From here to Africa
The Maasai People
Webinar & Artist Talk at the 2020 hEAD oN Photo Festival
From Here to Africa is a collection of captivating portraits of the Maasai people from Tanzania. I found myself deeply inspired upon meeting the Maasai tribe and realised the opportunity to document their unique culture which is being eroded by Western influence and modern technology. On a personal level, this reminds me of the true value of photography: preserving memories in order to relive special stories and pass them on to others. Through this series of carefully composed photographs, the Maasai people can share their rich culture with the world.
The collection is presented in a film-noir monochrome, capturing these portraits in a classically timeless style; lending a unifying appearance that emulates analogue lithographic techniques. I wanted viewers to focus on the humanity aspect of each portrait: expressions and body language, shapes and forms. I eliminated distracting colours to ensure that viewers focus on the people within the photos, and make emotional connections with these individuals.
I aim to depict the Maasai culture in an authentic and honest way, using a clear narrative style which shows people the significance of their culture, as well as their individual personalities. My goal is to provoke your imagination regarding the traditions of the Maasai people and the stories behind their portraits. In sharing this portfolio I encourage viewers to show tolerance: to accept all people and to recognise the value of cultural diversity. We would all experience an enhanced sense of community if we took the time to appreciate interactions which allow us to discover the world beyond our familiar boundaries.
In 2018 I was awarded the Sony Alpha grand prize, which provided the opportunity to travel to Tanzania. This was an exciting challenge, as I had not photographed animals in the wild before. However, I found that I was most inspired by my interactions with the indigenous populations – particularly the Maasai people. While travelling as part of a wildlife photography group, I encountered a couple of Maasai men and was inspired to create their portraits. I recognised this incredible opportunity to document this disappearing culture and seized every opportunity, early mornings and late afternoons, to contact and document the local Maasai community. I was overwhelmed upon first meeting them and was fortunate to be able to take some unplanned portraits of tribe members. These photographs were carefully composed to honour the Maasai people.
My first encounter with the Maasai was at a lodge which was located near the Ngorongoro Crater national reserve for wildlife animals. Members of the Maasai tribe have a distinct look: their earlobes elongated and pierced, and wearing vivid blue or red garments. Two Maasai men were working at the lodge when I approached one to ask if I could create his portrait – the beginning of this portrait series. When I sent the link of the portfolio to members of the tribe they were delighted, saying that my photos showed that I really loved their people.
During this project, I made a point to learn basic phrases of the Maasai language to connect with the community – I found that the Maasai people opened up much more when they saw that I was engaged in their language and culture. I didn’t know what medicine might be needed. I faced numerous challenges during this project, including extremely limited time for photographing the people as well as technical issues in capturing facial details using natural light only.
I made a point to ask people’s permission, and create rapport. One of the guides taught me how to say: “My name is Ilan. What is your name?” using the Maa language. I also ensured that I was able to tip the people who agreed to be photographed to thank them for their time. Lastly, I learned the local hand gesture for “thank you”: make a fist with your right hand, bang it softly against theirs, bring it back to touch your heart, and then open it towards the sky!
I later edited the best portraits into a film-style monochrome – somewhat ironically capturing a culture affected by time in a timeless style. Some may argue that it is ‘wrong’ to put such a colourful culture into monochrome photographs; however my editing decision creates focus and flow within the series. Viewers would have otherwise been distracted by bright colours, and I wanted to draw attention to the aspects of humanity within each photograph. The result is extraordinary, and timeless. On a personal level, it is so gratifying to look at this collection and remember those moments. This is the true value of photography: bringing back memories, telling those special stories again.
The Maasai have a fearsome reputation as warriors and cattle-rustlers. They are a patriarchal society, with male elders making major decisions within each group. There are comprehensive oral laws pertaining to many aspects of behaviour; and compensation through cattle is the most common method for settling disputes. Despite their reputation as warriors, formal penalty by execution is an unfamiliar concept.
Monotheistic Maasai worship a single deity: ‘Enkai’ or ‘Enga’i. Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok (the Black God) who is benevolent; and Engai Na-nyokie (the Red God) who is vengeful. The central human role in the Maasai religious system is the Laibon, whose roles include shamanistic healing; divination and prophecy; and ensuring successes in warfare, or adequate rainfall. In the modern Maasai communities, Laibons also have a political role, due to the elevated status of leaders. Whatever power an individual Laibon had was a function of their personality rather than their position.
