Gul Chotrani: In Search Of The Universal Human Experience, Part Two

Gul Chotrani first started photographing as a hobby when he was at university in England in the early 1980s, doing landscapes, but he couldn’t afford the ongoing costs and had to stop. About twenty years later his photographic instincts were revived after travelling in New Zealand in 2002. Gul, who has an established career as an economist and investment banker, is now able to support his passion for photography. Based in Singapore, Gul travels all over the globe with his camera kit, which includes a Leica M9 and an S2. You can read part one of our interview with Gul and here is the concluding part about his work documenting tribal life in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia.

Q: As a Western-trained investment banker with an MBA and a knowledge base in economics what motivated you to document indigenous people in Ethiopia whose world-view and lifestyle is defined primarily by a traditional culture?

A: Like most curious people I have innate interests or passions of a deeply personal nature. Perhaps mine revolved around design and aesthetics, but I never was able to pursue them in the early part of my life for various reasons. Economic sustainability and survival interests would always take priority. Being able to turn to photography enabled me to follow those innate pursuits and these interests developed into a deeper curiosity about other cultures.

In the modern context, our mindsets are aligned to stereotypical patterns of thinking and these become the matrix for our interpretations of daily life (e.g. the propriety of wearing suits, ties, jackets, maintaining a 9-5 day job, earning your salary). Much of what passes for cultural norms is really existential expression defined by fashion trends, brands, media, etc. But how would you dress in remote regions of Africa? How would you survive or earn your living in an isolated community? These may appear to be rhetorical questions, but the answers are obvious in the way indigenous tribes have existed for millennia.

The Omo Valley tribes in Ethiopia I documented are just one example of isolated survival. Everything they express, in their body paintwork, dress codes, cultural norms, nuances, traditions, diet, is a result of their survival instincts and anthropological evolution – that is the fascination that drives me to document these tribal people. It’s also only fair to mention that there are several other identifiable isolated tribes such as those in Papua New Guinea and South America. Compared to these genuine and timeless modes of human existence, banking, business, economics and university degrees are just mere passing phases in life, perhaps the mere trappings of a privileged lifestyle. In my Ethiopian project I was exploring and documenting something more fundamental and universal about the human experience.

Q: Did you feel a kinship with the people you photographed? Did you feel any limitations imposed by the fact that you were essentially a visitor observing something from the outside?

A: There is always a dilemma that confronts us as photographers that engage with foreign cultures, particularly in poorer countries where poverty, hardship and deprivation are so evident. So what is our role here? Well, one thing’s for sure — we’re not God and we cannot change their plight, but we can communicate their story in our own way. That’s the crucial role that photojournalism always plays.

For example, I was in Sri Lanka in mid-2005 (some months after the massive tsunami of December 2004), assisting a volunteer medical group from Singapore. We hopped from town to town, running clinics for children and women — there was a pressing need for everything you could imagine. Some of the people would hold our hands and take us to what were the remains of their tsunami-destroyed homes and they would ask if we could give them a new home. It was difficult to draw the line and eventually you just gave whatever you could. I returned to plush and prosperous Singapore, humbled and with empty pockets. Yes, inevitably there is sense of relationship when you engage with local folk, but I try my best not to get very emotionally tied to the situation.

I made a more recent short trip was to the slum dwellings of Bombay known as Dharavi, and despite their impoverished conditions, I saw a degree of contentment and acceptance of their situation. Incidentally, I was only allowed to take some photographs of the industrial areas and not the dwellings. After constantly being bombarded with these sensitive issues, you learn to draw the line of involvement, so we just search for a story.

I follow certain personal guidelines: never take a picture of someone in distress or misfortune unless it can help them directly, always ask permission, if possible, and always make or at least offer some token compensation to the person who allows you to take their photograph. Perhaps this short parable says it all

“That wonderful full-blown portrait that graces your living room or a gallery in New York, taken with a $10,000 camera, of a tired, poor soul in Kathmandu or Delhi, is your glory that would earn you good money. Well, it comes from their misfortune.”

Q: Two images that fascinate us show a painted mother with nursing child and a boy with traditional skin paint, both of which have beautifully soft backgrounds and very limited depth of field. Did you shoot these at wide apertures? Which lens and camera did you use, and what were you trying to achieve?

A: Both of these images were taken with the Leica M9 with a 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux lens at the widest possible aperture. Frankly, when you’re out in the bush with an entire village staring at you, you just do as much as you can and hope the images come out well. I’ve been very lucky so far.

Q: Can you say something about your picture of what looks like an initiation ceremony of some sort with a crowd of observers in the background, namely how did you come to take this picture and what motivated you to do so?

A: This picture was taken at a community courtship dance in a Hamer village – one of a series of over 100 rapid image sequences taken. It was shot in glorious sunset light, with beautiful long shadows forming and at the cooler part of the day. Villages hold their courtship rituals perhaps 5-6 times per year. The actions involved are frenetic movements and only a faster zoom lens can capture such scenes.

