A Tough Question
I have always wondered how you ask someone, that doesn’t understand a word of what you are saying, to pose for you. For free. As the person being asked to pose, this must be really awkward? I mean, how would you feel if you are sitting watching CSI New York, and here walks in Mr & Mrs Tourist, snapping away… I don’t think I’d be too impressed. And yet, somehow, there are thousands of people who just assumes it as their right to take photos of the Himba – or any other African tribe for that matter.
Is there a right way?
I am a huge fan of Christopher Rimmer’s work (https://christopherrimmer.com/spirits-speak-exhibition/) and have often wondered how he does it. Then, I learned that he takes a local guide with him to help with translation etc and spends hours with his subjects. In using a guide, one subjects oneself to the rules set by the specific tribe. The Himba for instance, prefers to receive food and beads for being photographed. Using a guide and obeying to the rules of the said tribe or village, amounts to quite a few bucks and very few people want to pay for the right to photograph the traditions of a tribe. But again – wouldn’t you also want to be paid?
On this note, I have to add, that I don’t think paying with sweeties is a fair trade. This has not only lead to a nation addicted to sugar, but also to a lot of begging. Ever noticed all those little kids begging for sweeties (or even money) whenever you pass through a village? This is not part of the African culture. This is a classic case of the foreigner attempting to please without considering the long-term effects.
Unfortunately the whole “Pay for a Photo” also has a downside. Not too long ago we visited Etosha National Park and upon entering the park, I wanted to take a photo of the entrance gate. Incidentally a group of Himba ladies were sitting there, trying to sell their goods. As soon as they noticed my camera, they started screaming at me – apparently I needed to pay to take their photo. Now what?
Firstly I think this behavior is as a result of either being photographed once and paid an exorbitant fee or the result of never being asked for permission to be photographed. Like with everything in life, once we recognise something as a source of income, we can, if not trained, milk our source until it runs dry. And these Himba ladies, I strongly suspect, were in it for the latter.
How to go about photographing traditional tribes?
Never, as in never, attempt to visit a traditional tribe without a local guide. It doesn’t matter if you are from the same continent or country, if you are not part of that tribe you are a foreigner. You cannot begin to understand their traditions – no matter the amount of books you have read. A guide will help you get a glimpse of the true side of the tribe you are visiting and also translate what your reason for visiting is. Always try to and find a local guide who is one of the tribe or village you are visiting.
If you are staying at a lodge or camp in the area, ask if they offer a guided tour. If you are more than just a tourist, specify your interest so that they can cater for that. For example, a photographer will need to spend much more time with the people than a tourist. A photographer will also need different permissions and therefore be willing to pay more.
Never undervalue the service or privilege that the tribe / village offers you. Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself how much do you think you are worth.
During my last visit at Epupa, I had the opportunity to photograph two Himba girls. Though they agreed and offered to sit in different poses – I was really uncomfortable. I kept wondering how I would feel if I was in their shoes. Remember to always respect your subjects. Ask their permission and pay them accordingly. Respect comes a long way. Not just for you, but for every photographer that will follow in your shoes.
The above is merely my, (Mariëtte du Toit) own opinions and does not represent the views of a lodge or group of people.