Known to many as the “artery of the world”, the Omo Valley is rich in vegetation, history and heritage. During Sam Barker’s expedition throughout Ethiopia, he was fortunate enough to photograph three of the eight tribes residing in the Omo Valley: the Mursi, Hamma and Karo – those whose very way-of-life is in jeopardy with the introduction of large-scale agriculture business.
The dialogue between Sam and his subjects was based on trust on respect, and a dignified reflection of their personal identity and spirit was of foremost importance. Captured within their natural surroundings, the elegant portraits are not without a certain degree of careful staging though. On the surface they are formal both in technique and posture, however there is also a subtle nonchalance and affability ever-present amongst the sitters.
Barker’s considered approach sought to highlight the individualism of the tribes within Ethiopia’s arid terrain. Tone, light, scale and depth play together to draw out each individual as they take centre stage, sometimes camouflaged in their surroundings. This approach is a direct contrast to the more familiar ‘photo-journalistic’ aesthetic in which indigenous people have often been portrayed in the past.
Home to over half a million native people, the Omo Valley and its river basin is of both geological and archaeological significance to the region and the scientific world. Home to some of the world’s oldest discovered human remains, archaeologists have also excavated ancient tools made from quartzite, dating back to 2.4 million years ago.
The Mursi people are a tribe of around 7,000 people in the valley. Known for wearing huge ornamental clay lip plates, they are forcibly relocated out of their ancestral land to make way for irrigated state-run sugar plantations. As a result, their age-old tradition of cattle herding is coming to an abrupt end.
The construction of Africa’s tallest dam – the Gibe III – will also reduce the Omo River to fraction of its formal self, putting an end to seasonal floods and the abundance of crops growing along its bank.
Although governmental authorities are keen to disregard any threat, turning a blind eye to the allegations of displacement, the relocation of indigenous tribes, land clearance and the “modernisation” of the Omo Valley is a very real and delicate story in Ethiopia – one that ultimately affects the livelihoods of half a million people who depend on the Omo River.