one day away with the highway), there are still people who have preserved their traditions. What most surprised me was the beauty of these people.
Do you do a lot of research before going? Before going on location in Ethiopia, did you have a clear idea of the tribes you wanted to photograph?
Yes, I had read many reportages. The tribes are all listed. The books by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher are a bible. I made an itinerary according to the markets, because this is where you have the opportunity to see the most tribes.
How do you get around?
I have a guide and a local driver. It’s really vital, otherwise the discussions with the tribes take forever.
Tell us about an arrival in one of the villages. What happens?
In the big villages, any arrival is somewhat common, because tourists visit on an almost daily basis. When you arrive, you speak with the chief to agree on the price of the photographs. You must pay for the photographs. It doesn’t bother me to pay, and anyways, there is no other option. I pay 50 euro cents for a series of 5-10 quick photographs. That pays a meal for the person, for 1 or 2 minutes of their time during a photograph. I work very quickly.
Was it possible for you to feel integrated or did you feel more like a “voyeur”?
When I bring my Polaroid camera, I give the photos out and this makes it possible to have beautiful connections and to meet these people again throughout the years. But life is hard there. So to make people believe that things can easily flow is illusory. People need money and the reality is that you are often the wallet. But to say that I have friends, apart from my guide who is not interested in money, would unfortunately be an over-exaggeration.
Your photographs have a very “fashion” element. You seem to be interested in clothes and in people’s looks. What does style mean to you?
Style is whatever detonates that “WOW” reaction from me. I see someone from afar – and their allure, their walk, their clothes, will draw me in to photograph them.
So what do you think about fashion designers who use “tribal” styles as inspiration?
I think it’s good because it shows that they’re curious and open to the world. But it’s a shame that they do not explain their inspirations, so that there can be more awareness about it.
Have you ever shown the tribes some of the ways in which the Western world inspires itself and reinterprets their looks in fashion?
I showed them some copies of Vogue. The tribes were very intrigued and very respectful of the magazine as well. They don’t understand our world or our lifestyle, so it’s very difficult to explain all of it. The men are interested to see girls in bikinis and surprised to see people with black skin in the magazine.
What is the importance of style to the Ethiopian tribes? Is there a meaning?
It’s absolutely vital! Everything is in the clothes. You can read everything into it: the age, the social class, wealth and marital status.
Did you ask the tribes to wear their most beautiful clothes for the photographs, or is the way we see them in portraits really how they dress on a daily basis?
No, this is how they look daily. That’s what is so interesting about it.
Do you know when and why the Bana tribe began to integrating plastic hair clips into their hairstyles?
That’s because Chinese traders have started to flood into the country. And these hair clips are quite inexpensive, colourful and nice – so the tribes like to buy them. They get them at the markets.
It’s funny because this style reminds of another style tribe, but a much more recent and modern one from half way across the planet – the Japanese street tribe Décora, who also adorn their hair with lots of hair clips!
I noticed in your photographs that a young woman from the Tsemay tribe also wears these hair clips. Are tribes “copying” each other in terms of style?
It’s weird. They did a vaccination campaign with the Mursis and since then they kept the caps of syringes and made necklaces out of them. The tribes throw nothing away! It’s the same with scratch cards from SIM cards. They’re not copying each other. It’s more like they’re looking for opportunities to use things.
The Dassanech wear bottle caps and old watches as wigs. Where do they get the caps from? When did this trend start?
The caps come from bars in Omorate, the big village where they go to the market. I think people must have had that on the head one day, and the tourists loved it. So since then, everyone copied that to make money getting photographed.
Can we talk about “trends” and innovations in the styles of these tribes?
In terms of accessories, yes. But not in their clothes because their colours have codes within the tribes.
Judging by your photographs, these tribes reappropriate elements of our Western culture (or “Made in China”) into their styles in a very creative way – for example, those football t-shirts, the SIM card earrings. Can you comment on this?
The football t-shirts are interesting because the men try to match the colours of the t-shirts to the colours of the tribe. The fact that they’re wearing these t-shirts has absolutely no relation to football. But since then, a few televisions have been showing football matches, so the men started to get interested. The t-shirts are all second hand.
What do you see happening with the dam that is being built along the Omo Valley?
More than the dam, I think it will be the highways and the migrants who are developing the country who are going to change things. The diseases, the money and prostitution are going to happen. In five years’ time, I see all the tribes being in full contact with Western culture.