Q: Your striking and iconic close-up of a white-painted woman wearing a beautiful headdress is a real stopper. How did you come to shoot this picture and can you say something about it?

A: That is the headshot of a Mursi tribeswoman, taken with the S2 and the 70mm f/2.5 lens wide open. I think it would have been even better if I had stopped down to perhaps f/4 to deepen the DOF, but that again is a very subjective call.

Q: The picture of a cow being restrained by a group of men, one with a bow and another with a rope of some sort is enigmatic all right. What’s going on here and why is it important?

A: That’s an image of a bloodletting event by a Nyangatom tribe. The practice is very common with several tribes throughout Africa and is essential to their needs — it is actually fresh blood harvested from their cattle as a highly nutritious food supplement to their daily diet. In this image, the tribesman with the bow has just shot an arrow into a vein, puncturing it to harvest the blood flowing into a cup. As there are several cattle in the herd, they harvest blood from each animal on a rotation basis, to allow each animal time to recover. The blood is then allowed to coagulate by stirring. The thickened, coagulated bulk residue is removed and discarded, leaving behind free flowing liquid that is then mixed with fresh milk. The final product is then passed around in a precisely ordered manner to the village elders and pregnant women.

Cattle are prized possessions in African tribal cultures and traditions. They are also manifestations of wealth to an individual and his family. The more livestock (especially cattle) you own, the greater your wealth, standing and prestige in that tribal community. You could say that cattle ownership is their capital and it’s a key resource as payment to secure a bride from another family. Cattle also provide food and sustenance for milk and blood — they are only killed for food during ceremonial events.

Q: Your amazing image of an unclothed mother nursing an older baby who is staring directly upward into the camera is a very effective use of an unusual shooting angle. How was it taken and why did you shoot it that way?

A: As with most of my photography in these tribal areas, the subjects are right in front of us – they are spontaneous in their behavior and permit us to be close enough to do this kind of photography. This image is from a Bodi village and as we approached the village in the late morning, there were only women nursing their children – these scenes are spontaneous, not posed or staged.

I must add that permission is always asked as we approach a village, a group or an individual and a small fee is paid to them. They have no concept of shame as we do about nakedness – obviously, their attire would be considered abominable to us in the Western context, but let’s not forget that we are visiting their natural environment. The same is true for them when they see us fully clothed and attired in trousers and shirts — they think we are weird.

In recent years, the Omo Valley tribes and villages have gotten accustomed to tourists and accept our presence as a matter of practical utility — they realize that we are voyeurs in their world and fully understand the value and power of a camera in their presence. They do expect something in trade for their cooperation in being photographed, so a token fee is paid to each tribesperson (including children) being photographed, by mutual agreement. Taking such pictures without their consent or agreed payment would lead to a violent outcome.

Q: What do you think the sum total of all your images says about the traditional indigenous people you photographed in Ethiopia and their culture? Do you plan to document any other indigenous people going forward?

A: The photography that I have done so far is mainly in the lowland southern Omo Valley tribal areas of the country. Ethiopia is so vastly differentiated, primarily with peoples in the Northern highland areas of Addis Ababa and the historic areas of Lalibela, Gondor Axum, etc. (who are predominantly Orthodox Christian). Then there are the North Eastern areas, covering the desert and areas, habituated by the Afar tribes (mainly Muslim). This very brief description cannot do justice to the diversity of Ethiopia.

So far I’ve made two trips to the Southern area and recently traveled to the North Eastern desert sector, to the famous Danakil Depression. Yes, there’s also the more touristy Northern historic segment of Ethiopia, but perhaps we’ll get there much later in 2012. These trips tend to be brief (approximately 7-12 days) and mainly for photography.

I am not an expert on Ethiopia and cannot even remotely say that I am creating any comprehensive documentation of the culture or country. I am merely capturing slices of rare life and experiences amongst the Ethiopian peoples and that brings me great satisfaction. Not many travelers get to do this sort of thing and it’s not the same for passing tourists who just walk in and shoot with their toys for memory’s sake.

Q: How do you see your work evolving over the next few years? What other genres or localities do you plan to pursue and what role do you think the Leica M9 and the Leica S2 will play in that evolution?

A: My photography is not commercial and I have no audience to impress but myself. However, I am also aware that what little I have put up on display has attracted a lot of attention and invitations from galleries and publications. I am still developing my own signature style by continuous experimentation with different cameras, but the Leica cameras have obviously made a significant and positive change in my work – and I no longer crave zoom lenses so much. I try to use the Leica’s simple controls to get the best image from the spot I am positioned in or to use my legs as the zoom. The Leica’s simplicity is not to be underestimated — it poses greater challenges than many may think and I’ve known a few who’ve simply given up their Leica M cameras in frustration. However, once you get past that you will find it’s an incomparable tool for telling the human story and well worth the effort to master.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Gul’s images at pbase.com/gbc and you can read more about Gul’s journey to the Omo River Valley in Condé Nast Traveler.