mursi tribe

My blog sure sees a lot of posts from me about Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley. These people have fascinated me for years now. It's only normal I feel the need to share so many images from my time spent with these incredible people.

I have not published these photographs on my blog before, but I took them on the same Nov / December 2009 trip in Ethiopia that I’ve posted about before. You can read all about that trip here or view a video documentary about it here.

Before this stream of photographs, all my pictures have been of the subjects within their environment, but you’ll notice all these are on a simple black background. I am currently working on a fine art book of this entire series encompassing all my work from the Omo Valley and felt it needed a little breathing room at the end. I am just in the early stages now, and as you can imagine it’s a daunting task putting everything together. Although that will take a long time, my work from this series will also be displayed very soon Los Angeles at Photola this January 15th. This link has information about a meet and greet that day, so please come by and say hello! (Painfully, they put a picture of Edward Cullen on info page… I can assure you there will be no Twilight pictures on display, but I guess that’s LA for you.)

Oh right, back to Ethiopia- the tribes look so interesting that sometimes you don’t even need to depict the in their environment. The way they present themselves can say a lot about them if you know how to read it. Each tribe of the Omo valley has a specific way of dressing and decorating themselves as a way to visually associate themselves with their unique customs and values. Since there are so many tribes occupying spaces close to one another, the need for visual differences to separate one from another is strong.

For example, at puberty some women start applying a deep red clay to their skin and hair to mark them as part of the Hamer tribe. The iron rings around the neck represent they may be a first or second wife. Scarification on a man depicts taking another’s life in tribal war, but for a woman it means she has created a new one- a sign of motherhood.

Mursi headdresses are made out of bird feathers. It is both a decoration and an object intimidation for neighboring enemies. The Mursi are considered some of the most feared warriors in the Omo Valley.

karo tribe

The Karo are considered one of the Omo Valley’s most endangered ethnic group with an estimated population of only 1500 remaining. As an elder of the Karo tribe, Biwa (left panel) is respected and well adorned as a warrior, carrying rows of scarification representing the enemies he killed in battle. Biwa fought the Mursi and expelled them from the land his tribe now occupies.

The Daasanach (right panel) are a semi-nomadic tribe numbering approximately 50,000. Their clans stretch across Sudan, Kenya and Southern Ethiopia. Politically, the Daasanach do not feel they belong to either country and prefer to self- govern by their own customs and interpretation of land borders. In the past, the tribe was able to roam place to place more freely as pastorialists, but in recent times there is also a dependence on agriculture. Like many tribes of the Omo Valley, the Daasanach depend on the annual flood cycle of the Omo River to nurture their crops. Their dress resembles that of a Daasanach hut- created from collected scraps and objects traded with other tribes and villages, then turned into a work of art.

hamer tribe

The Hamer (right panel) have a belief in spirits are which are assigned to physical objects on Earth. They observe the interconnectedness of both living things and inanimate objects. When asked about their religion, most will reply they don’t have one. They don’t have a specific name for their belief system, it is viewed simply as a way of life.

Omo valley

(Mashi Algo and Dina Alada of the Hamer.) The Hamer make their clothing out of reused goat skin, stretched and dried in the sun. In recent times, western clothing is becoming popular as well as beaded decorations woven into the fabric.

arbore tribe

After an armed conflict, the elders of the Arbore will bury the spear heads and weaponry used in battle in order to curse the notion of war.

arbore women

Arbore women are well know for their long headdresses. The girls shave their heads to indicate virginity, and only start growing hair after marriage.

Omo valley tribe

After the introduction of missionaries into the Omo Valley the Arbore now share a mixture of monotheistic and traditional animist beliefs

hamer Omo valley

Study of Dula Bulunka, Hamer tribe (left panel)

karo tribe

The Karo tribe lives on the Western side of the Omo River. The Nyangatom live on the other side, a tribe that has raided Karo land many times in the past.

Omo valley

As usual, I used my normal camera and one light setup.

The light is created from a modest Profoto 7B 1200 battery pack with an Elinchrom Octa as it’s modifier.

The camera was a Phase One / Mamiya 645 camera with a 80 mm prime phase one lens.

It’s hard to bring a lot of gear when photographing in such a remote area (most people think I’m crazy already) so my kit is kept to a minimum. The black background is a big collapsable reflector that folds up nice and small. Usually I’d use foam core for something like this, but it would be ridiculous to try and drag it around the south of Ethiopia.

Omo valley

These images were often taken at night, so that no natural light could interfere and mix with the gradient of studio light on the background. However, sometimes the natural light worked well. In this picture you can see the light bouncing off the Omo River give a wrapping effect on the subject. In cases like this, the studio light is used only to flash and create a simple reflection in the eye of the subject.

I often look back at these images and wonder what else I would have taken if I was able to stay longer on my last trip. Although I feel like this marks the end of my Lower Omo Valley series, a piece of me will always want to go back and photograph more. No matter where I go, I always want to spend more time learning and traveling within the area. In fact, I know I will… but it appears as usual I am planning a Part 2 before Part 1 is finished. Hope to see you at Photola this year.


