In April, 2018, Auckland-based portrait photographer Ilan Wittenberg won the grand prize at the Sony Alpha Awards. His prize included a trip to Tanzania with World Photo Adventures, so in February this year Ilan travelled to Africa to go on safari and photograph the local wildlife. While he was in Tanzania Ilan also met members of the Maasai community and took the opportunity to produce his Maasai People portrait series. “I made special effort to connect with the indigenous population and was very fortunate to create these extraordinary portraits. These are not candid snapshots, but carefully composed portraits that honour the Maasai people,” he explains.
Northern Tanzania and Kenya are where the majority of Maasai people live. They’re a Nilotic group (native to the Nile Valley), who follow a semi-nomadic way of life. Ilan says the Maasai endeavour to hold onto their traditional way of life and maintain a strongly patriarchal society, which sees elder men deciding on most major matters for each group.
His first encounter with the tribe was at a lodge located near the Ngorongoro Crater, which is a national reserve for wildlife animals. A group of Maasai were working at the lodge when Ilan approached them to ask if he could take their portrait. “One of the men spoke English, which helped me make contact with the others. I only had a brief time as they were busy working and I was a member of a tour group, focusing on wildlife photography. I immediately saw the potential to document this culture and seized every opportunity — early morning or late afternoon — to make contact with the local community and document them on every stop of our journey across Tanzania.”
For this series Ilan used his Sony Alpha 7R III with either the Sony FE 24-105mm F4 G zoom lens or Sony FE 55mm F1.8 ZA prime lens, keeping his setup was small, light and unobtrusive. He would ask permission from each person he wanted to photograph and made an effort to create rapport with them. He had asked a local tour guide to teach him how to say “My name is Ilan. What is your name?” in Maa (the language of the Maasai). By repeating this phrase at every encounter, Ilan found that the Maasai people were more likely to open up and allow their portrait to be taken. “I made a point of connecting with a few of the younger generation Maasai who had smartphones with WhatsApp. After completing the series, I sent them the link to the album and asked them to show it in the village. They were so proud and delighted with the outcome. They said the album shows that I really love the people.”
When processing the raw files, Ilan converted the images into black & white and then applied his signature sepia tone treatment. He explains that although some may consider it ‘wrong’ to lose the authentic colours, he feels that making the images monochrome helped to unify the portraits. “Our eyes are attracted to certain colours such as red and yellow, so converting the photos into sepia makes us focus on the body language, expressions, forms and shapes without any distraction. It makes the portraits extraordinary and timeless.”
Auckland’s UXBRIDGE society has also recognised the unique nature of this project and will be exhibiting this series during March and April of 2020 at their Malcolm Smith Gallery. Titled From Here to Africa, the exhibition will feature 28 large prints from the series with sponsorship from Epson and Sony.