As a child, Jessica Antola traveled the world with her family to places like Tibet, Antarctica and India. She always kept a camera handy to record her adventures, inspiring her later in life to find places off the beaten path.
Jump forward a few decades, and the photographer from Brooklyn took her curiosity and her camera to the African country of Ethiopia. The country’s history and diversity were big attractions for her.
“It’s a fascinating country almost twice the size of Texas — 1.59 times to be exact — with more than 80 different ethnic minority groups,” Antola said. “(I wanted to) seek out locations where I am able to take portraits of individuals who have maintained their traditions without the effects of globalization.”
Antola spent February traveling the countryside, admiring the natural beauty of the land. She was blown away by the valleys and mountains with their breathtaking views, but she was ultimately drawn to the people of Ethiopia.
“I was attracted to the creativity and elegance of the people I photographed,” she said. “The harsh reality of many of their lives was not evident in the grace and strength with which they held themselves, nor in the exquisiteness of their wardrobe.”
There is a contrast of style from Antola’s pictures.
Some of the photos show tribe members in body paint or traditional garb. Residents of the Omo Valley in southwest Ethiopia use clay paint for ceremony or decoration, and Antola learned that the paint serves as protection against sun exposure and insects.
Other photos show people in what would be considered Westernized clothes.
“In the regions of Ethiopia closer to cities, it is more common to see people wearing Westernized clothing,” she said. “For example, the Ari (people) are typically in Westernized dress, as their villages are located closer to urban centers.”
Antola discovered that even in traditionally dressed tribes, Westernized items would find their way into the native garb.
“I saw stainless-steel watchbands on traditional Arbore beaded necklaces, and striped polo shirts on many of the Hamar men,” Antola said. “It was fascinating to see various Western traditions mixed with traditional tribal dress, but also to see the consistency with which it was worn by a group. All the men of a particular tribe would wear a specific style of Westernized shirt, making it their own new ‘traditional’ way of dress.”
The Ethiopian way of life, particularly in the Omo Valley, is diverse and varied, even in the space of 20 miles. Despite the encroachment of Western ideas from nearby cities, the tribes have remained relatively unchanged.
Antola wants people to appreciate the universal human need for self-expression in her photos.
“I hope people see the beauty, uniqueness and diversity of the people and country of Ethiopia,” she said. “In our ever-changing and rapidly globalizing world, I also hope that in the future, these images can provide a window to the past.”
- Larry Frum, Special to CNN