Tiye, the woman featured in my image, Adorned , was beautifully composed, inside and out.
I met her when visiting a school in Kenya during my time with the Rendille tribe. I vividly remember the sun being so hot that the few trees and rock formations in the distance were distorted, but Tiye seemed to radiate an inner calmness and peace that felt, to me, in complete opposition of the world immediately around her.
She carried herself with delicate, perfect posture, and her nearly regal presence and unique look magnetically drew me to photograph her. Tiye wears the traditional layers of beaded jewelry that convey information to fellow tribe members. But, as is part of Rendille tradition, the necklaces and jewelry are also customized by the wearer, and Tiye has created compositions that supplement her elegant profile.
But there is something untraditional about her dress that was unlike any of the other women in her village.
Below the layers of beaded necklaces draped carefully around her body, she is wearing a flowered cotton garment.
Tiye, like many in her village and in the Rendille tribe, is caught in a cultural moment somewhere between the old and new. Yet she holds on to her traditions, like the customary wearing of beaded headdresses and layers of necklaces, in an effort to retain the integrity of her culture even when mixing in the new, such as this printed cotton dress. She’s fashioned them seamlessly together in a natural yet stylized and modern-feeling look.
Thus, the past meets the present in this portrait of Tiye.
This is perhaps why this image, Adorned, taken in the remote desert of Kenya, has become one of the most popular from the series Desert Song: Compositions of Kenya. It is also definitely one of the most cherished to me, personally. In fact, it hangs in my living room.
I consider these portraits, as well as others from Africa and remote locations globally, to be a mix of ethnography and art. My intention is for them to foster connection with those we may never meet. Although these tribes may seem worlds away, many of our values and interests are the same.
For my work, I like to let the subject’s particular ‘voice’ preempt all else. I come with my ideas, but the distinct point of view of the person in front of the camera is always imprinted in the image. My role as a photographer is to paint a picture that illustrates a voice, often for those who may not have a platform of their own. These cultural portraits are meant to speak volumes.
The cultural precipice in Adorned, especially prevalent in remote communities, feels incredibly important to document.
Tiye manifests traditions such as the wearing of beaded, custom jewelry with such pride and artful arrangement, marking a similarity to our Western interest in looking one’s best. These images are a reminder that for as much as we are different, we are very much the same.