Inspired by the work of Edward S. Curtis and Richard Avedon, photographers Arne Hodalic and Katja Bidovec built a portable studio in Ethiopia with the goal to present the ethnic groups living on Eastern and Western banks of the Omo River and in the vicinity of Lake Turkana. In their trunk: The B1 Off-Camera Flash and a couple of Light Shaping Tools.
Arne Hodalic, a slovenian photo journalist and photography teacher, tried a lot of professions (such as biology professor and skipper) before he decided to change his course and start to work as a professional photographer. He has been published in more prestigious magazines than you can imagine. Arne also works as a photo editor for National Geographic / Slovenia.
Katja Bidovec, an emergent photographic talent was Arne’s student at University of Ljubljana, later became his photo assistant and soon after, she started her own photographic career. Her passion is street photography but she works a lot in a studio and she took care of all the digital development of their Pristine Ethiopia project.
We had a little chat with Arne Hodalic about their new project, Prestine Ethiopia.
“Back in the days, Edward Curtis did a photo project on Indian Americans. Now, these photos are practically the only visual documents that exist and we can really see what they looked like and how they lived. We live in present time, but 20 years will be over in a blink of an eye and people will ask themselves “What did these people look like at that time”, says Arne when asked why he decided to make the project of the ethnic groups around Omo River.
Pristine Ethiopia, Arne Hodalic’s and Katja Bidovec’s photographic project, broadcast people who still live like hundreds of years ago. The idea was to document all the different ethnic groups, and each group would have six representatives: Old man and old woman. Man and woman. Young boy and young girl.
“If someone in the future would ask, what did the children looked like back then?” we will be able to show that. We will have all those different kind of generations from each ethnic groups”, says Arne.
How come you decided to do this project?
“It was actually my fourth time in Omo valley in Ethiopia. I have been there before, organizing photo groups with 10-15 people and I teach photography on the spot. This time, we stayed with some friends for few weeks afterwards to do our own project.”
“People who live in this area, are well aware of that many photographers are fascinated by their appearance, so they charge for photography. I said to myself “Let’s put two things together.” In a way, they are models, so I will pay them a bit more, and they will be models in a real studio. The second part is from an anthropological and humanitarian point of view.”
What equipment did you bring with you?
“We brought two B1 Off-Camera Flashes and some Light Shaping Tools with us. Camera wise, I had a Nikon D810 and a fixed 105/2,8 macro lens. I choose this because I wanted all the portraits from the same perspective and with the same lighting.”
“I have really fell in love with Profoto flashes. I’ve had other flashes before but I have to say, it’s a different light. You can really see the difference. I can’t really explain why, but you can really see it”.
“You have to be aware that the area is really remote and travelling in Omo valley, there was no electricity for over a month, but we were able to charge the B1 battery from our cars. But we only changed the battery maybe two times during the very long photo sessions, and during each session, we shot really a lot of pictures of each of approximately 300 people in total. The number of flashes it provides on full power is amazing! And on top of that you have all the Light Shaping Tools to choose from”.
How did you set it up?
“I wanted to do homage to Edward S. Curtis and Richard Avedon. I wanted to keep a uniform background, just like Avedon did with his white background, but I felt that white wouldn’t have been their color. So we took a white piece of cotton and colored it with coffee and tea. We still didn’t like the color so we put it in the mud and left it there for a couple of hours. After that, it was all natural colors. With this, the background wouldn’t be disturbing and we could focus on the character of the person we were photographing.” says Arne.
Arne and Katja set up a black tent, attached it on aluminum poles and added the colored piece of the cotton as background. One B1 was equipped with an umbrella and was positioned camera left. The second flash was pointing towards the floor and was equipped with a 10° grid. Arne triggered the flashes using the Profoto Air Sync. On the flour was a Collapsible Reflector Silver, positioned at 40 degrees and reflected from the floor up on the subject.
How important would you say that lighting is in photography?
“Photography is light; there is no question about it. You can have the best motive in the world, but if you don’t have good lighting, it won’t be a good picture. And if you are able to create your own light when you need to, then it’s really something.”
How much retouch is there in these photos?
“I strictly think in terms on National Geographic, which means “no adding, no taking off”. Katja did all the development of each photo from RAW format; little vignette and a bit focus on the faces and adding some contrast which emphasize the structure of the skin and at the same time better shows the character of each individual. She also did some color corrections on the background, but that’s pretty much it.”
You have traveled all over the world. And you also work as a photographic teacher. Do you have any advice to the student who wants to travel the world and work as a photographer?
“I always say to them: “Don’t care about talent, just work. You can have more talent than any other photographer out there, but if you don’t work, you won’t succeed.”