suri

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.