post Lip-plates and Photographs

May 14th, 2008

Filed under: Tourists on Ethiopia — Lissan Magazine @ 00:00

Lip-plates and the people who take photographs
Uneasy encounters between Mursi and tourists
in southern Ethiopia
Taken from an essay from David Turton

Photo: Michael Sherdan

I shall give the last word to the Mursi, by quoting from an interview with three Mursi men, conducted during the making of a television documentary in 1991 (Woodhead, 1991). I had known these men for as long as I had known the Mursi.

One was the priest (Komoru), or politico-ritual reader of the northern Mursi, Komorakora. One was a relative of Komorakora, Bio-iton-giga, who often acted as a representative of the northern Mursi in their dealings with the government. And one was a younger man, Arinyatuin, who was also used to dealing with government officials.

During the course of this interview, with the film camera whirring away behind me, I asked what the Mursi thought about the tourists who were then beginning to penetrate Mursi territory, driving along the motor-track that links the Omo and Mago National Parks. The resulting exchange contained many ironies, but I shall mention only two. First, what began as an interview, with the interviewer asking all the questions for the benefit of the TV audience, turned into a more equal exchange as I was forced to answer my own question – ‘Why do the tourists take photographs?’ – and thereby to confront my own behaviour and motivations.

The answer that was eventually dragged out of me could, of course, have served equally well as an explanation of what I and the film crew were doing. Second, my question gave the three men a chance to tell their own ‘lamentable tales’ about the tourists – and, by extension, about ‘the world of the globally mobile’ (Bauman 1998: 88) which the tourists inhabit and from which the Mursi are excluded. Commenting on the failure of tourists to pay what the Mursi regard as a fair price for photographs, Arinyatuin is led, with more justice than he could have realized, to brand all white people as ‘thieves’.

DT: When the tourists come up and down this road to the Omo and take photographs, and when we come and film you like this, what do you say about it, privately?

Arinyatuin: We say ‘It’s their thing. They are that sort of people – people who take photographs. It’s the whites’ thing’.
What do we know about it? You are the ones who know. We just sit here and they take photographs. There’s one [a Polaroid photograph] that, as you look at it, you can see your own body appearing. If it’s bad, tell us.

DT: I’m trying to find out what you think, in your stomachs.

Arinyatuin: In our stomachs? We’ve no idea. They can’t speak our language, so we can’t ask them why they are doing
it. We can ask you, because you speak Mursi. They come with Kuchumba, who just sit in the cars. When the tourists have taken their photographs, they drive off. We say, ‘Is it just that they want to know who we are, or what? They must be people who don’t know how to behave.’ Even old women come and totter about taking photographs. ‘Is this how whites normally behave?’ That’s what we say.

DT: (Laughing) So that’s what you say!

Bio-iton-giga: Goloinmeri – why do they do it? Do they want us to become their children, or what? What do they want
the photographs for?

DT: They come because they see you as different and strange people. They go back home and tell their friends that they’ve been on a long trip, to Mursiland. They say: ‘Look, here are the people we saw.’ They do it for entertainment.

Komorakora: Recently, the Administrator at Hana told us, ‘Build a nice big house, with a fence – a big house, well built.
The vets can use it when they treat the cattle and the tourists can photograph it. The tourists come to enjoy themselves. They can sleep in the house and go back the next day.’ That’s what he said – what’s his name?

Bio-iton-giga: Dawit Shumbulu.

Komorakora: Yes, that’s it, Dawit Shumbulu. That’s what he said. We said to each other, ‘Are we here just for their amusement?’ Now you’ve said the same, so that must be it.

Bio-iton-giga: If they are going to take photographs, they should give us a lot of money shouldn’t they? But they don’t.

DT: That’s bad. Is that how they behave?

Arinyatuin: Yes, we are always arguing with them. They cheat us.

Bio-iton-giga: They’ll take a lot of photographs, give us a single note, and then get in their cars and drive off.

DT: Don’t you complain?

Bio-iton-giga: Of course we do. But they dive into their cars and escape.

Arinyatuin: They are thieves, aren’t they? White people are thieves.

DT: Yes, it’s bad. What about the Kuchumba – they are different
from the whites, aren’t they?

Arinyatuin: Yes. They don’t take photographs. They just ask for food. ‘Give us a goat to eat,’ they say. So we just give them one, When a lot of them come, it’s for tax. Don’t you have tax in your country?

DT: Yes, we do.

Arinyatuin: There’s none of this going round taking photographs with the Kuchumba – they are more like us. This photography thing comes from your country, [smiling] where the necklace beads grow. Give us a car and we’ll go and take photographs of you.

David Turton was formerly Reader in Forced Migration and Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. Before moving to Oxford he taught in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester.
His mail is


  1. They have a very good point. Who are we to go and take pictures of them and leave, do we have their permission? a lot of the time, not really, they aren’t wild animals to just observe and take pictures of. They are humans with feelings and thoughts, just like our own. When the tourists just sit in their cars and take pictures and drive off its like being at a zoo, and those people are NOT a zoo. They are beautiful people with tradition and history, knowledge and culture. If we must try and observe them do it from a point where we are all equals, and earn a friendship, make a connection, get to know them for the people they are. –Emma age:13

    Comment by Emma — 23. May 2010 @ 22:08

  2. Aswell as me completly agreeing emma i have to ay this, if the tourist do go and take photos of these people they must have paid alot of money for the car journey to the place etc. This money hsould surely make its way into the people and if its not then its not the tourist falt but the people who are takig them to the tribes.

    Comment by Joe — 4. October 2013 @ 13:14

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