Nigel Morris was always interested in photography. Growing up, he borrowed cameras from his parents and photographed his friends. But it wasn’t until 2010 that Morris bought his first camera, a Nikon SB800. The first portrait he made with his new camera was of his parents, and he’s been photographing people ever since. Morris recently organized an exhibition of portraits he made in South Ethiopia. The show, at Tsion Café in Harlem, features images he made during a two-week trip to South Ethiopia in May 2014.
We asked the Brooklyn, New York resident how he became interested in the tribal culture of southern Ethiopia, and about his approach to making portraits in an unfamiliar place.
Photo District News: What brought you to South Ethiopia? How long were you there?
Nigel Morris: I am a big history buff. Ethiopia has never been colonized, therefore all of their history is intact, and I wanted to immerse myself in their culture. I also went to get away from New York, and take a huge step out of my comfort zone. I am a lifetime New Yorker. New York can sometimes wear you down—emotionally and physically.
I stayed in Ethiopia for two weeks, but I sure wish I could’ve stayed longer. Ethiopia is so beautiful.
PDN: What equipment did you use? And why?
NM: For this trip, I opted to leave a lot home. International travel has weight limitations, and I definitely didn’t want any trouble that far from home. I took one big camera body, my Phase One 645DF with my P40+ digital back and 80mm LS lens; two small cameras, a Fuji X100s and Fuji XT1; one flash unit, a Profoto B1; three light modifiers, an Elinchrom Rotalux 69-inch OctaBox, a Paul C Buff Soft Silver Para, and a Westcott Apollo; and two light stands.
I used the Phase One body for all of the portraits, and just one modifier, the Elinchrom 69-inch Rotalux OctaBox. The reason I used the Phase One was simple—image quality, and the ability to use Leaf shutter lenses to control the ambient light/sun. The sun in Africa can present a problem, and I wanted to give myself the best chance to create the type of images I enjoy creating.
I used the Elinchrom Octa because the light quality you get out of it is gorgeous. Also, there are so many ways you can use the Elinchrom Octa. I chose to bring only the [Profoto] B1 because of the ability to use it on location, with no cords, thus saving on weight, and things to lose. And, it has a generous amount of power (500 watts).
PDN: Who are the people in the photos?
NM: I visited six different tribes. The people in these portraits are from four of those tribes—the Daasanach, Mursi, Hamer and Bodi. A few are from the same tribe, but I photographed each one as an individual, making it somewhat challenging to discern the similarities.
PDN: How did you approach them? Did you travel with anyone, or use a fixer of any kind?
NM: I traveled alone to Ethiopia. I did hire a fixer and a driver while there, and they were great. Gino Loshere was my fixer, and a gentleman named Shifee was my driver.
My approach was very simple. Gino told the people of the tribes that I was there visiting, was interested in experiencing the culture, and that I would love to photograph them. I was very open and honest about it. I feel that is the only way to create great images.
A lot of the people I encountered while I was there took an interest in me because of my ethnicity. I was told while I was there that they have never seen an African American photographer before. I believe that they took great pride in having me photograph them. I know that I did.