OMO The Seat of Humanity

THE SEAT OF HUMANITY / Tribes of Omo Valley

In November 2014, photojournalist Martin Middlebrook fulfilled a long-held ambition to photograph the ancient tribes of the Lower Omo Valley in the south of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is the seat of humanity, the birthplace of mankind, it is where our ancestors came from – it is where we come from.

Comprising 14 different tribes, these extraordinary people face an increasingly bleak future in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. With rapidly increasing tourism, and the construction of the Gibe III dam, the traditional way of life for these pastoral tribes is fast eroding. The Ethiopian Government is also implementing a policy of land grabs and resettlements, enabling the government to lease out vast blocks of land for cash crops, such as the growing of biofuels, predominately to international companies from Malaysia, Italy, India and Korea.

This once inaccessible region has become a haven for tourists keen to add ‘Omo’ to their bucket list. It’s still a journey, but as infrastructure has improved so has accessibility, and the region and its tribes are at an uneasy crossroad. Home to 200,000 people, each with a distinct culture living in lands bounded by geographical features from mountain ranges to dry river beds, the invasion of thrill seekers is changing their world forever. The photos taken were an attempt to witness these extraordinary people before the homogeny of western humanity swamps their past, as the construction of the Gibe III dam will soon flood the ancestral lands they have farmed for generations.

The portfolio of photographs bears witness to the incredible faces and decorative culture of a people whose history is being invaded and eroded too quickly for them to survive unchanged.

kara tribe


I knew clearly the creative vision I had for this portfolio, long before I landed at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. After a night of rest, my fixer, Yonas, and I started the long journey south. Fixers and translators make everything possible, without them you really are nothing. I spend as much time building a strong relationship with my fixer, as I do on any other part of a project. And Yonas was a gem. In Konso, we bought the material for the backdrop for my images, and tested it for several days as we continued our drive to Jinka, the home of the Mursi Tribe, on the edge of Omo. The backdrop didn’t work.

With the Chief of the Mursi Tribe, Miniesae, early one morning near Jinka.

We arrived late in Jinka, and headed for a local bar to grab some food. I woke at 1am to food poisoning, the curse of these travels, and spent 24 hours between my bed, and a hole in the ground. Yonas was there doing what he could, and eventually his girlfriend called with a magic potion, a squeeze of this, a drop of that. And Yonas sat with me as I forced it down. But it worked and I soon rebounded. We headed to a tailors shop in the back streets of Jinka, and bought another length of backdrop, and Yonas found a carpenters shop and had a collapsible wooden frame constructed. We were in business.

And so it started. All I knew were these two things; I wanted my subject isolated on a black background, so that all context was lost, and I wanted to use natural light. How this would pan out became very quickly apparent. The use of natural light for me was a very simple premise. Having worked in many complex situations, I wanted the immediacy of the moment to be captured, without the lighting getting in the way. This idea, so it turned out, was both perfect, and an immense challenge.

The tribes were impatient, you could get no more than a few frames at most before they walked off. Given the restrictions to my schedule, I did not have time to live with them and build the kind of relationships that would allow for the patience that lighting requires on a shoot.

Hamer Tribe

So in fact, working quickly without technical limitations, meant in every sense, I was able to realise the pictures I had pre-visualised – that ‘stare in the camera’ moment.

But technically it was an evolving obstacle course, that required constant adaption, finessing – a change of settings, changes of place. But as each day progressed I began to work this out – where to place the backdrop and where to place the subject. Yonas and I would park our vehicle and amble along a dry riverbed, set up the backdrop under a tree. And wait. Someone would always wander by, and we would get our shot. And in the placing of my subject and the backdrop accordingly, I was able to offset the brightness ratio of the scene, but also introduce a textural element that draped across the image, adding further depth and aesthetics.

Many days I felt like I was fire fighting, most days I appreciated that I needed a backdrop that was at least twice as large and truly black, and if I ever return to repeat, I will know these things in advance – I will do things better. But somehow, the frailties in the process forced this Heath Robinson approach to problem solving, which in turn generated an immense energy. And it drove me on to create the work that fills these pages, and which I hope stands as testimony to something extraordinarily important.