There are also two pillars, or totems, of the Maasai society: Oodo Mongi (the Red Cow) and Orok Kiteng (the Black Cow). The Maasai also has a totemic animal: the lion. While lions are still permitted to be hunted and killed, the Maasai kill lions for a ceremonial rite of passage, rather than trophy hunting.
Upon reaching the age of three “moons”, children are named; and have their head shaven clean, aside from a tuft of hair from the forehead to the nape of the neck – resembling a cockade. The cockade symbolizes the state of grace accorded to infants in the Maasai communities. A woman who miscarried a previous pregnancy would position her hair at the front or back of the head, depending on whether she lost a boy or a girl. Head-shaving is a common aspect for many Maasai rites of passage: representing a fresh start as an individual moves from one period of their life into the next. Warriors are the only members of the Maasai community who wear long hair, which they weave in thinly braided strands.
Boys will have their heads shaved two days before they are circumcised. Aftwards, as young warriors, they allow their hair to grow long, and spend a great deal of time styling it with animal fat and ocher, parting it across the top of the head at ear level. Hair is ‘plaited’ by parting hair into small sections which are divided into two and twisted, first separately then together. Cotton or woollen threads may be used to lengthen the hair. Plaited hair may hang loose, or be gathered together and bound with leather. When warriors go through the Eunoto rite to become community elders, their long plaited hair is shaved off.
Females similarly have their heads shaved at the passage from one stage of life to another: for a marriage passage, a bride to be will have her head shaved, and two rams will be slaughtered in honor of the occasion.
As a historically nomadic, and later semi-nomadic people, the Maasai people relied on local, readily-available materials, and indigenous technology to construct their huts – known. The traditional Maasai house is considered to be the first instance of housing designed for nomadic people; and was thus impermanent in nature. Houses are formed with either rectangular or circular designs, and are constructed by able-bodied women.
A typical hut has timber poles fixed directly into the ground to provide structural framework, and is then interwoven with a lattice of smaller branches wattle. Plaster is made by mixing of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung, human urine, and ash. The cow dung ensures that the roof is waterproof. The building is small: generally 3×5 m, and only 1.5 m high. Within this space, the family cooks, eats, sleeps, socializes, and stores food, fuel, and other household possessions. Small livestock are also often accommodated within the enkaji. Villages are enclosed in a circular fence built by the men, usually of native tree called acacia. At night all cows, goats, and sheep are herded into an enclosure in the centre of the village, safe from wild animals.
Shúkà is the Maa word for the sheets of fabric worn wrapped around the body. These are typically red, though some other colours are also used (e.g. blue), and patterns can be created (e.g. plaid). One-piece garments (‘kanga’, a Swahili term) are common. Maasai near the coast may wear Kikoi, a type of sarong that comes in many different colours and fabric styles – although the preferred style is stripes. Unlike gender-stereotyping Western societies, the colour pink, and floral patterns, are not shunned by male warriors.
Many Maasai in Tanzania wear simple sandals, which were traditionally made from cowhides; but now tend to use tyre strips or plastic for the soles.
Piercing and stretching earlobes is common among the Maasai, as with other tribes in Tanzania. Various materials are used to pierce and stretch the lobes: thorns (particularly for piercing); twigs, or bundles of twigs; stones; the cross section of elephant tusks; and empty film canisters.
The Maasai people are known for their intricate jewellery, and both men and women wear wooden bracelets. Late in the nineteenth century European contact introduced brightly-coloured glass beads in Southeast Africa, and bead workers replaced older beads with the new materials and began to use more elaborate colour schemes. Currently, dense, opaque glass beads with no surface decoration and a naturally smooth finish are preferred. Maasai women identify their position within the community by the ornamentation and painting on their bodies. Bead work has a long history within the Maasai communities, and regularly weave and bead jewellery. Before contact with European communities, beads were produced from locally-sourced raw materials. White beads were made from clay, shells, ivory, or bone. Black and blue beads were made from iron, charcoal, seeds, clay, or horn. Red beads came from seeds, woods, gourds, bone, ivory, copper, or brass. There are variations in the meanings of the colour of beads, but common meanings are as follows: white representing peace; blue representing water; red representing blood, bravery, and warriors.