Day Seven – Studio In A Pocket and a Portrait of Chief Kalla

by Audio Landscapes

Karat-Konso is a small crossroads between North and South Omo and, according to Bradt, that is its most distinguishing feature.  However, our experience here was otherwise interesting.  The Konso are traditional terrace farmers and isolationists compared to the rest of Ethiopia.  Their villages are particularly unique, owing to the high rock walls that surround thatched dome huts, traditionally used to ward off lowland invaders.  Terraced fields are also walled with stones to provide catchment for seasonal rains and maintain crops through the dry season.  You can still get a feel for this solitude once up the hill from town’s center, amidst the small villages.  Locals are curious here but not nearly as aggressive towards foreign travelers as they are in the South.  (I realize I’m going into a lot of non-photography related detail here, but given the mixed audience of the road trip, I’m enjoying writing about both.)

A highlight of our stay was a visit to Kertita Clan Chief, Gezahegne Woldu, and his compound, seven clicks up the hill from the town’s roundabout.  Just as the guidebook described, we were warmly welcomed by, as he introduced himself, Chief Kalla, head patriarch for nine Konso clans.  Comprised of only a handful of thatched huts and walled off by three-meter juniper planks (the doorway above was fantastically constructed from curved branches and made into a small tunnel entryway worthy of a scene in a Tim Burton flick).

Chief Kalla is a quiet but animated and charismatic figure.  A construction engineer by trade, he left Addis Ababa in 2004 following the passing of his father, Walda Dawit Kalla, to assume his responsibilities as clan chief in Konso.  He now acts as the head arbiter, judge, peacemaker and spiritual leader for the nine clans, living off the land and separated from the clans to maintain his neutrality.  What is most striking about him is his drive for problem solving, evident in his animated gestures despite his quiet sensibility.

Kalla takes great interest in resolving disputes and he also regularly negotiates with the Ethiopian government regarding sustainable tourism, cultural rights and other tribal issues.  Striking is his realistic sense of his people’s struggle to maintain their culture and traditions vis-a-vis increasing pressures from tourism, the government and modernity in general.  He knows things are an uphill battle.

“There is no ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to whether we accept tourism or not.  The government is also aware that we can only have so much autonomy before they become nervous.  I would like to have a museum someday so that we may safeguard some of what’s left of our way of life.”

After a generous question and answer period, we were free to walk around the compound.  I noted the shapes of the tukuls and spiked outlines of the wall against a clear blue sky, so I asked the Chief if I could return at night to photograph him and his compound.

“Anything you’d like.  You’re welcome to come and stay as long as you like.”


OK, on to photography!

I returned at around 7:30 and so as not to descend upon the tiny village with a mountain of modern hardware, made entry in pitch dark with only the camera on a tripod and met with Kalla’s brother who said the Chief was busy but I could photograph as I wished.  This first image I really like – simple shadows against a star-studded sky.  Then I thought about lighting the huts with my flashlight, but at ISO 3200 (try capturing grain-free stars like that on film), the LEDs blew everything out.

“Let me use my celphone.”

Kalla’s brother (sorry, can’t remember his name) produced his dimmer and bluer light and we tried several exposures while he painted the scene. He planted his face in the LCD when the camera finished noise reduction and was more than willing to do it again.  And again.  I really like the result, having collaborated with an eager, new-found acquaintance.  Problem solved.  Note the difference in color between the sky and the huts.  I may go back to this one later and mask it, as I did with the portrait below.

Chief Kalla appeared through the dark (seriously, it was like a movie) and after showing him the images, he said he had never imagined his home like that, though the scene was always right there in front of him.  It’s been said before – you can look at something many different ways.  And there are a million more ways to photograph it.

The Chief was generous with his time and patiently allowed me to set up a 30×30″ Lastolite softbox.  If you have no idea what this is, it’s a modern miracle – a studio that compacts to the size of little more than a monster serving of IHOP pankakes (with the two inches of strawberries included).  Put a wireless, off-camera strobe (flash) through the back of it and everything softens out.  Awesome.

While I was guestimating the exposure and flash output, it came to me that there was a cool line of stars surrounding the tukul behind the Chief.  Why not do a time exposure with a pop of flash?  Sweeeet!  Challenge here though – get the flashed foreground and sky to color balance (note the brown sky and blue tukuls above).  Not going to happen with a warm flash.  From this first image, the sky is warm-toned as though there are city lights below.  I wanted a blue sky like the one in the previous village photo.  Enter Photoshop and some tricky masking, but in the end, this is the scene as I had envisioned it.  By the way, my first estimate at exposure (30 sec@f8, ISO 100), flash output at -1/3 stop was spot on.  Believe me, it was a total guess.  At ISO 100, the stars were dim, so I needed to bring in a second exposure at ISO 3200 as a layer in PS, erase the sky in the flashed image and carefully mask the edges of the tukul and wall to arrive at a convincing result.  If this sounds like trickery, read Ansel’s writings on masking negative film.  He would use up to five different masks to expose a single print!  It’s all in the way of making the resulting scene look like what you saw with the eye.

What was also tough was focusing in pitch black.  Not wanting to blind my subject sitting there in the black, I told the Chief to close his eyes while I beamed the flashlight in his face (easiest was to use autofocus, get it set and turn it off so the lens wouldn’t go loopy on me when I tripped the shutter).  We were laughing while doing this and I let him adjust before unleashing what seemed like a nuclear burst of the flash in the dark.

These results and the straight-up portrait worked well for me.  Chief Kalla made a wide, quiet grin.  I’m sending him copies later tonight.

Wishing everyone a Happy, Successful and Safe 2011 from Addis Ababa,