1 on 1 with National Geographic Photographer David Pluth Part 2
The Rainmaker.

1 on 1 with National Geographic Photographer David Pluth Part 2

Should we accept 1,200 a year to be killed violently?

By Peter Allen Kigonya
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First published: November 6, 2006

In Part 2 of our 1 on 1 with National Geographic Photographer David Pluth, David tells us more about his work with the people of Karamoja and also about his soon-to-be-released book, KARAMOJA! Uganda's Land of Warrior Nomads.

For the begining go to Part 1 of our 1 on 1 with National Geographic Photographer David Pluth.

Karamoja: Uganda's Land of Warrior Nomads
Karamoja cover

Photography by David Pluth.
Stories by S. Onyang
and J. O'Kasick

About the book

Peter: Was this the time you started your photography of the people of Uganda such as the Karamojong?

At Murchison Falls
At Murchison Falls.

David: I started the serious photography of Karamoja much later, late 1996 and early 1997. That was when I made my first trip to Karamoja and Kidepo Valley National Park.

  • Once you did meet up with the Karamojong, how did you manage to gain their trust so that they allow you to document their lifestyle? Is there a method you are trained to use?
  • The method, if there is one, is called survival. Actually, it is pretty simple. Just try to be nice to people, smile and laugh. Be natural, be yourself. Leave if there is going to be trouble. Almost the same exact behaviour as if you are going to a bar in a dicey part of town. Have some cigarettes or atabac in your pocket, and share it with people. It is simply a matter of being there long enough that the locals get used to you.

    We walked back and forth across the country. The people and the security forces started to hear about us and got to know us. And the Karimojong are pretty nice people. They are proud and dignified. Hence they are confident, and when people are confident of themselves, it is much easier to work with them. Patience is needed. Just be patient and smiling. You can't do this in a day. It takes weeks... months.

  • Tell us about some of these photographs and the bigger story they tell. We will start with my favorite and probably your most famous photo to most Ugandans on the web. You called him the "Smiling Killer" when I first mentioned this photograph to you. Who is he? What is his story and what was your interaction with him like?
  • Smiling Killer
    "Smiling Killer".

    Well, those lines of scars do mean that he is a pretty fearsome warrior. Not a person you would try to steal a cow from, if you value your life. We were in the Labwor Hills, following the migration of the cows to the west. The Labwor Hills are granitic extrusions, incredible towers of rock rising out of the western Karamoja plains. We were walking along a valley and came across this very nice warrior with his cows. He was curious about us and our mission. We were pretty comical to him. He was laughing at us.

    Labwor Hills
    Labwor Hills.

    I started photographing him and the writer I was with at the time, Curtis Abraham, became really interested in the guy's scars, suggesting that I try to capture those scars for the historical record. We asked him to take off his wrap, the dark woven sheet he was wearing. He pulled it only part way down. We started joking with him and asked him to take it off completely. He did so. Underneath he was wearing gym shorts. So we started joking with him that we thought REAL Karimojong warriors were totally naked. He laughed with us and threw some pretty good lines back at us. It was just a matter of getting on the same wavelength with him. He was a great subject.

  • Next is "Karamoja Beauty" whose photograph we used as the lead image for Eunice Rukundo's The Karamojong. Who is she and what was her character like?
  • The Karamojong
    Karamoja beauty.

    It is a pity that I do not know this lady's name. She is one of the many anonymous beauties who carry water and firewood through the dusty plains. She has all the marks of Karimojong beauty, the gapped front teeth (which we write about in the book) the stacks of necklaces and beads. She was a real sweetheart. We met her filling her jerry can of water at a borehole near Matany. We couldn't resist. She was just so perfect. And such a gentle, happy lady! We helped her carry her water for a short distance and then she was pleased to pose for us.

  • Do the two portray your typical Karamojong man and woman in Karamoja?
  • Typical is a difficult word. They do not portray the typical truck driver in Karamoja, for instance. Or the typical Karimojong development worker in the region.

    I would have to say that these people are probably not entirely typical because there was something in their personalities that grabbed us, spoke out to us, invited us to try to learn more about them. They projected their personalities and their lives onto us, virtually inviting us to photograph them and get to know them. Yes, their clothing and ornaments are typical, but their personalities were very outgoing. Most people anywhere in the world are friendly, just as they are in Karamoja, but most people do not project their personalities onto film so easily.

