Himba Encounter

Ongongo, Damaraland, Namibia.
Meeting the Himba was not what I expected. I imagined driving for hours through desolate, desert landscapes until finally reaching a remote village perched between rocky hills with no sign of modern civilisation in sight. They would approach the khaki clad tourists with cautious curiosity and cast a suspicious eye at the shiny digital cameras. Instead what I experienced was a fairly nonchalant, casual exchange with a group of Himba women a short walk from our campsite at Ongongo in the Damaraland region of Namibia.
We found the ochre painted ladies sitting in the shade of a tree next to a makeshift mud hut, looking out over a massive herd of Nguni cattle. After an introduction facilitated by our local guide and interpreter, we offered the gifts we had been advised to bring as an exchange for taking photos. They were grateful for the maize, sugar and cooking oil but said we first also had to buy some hand crafted jewelry – only then were we allowed to take photos. With the go-ahead given, it felt awkward to just start snapping away. This was something I had anticipated so I had brought a Polaroid camera along. I asked our interpreter to explain that I could give them their own photos. Suddenly everyone jumped into life and ran around putting on their best jewelry and headpieces and jostled to be next in line for a portrait. Once the film cartridge was finished, I took out my rather bulky DSLR but by then the ice had been broken and nobody seemed to mind.
I started by taking one or two pics of the women with their prints in hand. I want to kick myself now for missing the opportunity to create an extended series of these portraits. To me it adds another layer to the portrait, portraying the developing self-consciousness of the Himba people as the ‘exotic other’ under the ‘gazing eye’ of modern society – but I was overwhelmed by the opportunity to shoot portraits of an ancient people and portray them accordingly. I intentionally left out the plastic buckets, the Pep Stores blanket, the guys standing around in casual clothes, and the rusting remains of a car – potentially a more revealing, complex portrayal.