Photos capture some of Ethiopia’s vanishing tribes, the Surma people

Story highlights

Louisa Seton traveled to Ethiopia's remote Upper Omo Valley to photograph the Surma people

The lip plates worn by women are a form of beauty and status, says Seton

CNN  — 

Kenyan-raised, Sydney-based photographer Louisa Seton undertook an epic journey into Ethiopia’s remote Upper Omo Valley to capture the traditions of the Surma people – before they’re lost.

After dealing with local militia and being stranded on the Omo River, Seton now has a series of stunning images to tell her tale of survival and exploration.

CNN: What’s the inspiration behind your African photography?

Seton: I grew up in Kenya, so I’ve got an affinity with Africa.

When I was a child I used to fly around Kenya with my father, a pilot, in a light aircraft and see all these incredible tribal people.

Every time I went back to Kenya, I’d go into the bush and seek out different tribal groups in order to do portraits.

What are you aiming to capture?

A lot of people photograph Africa in such a negative light, with wars and famine and struggle.

But I wanted to show the beauty of these incredible, strong and very proud people – the way they have an affinity with the land and the seasons.

"The children are always the easiest to photograph as they love to touch, laugh and joke with me, says Seton. "These children were fascinated with my long blond hair and loved to touch it."

Why did you take this trip to Ethiopia?

I’d heard about the tribal groups that live in the Upper Omo Valley.

And I’d heard about the Gibe III Dam that’s being built to provide electricity – but with that comes displacement of tribal people.

A lot of these different groups could, in time, slowly lose their traditions.

What was the target of your lens?

I really wanted to photograph the Suri tribe and the Mursi tribe – collectively called the Surma tribes.

In particular, the lip plates they wear are fascinating.

When women become of marrying age, about 14, they get their lower teeth knocked out with a rock.

Then they cut the lower lip with a razor and stretch the lip with a wooden plug – then with a bigger one, and a bigger one.

Eventually it stretches so much they fit a clay plate around the lip. It’s a form of beauty and status for these women, and the bigger the lip plate the higher the dowry.

How did you travel to the Upper Omo Valley?

I flew from Nairobi to Addis Ababa and met a guide and driver who were referred to me by another photographer.

From there it’s a three-day drive – eight hours a day – by four-wheel drive to get to Kibish, near the South Sudanese border.

The Upper Omo is very remote and very hard to get to; there are more tourists in the Lower Omo.

The only people interested in going there are anthropologists or photographers.

Was it safe?

It wasn’t safe photographing the Suri tribe near Kibish. They all carry AK-47s and they’re a lot more aggressive than tribal groups in the Lower Omo Valley.

When we left, our vehicle got stuck on a track in the middle of the bush.

We had torrential rain and we dug for eight hours trying to get it out of the mud.

Eventually, my guide and I walked around for help while the driver stayed.

I had to leave with just the clothes on my back. I had to abandon all my equipment and the vehicle, everything, and just walk in the bush until a lorry managed to get us to Kangatan, a one-horse town on the Omo River, where I ended up staying in a shebeen brothel.

Eventually, three days later, we heard that the driver had managed to get out and go back to Kibish. We hitched a lorry to Jinka – that’s where our driver found us.

Then I photographed the Mursi tribe that live in the Mago National Park.

Did you have to pay the tribespeople to photograph them?

I was paying about a couple of dollars per person to take the photos.

They work in cliques.

People get aggressive and argue over money, and I was trying to create a studio in the bush – it was all a bit stressful.

There’s a lot of money involved – not quite that romantic idea where you can just cruise into a village and take photos.

How did you stage the shots?

I’d gather a group and have two guys hold up a white cloth to create a studio backdrop.

I had a Canon 5D Mark lll, and three lenses – a 100mm fixed lens for my portraits.

In Africa, you get that hard, harsh light and shadows, so you have to shoot in the beautiful, soft, early morning light.

I like to shoot in black and white, as when I studied photography, we were only allowed to shoot in color after we mastered black and white. It really taught me to see in black and white.

‘Odyssey’ by Louisa Seton exhibits at Studio 124, Mosman Park, Perth, from April 7-30. A catalog of images can be viewed online and purchased at