I was very fortunate to win the 2018 Sony Alpha grand prize. The prize included a Safari Trip to Tanzania which I visited during February 2019. I’ve never taken photos of animals in the wild so this was very exciting. However, I feel that my portrait photos tell a bigger story. I took the opportunity and made special effort to connect with the indigenous population and very fortunate to create these extraordinary portrait of a disappearing culture! The portraits in this portfolio are of Maasai whom I met in the Ngorongoro Crater, Ndutu Plains and Serengeti National Park. These are not candid snapshots but carefully composed portraits that honour the Maasai people. I did not plan to create these portraits but was overwhelmed when I first saw members of the tribe. Once back in my office, I selected the best ones, retouched them slightly and converted into ‘film-like’ monochrome. While ‘loosing’ the colour may seem ‘wrong’, I feel that monochrome is timeless. It helps bring the portraits together and creates a flow which holds the series together. Our eyes are attracted to certain colours such as red and yellow so converting the photos into monochrome makes us focus on the body language, expression, forms and shapes – without any distraction. It makes the portraits extraordinary and timeless. Another important aspect for me was that the people look straight into the camera. “The eyes are windows to the soul” and seeing their eyes as the viewer adds an important dimension to our interpretation of their character.
The Maasai are famous for their fearsome reputations as warriors and cattle-rustlers. The Maasai society is strongly patriarchal in nature with elder men deciding most major matters for each Maasai group. A full body of oral law covers many aspects of behaviour. Formal execution is unknown and normally payment in cattle will settle matters. The monotheistic Maasai worship a single deity called Enkai or Engai. Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) who is benevolent and Engai Na-nyokie (Red God) who is vengeful. There are also two pillars or totems of the Maasai society: Oodo Mongi, the Red Cow and Orok Kiteng, the Black Cow with a subdivision of five clans or family trees. The Maasai also has a totemic animal which is the lion however, the animal can be killed. The way the Maasai kill the lion differs from trophy hunting as it is used in the rite of passage ceremony.
The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the Laibon whose roles include shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, and ensuring success in war or adequate rainfall. Today, they have a political role as well due to the elevation of leaders. Whatever power an individual Laibon had was a function of personality rather than position.
The piercing and stretching of earlobes is common among the Maasai as with other tribes. Various materials have been used to both pierce and stretch the lobes, including thorns for piercing, twigs, bundles of twigs, stones, the cross section of elephant tusks and empty film canisters.
As a historically nomadic and then semi-nomadic people, the Maasai have traditionally relied on local, readily available materials and indigenous technology to construct their housing. The traditional Maasai house was in the first instance designed for people on the move and was thus very impermanent in nature. The houses are either somewhat rectangular shaped with extensions or circular, and are constructed by able-bodied women.
The structural framework of a typical hut is formed of timber poles fixed directly into the ground and interwoven with a lattice of smaller branches wattle, which is then plastered with a mix of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung, human urine, and ash. The cow dung ensures that the roof is waterproof. The enkaj or engaji is small, measuring about 3×5 m and standing 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 placed in an enclosure in the centre, safe from wild animals.
Shúkà is the Maa word for sheets traditionally worn wrapped around the body. These are typically red, though with some other colours (e.g. blue) and patterns (e.g. plaid). Pink, even with flowers, is not shunned by warriors. One piece garments known as kanga, a Swahili term, are common. Maasai near the coast may wear Kikoi, a type of sarong that comes in many different colours and textiles. However, the preferred style is stripes.
Many Maasai in Tanzania wear simple sandals, which were until recently made from cowhides. They are now soled with tire strips or plastic. Both men and women wear wooden bracelets. The Maasai are known for their intricate jewellery. The Maasai women regularly weave and bead jewellery. This beadwork plays an essential part in the ornamentation of their body. Although there are variations in the meaning of the colour of the beads, some general meanings for a few colours are: white, peace; blue, water; red, warrior/blood/bravery.
Bead working by women has a long history among the Maasai who articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting. Before contact with Europeans, the beads were produced mostly from local 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. When late in the nineteenth century, great quantities of brightly coloured European glass beads arrived in Southeast Africa, bead workers replaced the 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.
Upon reaching the age of 3 "moons", the child is named and the head is shaved clean apart from a tuft of hair, which resembles a cockade, from the nape of the neck to the forehead. The cockade symbolizes the "state of grace" accorded to infants.A woman who has miscarried in a previous pregnancy would position the hair at the front or back of the head, depending on whether she had lost a boy or a girl.Head shaving is common at many rites of passage, representing the fresh start that will be made as one passes from one to another of life's chapters. Warriors are the only members of the Maasai community to wear long hair, which they weave in thinly braided strands.
Two days before boys are circumcised, their heads are shaved. The young warriors then allow their hair to grow, and spend a great deal of time styling the hair. It is dressed with animal fat and ocher, and parted across the top of the head at ear level. Hair is then plaited: parted into small sections which are divided into two and twisted, first separately then together. Cotton or wool threads may be used to lengthen hair. The plaited hair may hang loose or be gathered together and bound with leather. When warriors go through the Eunoto, and become elders, their long plaited hair is shaved off.
As males have their heads shaved at the passage from one stage of life to another, a bride to be will have her head shaved, and two rams will be slaughtered in honor of the occasion.
My first encounter with the Maasai was at a lodge which was located near the Ngorongoro Crater - a national reserve for wildlife animals and a World Heritage Site. Members of the tribe have a distinct look, their earlobes are elongated and pierced and they are wearing vivid blue or red garments. They were working at the lodge when I approached one to ask if I could create his portrait. One of the men spoke English which helped me make contact with the others. I only had a brief time as they were busy working and I was a member of the tour group focusing on wildlife photography. However, I immediately saw the potential to document this disappearing culture and seized every opportunity, early morning or late afternoon, to make contact with the local community and document them on every stop.
There were a few challenges creating this series. The main one was time. I only had brief opportunities to meet with the locals. We were either guided through a small village, departing early morning to the safari game driving or arriving back to camp late at night. I had to act fast and use every opportunity of available light to engage the Maasai.
The second challenge has to do with capturing details of their face. Their skin is dark black which does not reflect a lot of light. I had to pose them in such a way that ambient light will come from behind me without blinding them. The third challenge was being part of a group of photographers. It was important to me that the Maasai look straight at me so always waited for the right moment to step in and ask that they look at the camera without being distracted, being careful not to step on fellow photographers’ toes…
It was important to me to connect with a few of the younger generation Maasai who had smartphones with WhatsApp. After completing the series, I send them the link to the album and asked then to show it in the village. They were so proud and delighted with the outcome! They said that the album shows that I really love the people! It is so gratifying to see the collection and remember the moments. This is the true value of photography which brings back the memories and tell the story again.
I made it a point to ask people's permission and create rapport. I asked one of the guides to teach me how to say: “My name is Ilan. What is your name?” using the Maa language. I then repeated it aloud at least two dozen times so it will get into my head (the guide was really entertained with my memorising exercise). I then repeated that with every encounter and the Maasai opened up. I also made sure that I have some money to tip the people so they feel it is a win-win for both of us. Lastly, I learned the local symbol of saying “Thankyou” using a hand gesture. I would make a fist in my right hand, bang it softly against theirs, bring it back to touch my heart and then open it towards the sky!