  • What other photographs would you care to give us stories about. Maybe you can give us a few stories from your upcoming book KARAMOJA! Uganda's Land of Warrior Nomads?
  • We are saving the stories that are in the book for the book because they are copyright by the publisher. And we want people to buy the book!!

    But I can tell you some stories about the photographs. Two come to mind, one is the Leopard Poacher and the other is Ik Women Grinding Grain.

    The Leopard Poacher
    The Leopard Poacher.

    The Leopard Poacher was found near Kalapata. It was early morning and I wandered into the nearby manyattas with one of our guides. This young man came out with a leopard skin he wanted to sell me. But his story was far more interesting. He really was not a poacher per se, he claimed to have been defending his goats when he killed the leopard. It must have been a royal battle because leopards are well known for being fearless, particularly the leopards in Uganda. He seemed genuine and agreed to pose for us.

    Ik Women Grinding Grain
    Ik Women Grinding Grain.

    The other, Ik Women Grinding Grain, is becoming well known, and it will be a famous photograph someday. The Ik are not strictly Karimojong, although it is likely that they and the Karimojong share certain ancestral origins. The Ik live in the high remote mountain regions of Karamoja, as simple hunter-gatherers. They do not keep cattle like the Karimojong and they try to stay out of the tribal fights. The Ik language is different than Karimojong. But still, they live intimately with the Karimojong and our book is about all of Karamoja, not one particular culture. We came across these people living on edge of the escarpment where it drops 1,000 metres down into Kenya. They were preparing for a seed-blessing ceremony and we were the first people ever to photograph this. They were grinding sorgum to make beer in the late afternoon sunset, right on the escarpment edge. It was just magical. That was in 1998.

    I had the opportunity to visit the Ik again in March and August of 2005 and found this same group of people living now on Mount Morungule. They had retreated back about 25km from the escarpment because of the insecurity. They were tired of getting killed and burned out by the Turkana raiding into Uganda from Kenya. So they moved back. Now their biggest worry is the Karimojong catching them down in the valley when they need to go into the local villages for supplies. There is still a very tense relationship between the Ik and the Karimojong.

  • UGPulse first talked of the Karamojong in Eunice Runkundo's The Karamojong. You yourself have actually been with these people. Do you agree with what she had to say about them in her article?
  • It was a pretty accurate article, although I would not agree with her statement that the cattle raiding by the Karimojong is the result of external forces. While the Karimojong certainly are threatened by external forces that threaten their security, namely the raiders from Kenya and Sudan, the main reason, to my mind, that the cattle raiding occurs is to pay the bride price. This is historical, cultural, integral to the society.

    Women at the Well
    Women at the Well.

  • What else did you learn about the Karamojong and what do you think we should know about them?
  • Not sure how to answer this question. I would answer it with some questions: in a society of about 200,000 people, should we accept 1,200 a year to be killed violently? Is the constant insecurity and raiding in the region inevitable? Is the death rate sustainable? Do we want this for Ugandans?

    Things are much better today than they were, but it is my sincere feeling that the majority of Karimojong want to live peacefully, not under threat by invaders from Kenya and Sudan. And yes, I just said that things are getting better, but better is the enemy of good. Things are not good yet.

    The Karimojong are wonderful masters of nature. They can watch the birds and the bugs and tell you on a cloudless stifling hot day, after months of scorching, sucking drought, that tomorrow it will rain. And if they say that, you should bring your umbrella.

    The Rainmaker
    The Rainmaker.

    I once asked a Shaman, a wise man, if he could really make it rain. I think I insulted him. There was not a cloud in the sky. No rain for weeks. We were standing near a large rock. Within 30 minutes a giant black cloud appeared from behind that rock and totally drenched us. Our lighting equipment was ruined. It was raining ONLY on us, nowhere else. Of course, I do not believe in this sort of stuff because I am a Western-educated gentleman who does not believe in mysticism. Right. But some things cannot be explained by science and the Karimojong are completely in tune with nature.

  • And outside of Karamoja have you had any interaction with the Karamojong?
  • Yes, many of the stories in our book are creative non-fiction written by the Monitor journalist Sylvester Onyang, who is a very well educated Karimojong, chained to his computer and mobile phone just like the rest of us. The stories are being read for accuracy and fact-checking by Daniel Aleper, a Karimojong who works for UWA and currently is finishing his PhD in wildlife biology in Norway.

