Shenton Safaris

Himba: Photographing from the shadows

In 2014, I visited a Himba tribal group in the Kunene region in Namibia as a run-of-the-mill tourist with a guide, bringing gifts to the chief in order to be allowed into his kraal to take photographs. I loved the experience – the women were so beautiful and captivating, and the children so photogenic.

Two years later, I was excited to return to the same Himba group with a film crew gathering footage for a documentary.

Himba tribe, children, culture, Kunene, Namibia

Young Himba child contemplates his grandmother busy with chores © Shara Johnson

This time, on my second visit, I hadn’t paid gifts to click away as many portraits as I respectfully could within a timeframe dictated by the chief, as we were there for a different purpose.

In an unfortunate way, that first visit was almost more about me – me and my camera and what portraits we could capture together.

Himba tribe, children, culture, Kunene, Namibia

Smiling Himba man outside his hut © Shara Johnson

Contrary to that visit, what I most enjoyed my second time was watching the interaction of people with one another… toddler pals, adolescent friends, mothers and daughters.

Himba tribe, children, culture, Kunene, Namibia

Himba girl with chewing twine attached to her necklace © Shara Johnson

I think the Himba are stunning in portraiture, but I became even more captivated by them as I tried to capture them in motion.

For this is how one really gets to know any people anywhere – not by having them look steadily into your camera, but by seeing what they do, letting their actions speak for them: the kindness, the silliness and playfulness, the nature of familial bonds.

Himba tribe, children, culture, Kunene, Namibia

Adolescent Himba girl gently leads a man blind with cataracts around the camp by a stick © Shara Johnson

I, of course, liked it when they expressed an interest in me, but I secretly derived more joy from sitting alone and still in the shadows while the film crew conducted interviews, quietly observing the vibrant lives surrounding me.

Himba tribe, children, culture, Kunene, Namibia

Himba princess Kaviruru playing with a coy smile © Shara Johnson

Living in modern America, I find children all around are habitually consumed with iPads and toys with bell and lights, sirens and voices. Their thumbs continually press iPhone screens or game controllers on the couch in front of the television…

Himba tribe, children, culture, Kunene, Namibia

Adolescent Himba boy jumps and plays with sticks © Shara Johnson

But when I was in Namibia, one of the most refreshing things to revel in among the Himba was the reminder that fingers and toes, sticks and weeds, and empty boxes are just as entertaining for children – if only we could strip ourselves of other distractions.

Himba tribe, children, culture, Kunene, Namibia

Himba child picks a bouquet of weeds © Shara Johnson

I was fascinated watching the young women help maintain the elaborate hairstyle of one of the chief’s wives, their nimble fingers grasping extremely thin lengths of twine and working it into mere wisps of hair as part of the system for attaching the cowhide headpiece that married women each design for themselves.

Himba tribe, children, culture, Kunene, Namibia

A Himba daughter works diligently on her mother’s hair © Shara Johnson

At the end of a day sitting and watching silently from the shadows, it’s still nice to coax a candid smile into the camera from those whose lives I had the privilege to witness.

Himba tribe, children, culture, Kunene, Namibia

Himba toddler tying a ribbon around his friend’s arm © Shara Johnson

The documentary, African Witchfinder, whose filming brought me back to Namibia, is due for release in 2017.

Himba tribe, culture, Kunene, Namibia

A Himba boy sitting in the doorway of his hut © Shara Johnson

Shara Johnson

Shara Johnson is a writer, amateur photographer and traveller. You can follow her adventures abroad on her travel blog, SKJ Travel.

  • Stephanie Fuchs

    Amazing experience, beautiful people. A lot of truths in what you wrote here, Shara.

  • Sharon Jogerst

    Wonderful pictures that truly capture the essence of these intriguing people!

  • Penny Travelwriter

    Your photography is wonderful Shara. As a photographer of women and children, I too, enjoy just sitting, watching and observing the daily interactions within communities. Has the documentary, “African Witchfinder,” been released yet?

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