africa

An unorthodox Easter at Lalibela

Lalibela in Ethiopia is one of those places that once you've seen pictures of it you will always want to go there..  For years I've seen articles and images of the amazing monolithic churches carved out of the rock and thought that one day I'd have the chance to get there and see it for myself.  Fortunately that chance came a few years ago on a photo/research trip through northern Ethiopia with a writer/photographer friend of mine.  Not only did we get to spend a few days at Lalibela but we also chose to visit at one of the best times of year - during the Ethiopian Orthodox Easter celebrations when thousands of pilgrims come from all over the country to pray.

Lalibela-1

The 11 rock hewn churches at Lalibela are thought to have been built during the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th century and early 13th century.  Biete Giyorgis (above) is probably the best preserved and most finely executed and iconic of all the churches and is carved out of the top of a sandstone hill.

Over the Orthodox Easter period people flocked into Lalibela in their thousands, coming from all over Ethiopia as well as abroad to pray and attend the numerous services and processions that were taking place around the churches at all times of day and night.  The devotion of the visitors was incredible - sleeping in and around the churches, praying and studying the Holy scriptures seemingly their entire waking hours.

After dark the place took on an altogether different atmosphere.  Wandering around the churches in the near pitch black was an intense experience, at times you would be on your own trying to find your way down rock carved alleys from one church to another and the next moment you'd be surrounded by pilgrims walking in endless circles round one of the churches.  One particular moment I will never forget was hearing the distant drone of many people chanting and the sound of the brass rattles (sistrum) used throughout the churches in Ethiopia - following the resonating sound down the passages it led to a small carved out where I witnessed a scene that can barely have changed since the days when the churches were first chiseled from the sandstone.  A group of Deacons lit only by waxed tapers and clad in simple white robes rocked rhythmically back and forward in unison to the sound of drums and sistrum.  Off the main chamber another priest swung a glowing censer that permeated the air with the intoxicating smell of incense, the roof blackened with the waxy soot of nearly a millenium of prayer.

Lalibela-23

Outside in the main areas surrounding the sunken churches, dozens of pilgrims wrapped in simple shawls curled up in whatever space they could find to try and snatch an hour or two of chilly sleep whilst those around carried on their prayers by the dim flickering light of a taper.

I shot everything during this trip on the Canon 5d mkll, my main camera at the time.  The cameras low light performance never fails to amaze - the 5dlll I now use is amazingly even better.  The ability to shoot in seemingly near darkness without having to resort to lighting is fantastic.

These images and many others from this and other assignments are available direct from me or through the various agencies I'm represented by, including: Axiom Photographic, Getty Images and DesignPics

Oxfam America/Rockefeller Foundation commission

Earlier in the year I had a 3 week shoot in a number of East African countries for Oxfam America and the Rockefeller Foundation.  Material from the shoot was ultimately destined for presentation at at the recent summit on "Realizing the Potential of African Agriculture: Catalytic Innovations for Growth" held in Abuja, Nigeria.  The summit was attended by not only numerous African ministers prime ministers but also former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

Some of the material used is shown below.

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Maize-maize
Maize-maize
Maize-Nyamig
Maize-Nyamig
Cassava_ernesto
Cassava_ernesto
Mobile-Cassava
Mobile-Cassava

A short walk before breakfast

Whilst visiting the Suri people in Southwestern Ethiopia one of the things I was particularly keen to document was the traditional practice of taking and drinking cattle blood early in the morning. 

Cattle are of enormous significance to Suri men with a man's worth  judged by the number of cows he has.  In fact it's not uncommon for Suri men to risk their lives in protecting their cattle from raiders.  Typically adult men might own 30 or 40 cows, saving for the day when having amassed 60 head they are considered of marriageable status. 

Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM

Setting off just after dawn and guided by our armed escort Arbulo (meaning Black Bull) we waded the Kibbish river and headed up into the bush on the far bank.  After a brisk 40 minute walk we arrived at the corral of a man we had met and photographed on the river bank the previous evening and who had invited us to visit him with his cattle. Scanning the cattle with a very knowledgeable eye a young cow was selected and quickly cornered by the young herd boys who then held it ready for blood to be taken. 

Surma-4
Surma-4
Surma-6
Surma-6
Surma-7
Surma-7
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM

Strangely the cattle were not particularly disturbed by any of this - perhaps used to this near daily activity.  A leather thong was quicky passed around the cows neck and tightened - it's jugular vein by this stage very pronounced but still a tiny target for for the bow and arrow held by one of the elder herd boys. 

Surma-9
Surma-9

One quick shot with a sharp arrow into the bulging jugular was all it took to release a throbbing stream of blood into the gourd bowl held ready.  Seconds later with the bowl full of vivid red blood the thong was removed and a small handful of mud pressed into the tiny cut.  The blood clotted almost instantly and the cow was released and trotted off to join the rest of the herd seemingly none the worse for it's experience.

Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM

With only minutes before the fresh blood would start to clot, two of the young herd boys quickly polished off the blood in a matter of seconds and then without another word the gate of the corral was opened and they quickly left and vanished into the bush with the cattle.

Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM

Photographing this event was always going to be at least a little bit tricky - with little or no verbal communication possible between me and the subjects there was no real way of telling what was about to happen and there was no option to say hang on a second whilst I change lenses or recompose.  With an already bright sun causing the usual problems of photographing black skin in broad daylight I chose to shoot with off camera fill in flash triggered through a Canon ETTL cable and shot through a combination of white brolly or small softbox.  Trying to get well composed images whilst slipping around in ankle deep cow shit is not the easiest thing to do and as always with hindsight there are always things you might do differently but in general I think I more or less caught the flavor of the morning if not the smell.

Surma-15
Surma-15

With the cattle gone it was back down to the river to wash off the the knee high reminder of the mornings experience and then back to the tents for our own altogether less adventurous breakfast.

Making vs. taking a portrait

The portrait below was shot during a recent visit to the tiny settlement of Kibbish in South West Ethiopia - home to the fascinating Surma people.  I spent several days in and around the village shooting reportage and portraits of these colorful and elegant people and I particularly liked this frame for the way it captures the gentle nature and the ease of the young guy.  But in order to end up with an image like this there is a lot more to it than just pressing the shutter and hoping for the best.

Firstly the subject - this boy was the brother of another young man who I was using as a guide and was obviously at ease and relaxed in the company of strangers which makes things a whole lot easier from the outset.  He was happy to be photographed and what's more to be photographed repeatedly without demanding payment for every frame taken which is sadly (but not unsurprisingly) a feature in seemingly even the remotest of locations these days.

The location was not that special - a patch of scrubby farm on the edge of the village with nothing that really stood out as a backdrop.  That was until I saw the banana tree.  With the tree as a backdrop I then had a way of isolating subject from the mess of the surrounding area - of course I could have used what was there and ended up with a totally different image but "I chose not to".   That's an important thing to say - "I chose not to"... I didn't just take a picture of a guy in a village but I made a conscious effort to pick a suitable subject and then pick a suitable backdrop and then bring the 2 components together.

Looking through the images in Lightroom I see that I then shot 24 frames - all lit with a handheld speedlight through a shoot through white brolly - until I thought I'd got a frame I was satisfied with.  If you have a subject that you think is interesting then it's worth keeping shooting and working the subject until one of you is either bored, exhausted or you feel you've got what you are after.

Standing there, pouring with sweat and with an image I thought I was happy with was of course just the beginning. Below is the RAW image as it came out of the Canon 5d mkll.

Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
histo
histo

As you can see the image is flat and pretty lifeless - exactly what you want from a RAW image but capturing all the data from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights as shown in the histogram

Importing the image into lightroom some weeks later I could simply have pressed the "auto" button and I would have ended up with an OK image - nothing special, just OK.  But that's not what I had in mind when I shot the image - I wanted something more like an old polaroid print so that's how I chose to develop it in Lightroom.

The end result is an Image "I made" - a portrait that I am pretty happy with and not just a picture "I took" of a young guy in a patch of scrubby bush.

Fuji x100s - Acorn or Oak?

'Mighty Oaks from little Acorns grow'..... or so the saying goes.

Eskdale Oak
Eskdale Oak

Just been out shooting with my new camera - the Fuji x100s.  This camera has received rave reviews from the likes of David Hobby a.k.a. the Strobist as well as Zack Arias and others and is purported to be possibly the best street photographers camera on the market at the present time.

Styling wise the camera is similar to an old Leica m series  - it's got a pin sharp fixed focal length 35mm F2 lens which will no doubt deter many users wanting something a little more adaptable but the advantage of it is a) it's size and inconspicuousness b) it's weight c) silent shutter d) leaf shutter.

I've shot quite a few images with it over the last month or so - Am I in love with it?...Not yet.  Do I think I will fall in love with it over time?  Quite possibly.  I think its a grower rather than a love at first site camera for me, I like the idea but it's got a long way to go before I leave my 5d mk 3 at home and rely on this alone.

Using it on a recent assignment in East Africa made me realise it's not a camera for shooting reportage - AF is not quick enough, viewfinder doesn't have the right feel and there are a number of other things that bug the hell out of me.  But all that aside - I still like it and am prepared to give it a second chance.. Like all good relationships it will mature and develop with time.

DSCF1862
DSCF1862

As long as you are not rushed for an image then I think it will be a brilliant camera - trying to get in close to a subject and capture moments as they happen is not this camera's strongpoint - standing, waiting and taking your time and creating pictures however might well be.

It's an Acorn for the time being - I'm hoping it might yet turn into an Oak.

Here are a few pictures shot on recent assignment in Rwanda, Mozambique and Zambia.

