Maynard Switzer’s three-week visit to Ethiopia early this year was the latest in a series of travels to photograph indigenous people and capture as much as he can of their lives and culture. Often what Maynard photographs is fast disappearing, and that was true in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley region, where the tribal people, most of them pastoralists—farmers who raise crops to feed their livestock—are losing their land, and with it a way of life that’s existed for thousands of years. “Ethiopia is a very poor country,” Maynard says, “and the government is leasing a lot of the fertile land to large farming conglomerates from different countries.” As a result, the tribal people are being moved, and a large dam is being built on the Omo River to irrigate the new, large farms; it’s a dam that will reduce the Omo River to a trickle in many areas the pastoralists depend on. Maynard believes that what he photographed in the Omo Valley might be gone within five to eight years. “There’s no place for these people or their traditions in the modern world Ethiopia’s leaders want to create.”
Although a year of planning and research went into his trip, and Maynard traveled with a guide/translator who was familiar with the area, there were still a few surprises—like having to pay to shoot. “The area isn’t a big tourist attraction,” he says, “but if you show up with a camera, the local people want to make the most if it. I don’t like to pay for photographing someone, but these pictures were too important to me, so often I had to.” The usual price per photo was ten birr—about five cents in U.S. currency.
Maynard had the advantage of spending time with the people, often staying overnight in the villages. “Obviously, the longer you’re there, the better. The more people get used to you, the more you see and are able to photograph. I like to photograph people going about their daily routines, and it takes a while to get to the point of not interfering by simply having a camera. Even with pose-and-pay, the longer you can stay, the more likely you’ll get natural looking photos.”
I like to photograph people going about their daily routines, and it takes a while to get to the point of not interfering by simply having a camera.
Maynard carried a D800 and D800E, D600 and two SB-700 Speedlights. He prefers to work with prime lenses—he brought the AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED, 28mm f/1.8G, 35mm f/1.4G and 85mm f/1.4G—and had only one zoom with him, the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR. “With a fixed focal length, I can concentrate much more on my framing,” he says. “I move around a lot more, and I feel the quality of the pictures is better. And faster glass helps when the lighting gets low—sometimes
I’m shooting inside homes and huts and don’t want to use flash.”
The Omo Valley is a dusty region, so Maynard tried to limit his lens changes and took extra care when he made them. “I’d try to wait until the dust settled, then I’d turn off the camera, point it down and be as quick as I could. Sometimes I’d ask my guide to help shield the camera.”
There’s no underestimating the importance of the gear to his work and the photographs that result. He found the D800s especially invaluable. “The thing about the D800 and the D800E is they yield so much detail and depth and a tremendous richness of color,” Maynard says. “When you’ve traveled this far to capture images that are part of your life’s work, you want people to look at the photographs and know that this was exactly what it was like.”