Silverback Gorillas – Rwanda (c) Ilan Wittenberg (c) Ilan Wittenberg Tanzania
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!