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The Maasai

The Maasai People

Bronze medal for the Maasai at the 2021 North Shore National Salon of Photography – Digital Open category

2020 Sony Alpha Award

2020 SONY Alpha Awards: Editorial category winner

2020 Sony Alpha Award

Fantastic to get this little baby in the post for winning the Editorial category at the 2020 Sony Alpha Awards! Timid’ is part of 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: expression, body language, shape and form. I eliminated distracting colours to ensure that viewers focus on the people within the photos and make emotional connections with the Maasai. This is a documentary collection; most of the photos had little or no retouching. I waited for people to look straight into the camera so we can see highlights in their eyes.

The strength of the series is in giving viewers an opportunity to connect with the Maasai people in their natural environment. This diverse group of people serves as a timely reminder that despite our many cultural differences, we can unite as a community through the power of photography. I hope that through this portfolio viewers learn more about the Maasai culture. We are all wonderfully unique, yet at the same time, we are deeply the same.

I aim to depict the Maasai culture in an authentic and honest way, using a clear narrative style which shows the significance of their culture, as well as their individual personalities. My goal is to provoke viewers 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. 

Timid

Silver Medal – 2019 North Shore Salon – People category, print

The Maasai

The Maasai – Gold Medal, 2019 North Shore Salon of Photography: Portrait category, print

The Maasai inhabit the African Great Lakes region and arrived via the South Sudan. The Maasai are famous for their fearsome reputations as warriors and cattle-rustlers. Maasai society is strongly patriarchal in nature, with elder men, sometimes joined by retired elders, deciding most major matters for each Maasai group. A full body of oral law covers many aspects of behavior. Formal execution is unknown, and normally payment in cattle will settle matters. An out-of-court process is also practiced called ‘amitu’, ‘to make peace’, or ‘arop’, which involves a substantial apology. The monotheistic Maasai worship a single deity called Enkai or Engai. Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Na-nyokie (Red God) is vengeful. There are also two pillars or totems of 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 “Mountain of God”, Ol Doinyo Lengai, is located in northernmost Tanzania and can be seen from Lake Natron in southernmost Kenya. 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. Many Maasai have also adopted Christianity and Islam. The Maasai are known for their intricate jewelry.
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 (an enkang) built by the men, usually of thorned acacia, a native tree. 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 colors such as blue and plaid patterns. 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 colors 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 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 color of the beads, some general meanings for a few colors are: white, peace; blue, water; red, warrior/blood/bravery.
Beadworking, done 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 colored European glass beads arrived in Southeast Africa, beadworkers replaced the older beads with the new materials and began to use more elaborate color schemes. Currently, dense, opaque glass beads with no surface decoration and a naturally smooth finish are preferred.