The AK47 is replacing the spear. It’s not a definitive statement. The spear abounds still, and the Kalashnikov too. I have this image printed, and in a gallery in Paris. It’s 150 x 100 cm. It has nearly been sold twenty or more times. But at the last minute, it has always fallen through. Until now. Previous potential buyers have jumped to those conclusions that images seem to provoke in people. It’s a child soldier, a women with a gun, such aggression, same old Africa. None of which are true of course.

It is true that inter-tribal conflicts have existed for thousands of years, as indeed wars across the globe, have been prosecuted since the birth of man unkind. But these are rare events, driven largely by famine. The main reason for spears, AK47’s, weapons of any kind, is to both hunt for food, and in other eventualities, to protect against predation by wild animals

I have now sold that print, but the husband and wife still argue over it. It does not reside in their home, for fear of misleading their children – it is hidden in the husband’s office. He likes the story, likes the truth of it.


Like all invading forces, tourists leave a lot behind. And the locals seem to make good use of this. They integrate it, almost seamlessly, and almost without incongruity, into their dress. Soda bottle tops, a watch, a tourists gift of a bra – all donned with ease, all so well fitted to their traditional attire.

It’s a world on collision, and it’s both painful and beautiful to observe. But like all cultural shifts, it occurs like glacial slip – slowly and imperceptibly, but inexorably. It is unstoppable. You can travel anywhere in the developing world now, and every third person is wearing a Premier League football top.

In 2000, I was standing by the side of a dusty road in Ethiopia, approximately in the middle of nowhere. I had never felt so far from my reality. It felt to me, like Africa must have felt to the first explorers. In the distance, the rising sun illuminated a dust trail kicked up by an approaching lorry. I stood in despair as it hurtled by. Emblazoned along its length were the words ‘Coca Cola’. I knew then that the game was up.

Mursi Tribe

Adorn and Scar

Lip plates and scarification, body paint and piercings, flowers in their hair and western accessorising – all put together in the most spellbinding way. But the incredible thing is this; all these seemingly unique, distinct embellishments, have arisen independently in tribes as far away as West Africa, the Amazon Basin, Papua New Guinea, and Canada. Ethnic groups, thousands of miles distant, unconnected across millennia, and yet synchronised by common cultural reference points.

Well, how did that happen? Scarification and mutilation in its many forms serves many purposes. It is deemed to beautify the wearer. It was historically an ethnic identity card. It showed social status within a group. Amongst women it exaggerated beauty and implied strength. Men of the Kara tribe scarify their chest as proof that they have killed someone from another tribe.

Scarification is also predicated on skin colour. In ethnic groups with lighter skin, tattoos dominate. People with dark skin use scarification as it is more visually pronounced.

Around the world, such practices are in decline, and it was tellingly so on my trip, where I came across very few younger tribe members prepared to go through the significant trauma. But where I did, I found it compelling.

A child from the Sami Tribe


Just on the edge of Omo, are the Sami tribe. They are not formally one of the fourteen tribes of the Lower Omo, but in many ways, you wouldn’t tell the difference. I twice went through this child’s village, twice I photographed.

Everyone who sees this picture, people who have bought and those that are intending always assume she’s a little girl. In fact it’s a young boy. Across Omo, our visual cues can be misleading. Men wear flowers in their hair and are so covered in paint they look like human wallpaper. Women scarify, and mutilate, carry guns, and very often appear unnecessarily aggressive.

The Hamer tribe have a rites of passage ceremony called the ‘Cow Jumping Ceremony’. As part of the ceremony, young women gather in search of a husband. The women beat each other with thorny sticks, slashing at skin, leaving great gaping wounds. Blood flows. The woman who can withstand the most pain, gets the man. Because in such a brutal environment, as a man you are looking for someone who is physically and mentally tough. Beauty is pointless when foraging for food, harvesting the land, enduring childbirth, withstanding 40°.

The visual clues from which we infer context in our culture, seem occasionally reversed in Omo.

Created By
Martin Middlebrook


© Martin Middlebrook | All Rights Reserved

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.