  • January 04-2011, 01:30 am
    Amazing photos JOEL, the lighting is perfect; you are a true inspiration.Dario
  • January 04-2011, 01:34 am
    Excellent work - absolutely fascinating people.Cheers,Brian
  • January 04-2011, 01:41 am
    I've been anticipating these photos since I read you were going back to the Omo Valley. These are pwerful images, Joey. You know how to extract the human condition perfectly. I can't wait to see where your camera and compassion for humanity takes you next. You're a true original all the way.
  • January 04-2011, 01:42 am
    I admire your versatility; from Hollywood to Oma Valley to the streets of New York. I am inspired by your willingness to share albeit your blog, your DVDs and most of all giving of the portraits back to the tribes. I am in awe of your dedication, and love the rich tones from your more recent work. You my friend are an inspiration - I hope we cross paths.
  • January 04-2011, 02:56 am
    What a great way to share a completely different culture. Your images illustrate their way of life and how life is changing for them. Thank you so much for sharing.
  • January 04-2011, 06:01 am
    Excellent work Joey, Love the lighting
  • January 04-2011, 06:45 am
    Lovely work, as always; reminds me of Irving Penn's classic work. Good job!
  • January 04-2011, 12:21 pm
    Always inspiring! Best of luck and safety in all your travels.
  • January 04-2011, 12:44 pm
    As always, wonderful and inspiring work. You really have a way of capturing who you're photographing in such a stunning way. I can't wait to see more of your travels in the future.
  • January 04-2011, 01:56 pm
    These are stunning!!! Can't stop looking at them. Love the simplicity, the slight desaturation and the uncomplicated format.
  • January 05-2011, 11:22 am
    [...] series of portraits by Joey L and his travels to the Omo [...]
  • January 05-2011, 02:11 pm
    Joey, these are stunning and captivating! I love that you have followed your passion so deeply. It is inspiring! Thank you for that.
  • January 07-2011, 04:43 pm
    Love the work. What are you using for your bg? It looks might portable and easy for travel.
  • January 07-2011, 11:56 pm
    Just really cool! Great photos. Love the work, I am curious how you approach these people to take a photo? Seems as though they would be hard to convince to sit down without a spear fight!
  • January 08-2011, 12:21 pm
    Love the photos, awesome how you create a mock studio in middle of nowhere. Fantastic job
  • January 09-2011, 02:14 pm
    Stunning and beautiful. Thank you for sharing.It's amazing to think that some people around the world who don't have walls to hang art, often end up decorating themselves.It is sad to see many of these tribes reducing in numbers. Again, great photos...lovin' that creamy soft light!
  • January 12-2011, 07:17 pm
    Really good stuff. You can see the state of the subjects mind by the look on their faces; some look really doubtful about what they're participating in and some look pretty relaxed. Its posed but not in an artificial way. Nice.
  • January 13-2011, 03:40 am
    Why shoot at night to suppress ambient light?! You have more than enough power with that Profoto 7B that you could go to your max sync speed and stop down until it went away....
  • January 15-2011, 06:32 am
    I think we tend to forget how "precious" these people from Oma Valley etc. are. How precious, that we can still experience where we came from, and it is so important that they continue to live how THEY want to live. I hope they can embrace the so-called "civillization" in the upcoming years as smooth as possible...also, your pictures made me think:.ALL people are beautiful. the pictures show a lot of personal details, but also the great respect you show for the people.
  • January 16-2011, 01:25 am
    Met you at PhotoLA, and your work is truly inspiring to me. It makes me want to just get up and go out there in the world! I cannot wait to see more of your work in the future. And looking forward to that book. Thank you for making such beautiful and astonishing photography.
  • January 16-2011, 10:11 am
    I love your simplicity of lighting and background set up. But yet still create such stunning work. Thanks for sharing
  • [...] over New Zealand for his fine art landscape series.  JoeyL it’s going to Kenya to photograph indigenous cultures.  For Jeremy Cowart it’s a continual portrait series in Haiti.  For me, it’s going [...]
  • January 19-2011, 11:15 pm
  • January 20-2011, 09:29 am
    Joey,Congratulations!!! Excellent pictures with such interesting people. Keep on developing your talent that way!!!Cheers,Zacarias Garcia
  • January 21-2011, 06:44 am
    I was wondering where you shot the photos with the clean background. Never thought a reflector could do the job.Thanks for showing us behind the scenes - as always. It's my favorite part of tuning in to see what you're up to.Take care,Aaron
  • January 24-2011, 09:23 am
    Simple, but Outstanding Shots ! Great source of inspiration Joe !
  • January 26-2011, 10:10 pm
    These are so beautiful, foreign and intriguing. For some reason they brought me to tears. You are a talent.
  • [...] Joey L.: ein ganzer Stamm Äthiopier vor schwarzem Hintergrund. Weitere interessante Beiträge: » Animierte Infografik: Breathing Earth» Zweieinhalb [...]
  • February 15-2011, 09:34 am
    Outstanding work...
  • [...] no question that Joey Lawrence (aka Joey L) is one heck of a photographer…travel photographer, ethno-photographer and [...]
  • February 16-2012, 04:24 pm
    A stunning example of how creativity, technology and spirit all combine to give us a better understanding of life itself.
  • September 17-2012, 05:21 pm
    I do not know what to say .... :-) I'll be back here every day, and every time I am impressed like see it from the firs time. I have only one question. Is it background pure black or gray? Thanks Joe L in advance. I love your work! Greatings from Serbia.
  • February 22-2013, 10:15 pm
    let me be in one show please i can act please at least one show i was crying becuase amber left and nina, i would die for this show honestly pleaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaassssssssssssssssssssssssseeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :(
  • April 06-2013, 05:37 am
    excellent work! you are a legend.
  • November 09-2013, 05:43 am
    Comment*These are stunning, beautiful photos. And the people in the Omo valley--doesn't matter what tribe-- are also incredible. I hope they can continue their culture forever-- we have lost a lot in becoming civilized-- their spiritual values are woven into their lives so they are not a separate thing you do on sunday morning. also these people and other indigenous peoples took perfect care of this planet for untold thousands of years- why can't we be more like them?
  • anil
    January 07-2014, 03:30 pm
    very nice photographs
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