About a year ago I embarked on a quest. After working as a fashion photographer for 3 years I realized that with the work I was creating I was contributing to set very unrealistic standards of beauty that made many women suffer(men are affected too but I focus on women). I decided to leave that world behind and put my skills to use for something good, something that could make women feel good about themselves. I started traveling the world photographing and interviewing women in order to find out what the real meaning of the word Beauty is, in hope to redefine those narrow standards. I called the project Quest for Beauty.
This summer my quest brought me to Ethiopia to learn about the Tribes of the Omo Valley and their interesting body decoration traditions. This, like many others, wasn’t an easy and comfortable trip (both physically and emotionally).
Ethiopia is a beautiful and incredibly diverse country home of 80 different ethnic groups where over 88 languages are spoken and landmarks space from huge stretches of green to dry harsh desert to mountains to volcanoes.
I landed in Addis Ababa, the booming fast growing capital. Things have changed a lot here over the last decade, the city is being torn down and rebuilt at an incredible speed, skyscrapers, buildings and new businesses are popping up like mushrooms every month, the economy is growing and opportunities that once seemed far fetch are now more than possible for the people of Addis.
Once leaving the capital though, just a few miles south things were much different. I had an unshakable feeling of time-traveling back to hundreds of years ago. We drove for 6 hours, sharing the roads with countless cows, donkeys, horses, goats, dogs and chickens,(my local fixer called it “African Traffic Jam”!). On the side of these roads I saw women and kids of all ages working in the fields, moving herds of cattle, carrying wood and water on their back for miles. Poverty was painfully evident and life looked anything but easy for people in the countryside.
After a first stop in the Bale mountains National park, where I saw animals I had never seen before like Yalas, warthogs, baboons and african wolves running around the mountains and forests freely, we finally headed to the Omo Valley.
I spent a couple of weeks visiting very remote villages of 9 different tribes. The only way to access these villages is through dirt roads and dried river beds. Once I got to the villages everything was exactly how I expected it but just less romanticizes. People still live in huts, there’s no electricity, food comes from what the land has to offer and from trading products with other tribes. Some people paint and decorate their bodies, some women pierce their ears or bottom lip and insert a wooden disk in it. Some wear traditional clothes, some wear more modern clothes, some wear no clothes, some have cellphones, some have guns.
In most tribes a man can have many wives. The first one is chosen by the husband’s family, the others by the husband himself. They have beautiful ceremonies, rituals and celebrations. It was incredible to get to see all this with my own eyes and capture it with my camera, freezing their souls forever onto a digital file.
I drove back to Addis with a heavy heart. Seeing how so many women don’t get to have a saying in their own destiny and seeing children do such heavy labor made me realize how lucky most of us are to have a choice. To get to play, go to school and daydream during our childhood while many other kids around the word don’t get to have a childhood at all.
Ethiopia was beautiful and eyeopening. I am incredibly grateful for the experience and humbled that I got to see such a raw and remote part of our world. I felt different after this trip, I couldn’t shake away a hint of daunting sadness thinking about those people I photographed that I had left behind. But that’s the magic of Travel: it changes us! It teaches us how to be better persons, it forces us to learn that equality makes more sense than anything and that we should all do our best so everyone can have equal opportunities to fulfill their hopes and dreams and so that children can live out their childhood the way it’s supposed to.