Nampula, Mozambique
Nampula, Mozambique
Nampula, Mozambique
Nampula, Mozambique
Shoes for sale, Mozambique
Shoes for sale, Mozambique
Market boys, Mozambique
Market boys, Mozambique
Monze, Zambia
Monze, Zambia
Nampula, Mozambique
Nampula, Mozambique
Nampula street scene, Mozambique
Nampula street scene, Mozambique
Evening on the Zambezi, Livingstone, Zambia
Evening on the Zambezi, Livingstone, Zambia
Cutting the grass, Livingstone, Zambia
Cutting the grass, Livingstone, Zambia

Shooting the falls

I very recently returned from a 3 week commissioned shoot in Africa during which I visited Mozambique, Rwanda and Zambia.  Each country was memorable for different reasons; Rwanda for the legacy of the 1994 Genocide, Mozambique for being the first Portuguese speaking African country I've visited and Zambia for the truly magnificent Victoria Falls.

I was very fortunate that we ended up in Livingstone for the last couple of days of the trip and had the opportunity to visit the falls at the peak flow of the flood season, sometimes work and play can come together and give these great opportunities.

Driving through Livingstone you are almost constantly reminded that the falls are nearby - a large cloud permanently sits over the falls and can be seen from miles away. The local name of Mosi-oa-Tunya is very apt meaning "the smoke that thunders".

Photographing the falls well is not really something to be done in an afternoon - I guess proper landscape photographers would take weeks to scout the area and work out the best time to be where.  I was limited to a rushed visit of about an hour and knew nothing of the landscape of the falls and surrounding area so it was a bit of a lucky dip to be honest.

In truth getting a good view of the falls from the ground is difficult with the water levels as high as they were as there is an unbelievable amount of spray that's carried high into the sky and obscures the view.  Visitors wandering along the numerous paths run the constant risk of being soaked by torrential downpours as waves of spray fall back down to earth - one second you are fine and the next it's like being hit by a fire hose.  Again not conducive to having a camera in your hand.  Nonetheless I did manage to grab a few shots between being soaked by spray and then run off the path by a large male baboon whose territory I was obviously encroaching - the following are from the falls, the riverside and the small Mosi-oa-Tunya National park.

Livingstone-1
Livingstone-1
Spray rising up from the boiling pot below
Spray rising up from the boiling pot below
Livingstone-3
Livingstone-3
Livingstone-4
Livingstone-4
Livingstone-5
Livingstone-5
Livingstone-6
Livingstone-6
Zambia © Toby Adamson / Oxfam America
Zambia © Toby Adamson / Oxfam America
Zambia © Toby Adamson / Oxfam America
Zambia © Toby Adamson / Oxfam America
Livingstone-9
Livingstone-9
Livingstone-10
Livingstone-10
Livingstone-11
Livingstone-11
Livingstone-12
Livingstone-12
Livingstone-13
Livingstone-13
Livingstone-14
Livingstone-14
Livingstone-15
Livingstone-15
Livingstone-16
Livingstone-16

Stand still and let it happen..

Old Havana, Cuba

Finding good subject matter is sometimes difficult as a traveling photographer - some days everything seems to fall into place easily and interesting things pop into your viewfinder one after another whilst on other days you scratch around looking hopelessly for some kind of inspiration.  A useful approach I quite often adopt is the 'stand still and let it happen' technique.  It goes like this: Find an interesting background and then sit back and wait for the subject to come to you!  Simple but often effective.  If you wander around aimlessly hoping to come across interesting images you can strike lucky but if you identify an interesting backdrop to an image then at least you have one element in place and a degree of control of your final image.  Another advantage of this technique is that you can blend into the scene and become less visible particularly if you pretend to be shooting pictures of something other than your approaching subject.

The following pictures hopefully illustrate the point.

Walking around the narrow alleys in the beautiful city of Harar in Ethiopia I came across this door and section of very colorful wall.  As a graphic image on it's own it's OK - nothing special but a good starting point for a better image yet to come.  There were few people around and in the confined space those that there were very aware of a me and my camera.

So stand still and let it happen... Just blend into the wall as best you can and wait - when someone comes down the alley rather than chase them with a camera just start shooting architecture and wait for the moment to happen when person and wall fall into place.

OK still not perhaps the best images in the world but standing in that same spot for 5 or 10 minutes gave me quite a few useable images.

Here are a couple more images shot in the same way in Ethiopia, Kurdish Iraq and Cuba.

Making the most of an opportunity

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Sometime as a photographer things happen very quickly and often you need to decide whether there is something in front of you that is worth photographing or not - will it make a good picture, or an interesting picture - or perhaps one that tells a story you are interested in telling?  Sometimes it's as simple as a young girl on her way to school with an umbrella in hand on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

On this particular day I'd already been driving for several hours through the Western Highlands of Ethiopia and to be honest by this stage was looking for an opportunity to stop and stretch my legs - a toilet stop is always the most obvious excuse but in this instance the sight of the young girl with matching clothes and umbrella were the perfect reason.

Having persuaded the girl to allow me to shoot a couple of frames we were then rapidly joined by a quickly growing group of her school friends who having seen the image on the back of the camera were all keen to be photographed as well.  What followed was an exercise in patience - what you can't see in the images are the 25 or so other kids who all wanted to be in every shot and lined up forming a tight human corridor between me and the subject.  I shot a single frame of each kid at 200mm in order to avoid the sea of encroaching faces.

Individually none of the images are great but together (and as a little reminder of a fun half an hour with some friendly kids) they work quite well.