  • What exactly is KARAMOJA! Uganda's Land of Warrior Nomads and how long has it been in the works?
  • K!ULofWN is an opus. It started as a simple picture book and got completely out of hand. It has been in the works for almost 10 years now. Surprisingly, the most difficult part was the text, making the text something other than a descriptive schoolbook. In the end we took the approach of creating short stories so that the reader learns about Karimojong culture by reading an interesting story about Beauty, or Raiding, or Anger, or Sons and Mothers, or The Gun, or Becoming a Man. I like the approach. I wish I could take credit for the idea, but it was developed in our brainstorming sessions about the book.

    And I would like to make a comment about the photographs in the book. We have really done our utmost NOT to glamourize Karimojong culture. We are just taking it like it is and hopefully showing it like it is. For instance, sometimes in traditional photography books great care is taken to ensure that the subjects are wearing only historical and traditional clothing. Well, we did not do this. If some guy is spearing a bull in a traditional ceremony, and he is dressed in blue jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap, we just shot the pictures that way. We made no effort at all try to make the pictures conform to some idealized version of what we would like to think of how it used to be. Of course we captured the purely traditional as well as the cross-over to modernism and I think that is why the pictures speak to the audience. They can recognize elements of themselves in those pictures, they are not just some dusty old piece of history that nobody will ever see again.

  • How did you meet Sylvester Onyang and Jeremy O'Kasick who collaborated with you on this book and what are their roles in this publication?
  • I contacted Sylvester after reading his work in the Monitor. I did not want to create a textbook about a culture. I wanted the culture to tell stories. I knew the Karimojong were good story tellers, and reading the Monitor I liked Sylvester's writing style, so I thought he was just the right guy to put those stories into a form that a western audience would appreciate. We worked together to come up with story topics that would illustrate Karimojong culture.

    I met Jeremy O'Kasick in the most unusual way. I had known him as a travel agent and African travel guide. Jeremy lives a good part of the year in Dar es Salaam and speaks excellent Kiswahili. He was working for my partner in the film business, Nichole Smaglick, who is an expert on African cultures and cultural tourism. I needed to find a writer who could take Sylvester's excellent stories one step further, add a little more polish to them and develop new lines within the stories. I talked to Nichole and she recommended Jeremy. I was amazed. I had no idea he was a writer, and here he was literally working right under my nose. Taught me (once again) to be more interested in the people I am working with daily.

  • Noting that our members come from all parts of the world, where can we get a copy of the book? And why would you recommend we, especially Ugandans in the Diaspora, get this book?
  • Oh goody, goody, I get to market the book now. The book will be available on Amazon, and certainly will be available at all the good bookstores and Duty Free shops in East Africa. The publication date was scheduled for December but we have moved that back to Spring 2007 for the sake of accuracy. In any event, it can be ordered through our website www.fotografx.biz, just by sending us a note through the CONTACTS link. Don't worry, it will be all over the Web when the time comes. I own the domain Karamoja.com, so we will be using that for marketing. And of course UGPulse will be informed as soon as we have a firm publication date. If the readers want, they can simply express their interest to UGPulse and we will put them on the mailing list.

  • We have talked about your photography and your work with the Karamajong. What else are you doing in Uganda and the rest of the continent?
  • Our next project is to set up Media Centres in Kampala, Arusha, Kigali and one Asian city in the next two years. We want to create studio environments where filmmakers can develop their ideas in a stimulating professional setting and visiting news crews can rest, recuperate and upload their files to their home base.

    David Pluth in Arusha
    David Pluth in Arusha.

    David Pluth in Rwanda
    David Pluth in Rwanda.

  • What is next for David Pluth?
  • Next, in a couple of days, I am leaving on a three week photo trip to Sierra Leone for the National Tourist Board and SN Brussels Airlines. After that, it is back to work on a video documentary with my film partner, the renowned Nichole Smaglick, about misunderstood countries. We are visiting countries that are misunderstood or misrepresented in the Western media like North Korea, Libya, Sudan, to tell their stories objectively and truthfully. We get tired of hearing the same old simplistic lies about these places and have decided to do something about it. And, I am still working on a film about cargo cults in the South Pacific, we have a music film to do next year, as well as one on finding Nirvana, Enlightenment, in India. Plus, we are looking at doing picture books for Sudan, Libya and Pakistan.

  • Well David... we now know a little more about the man behind the lens of much of Uganda's well known photography. It was a great pleasure talking to you and thank you for chosing to do your reveal on UGPulse.com.
  • Thanks to you. It has been my pleasure.


    By Peter Allen Kigonya
    more from author >>
    First published: November 6, 2006
    Peter Allen Kigonya is the founder of UGPulse.com