Female Firsts: Meet World-Renowned Photographer Carol Beckwith

In honor of Women's History Month, celebrate the achievements of women around the globe and throughout history with us. From the pages of The Explorers Journal, we're spotlighting four women who broke boundaries in exploration, research, and science. This week, meet the world-renowned photographer, Carol Beckwith.

March 17, 2021

Carol Beckwith is an author, photojournalist, artist, and champion of cultural diversity. She has produced 17 books, hundreds of magazine articles, and several award-winning films documenting indigenous African cultures in collaboration with Angela Fisher. The team is currently working on a new documentary film about their 45 years in the field and planning expeditions to nine more African countries. Beckwith and Fisher have amassed a remarkable archive of more than 500,000 images, 1,000 hours of video, 200 illustrated journals, and five major traveling exhibits; and they are searching for an institution to house this treasure trove.

Check out this excerpted story from Beckwith's extraordinary fieldwork in southwestern Ethiopia.

We had traveled by mule train up and over 10,000-foot mountains to find the Surma people in southwest Ethiopia. We'd spent six extraordinary weeks living with them, immersing ourselves in their lifestyle, recording all their ceremonies---from birth to death.

Gathering at the riverbank, Surma girls express their affection for one another by painting each other’s faces with intricate patterns. Each day during the courtship season they return to the chalk banks to create new designs. Using a mixture of chalk and water from the riverbank for the initial design, they then highlight the patterns with red ocher paint made from pulverized rock containing iron ore. Their innovative face and body patterns are designed to attract the opposite sex.

Surma Children Painting on the River Bank, Ethiopia

Gathering at the riverbank, Surma girls express their affection for one another by painting each other’s faces with intricate patterns. Each day during the courtship season they return to the chalk banks to create new designs. Using a mixture of chalk and water from the riverbank for the initial design, they then highlight the patterns with red ocher paint made from pulverized rock containing iron ore. Their innovative face and body patterns are designed to attract the opposite sex.

Gathering at the riverbank, Surma girls express their affection for one another by painting each other’s faces with intricate patterns. Each day during the courtship season they return to the chalk banks to create new designs. Using a mixture of chalk and water from the riverbank for the initial design, they then highlight the patterns with red ocher paint made from pulverized rock containing iron ore. Their innovative face and body patterns are designed to attract the opposite sex.

We sat with the village chief, met his wives and children, and were renamed and re-dressed to fit in. We came with respect and without Western 'baggage'; we let the women press our hair and draw scarification on our faces; and they shared their stories and invited us to their ceremonies that had never been recorded. But the night before we were scheduled to leave, we learned that our mule train was going to be ambushed, and that we would not be allowed to get out of the region alive.

The Surma have a totally egalitarian system; and we had included only three villages in our project, leaving out about 14,000 other people. Those left out were deeply disturbed and planned retribution. Our guide, Zoga, came up with a creative solution. We had a giant goat roast and invited all the Surma chiefs from all the villages to join us for this final celebration. It was a fantastic event.

Surma Stick Fight.

Surma Stick Fight.

At the end of the afternoon Zoga asked the chiefs if they would accompany us on our journey out of Surmaland, explaining that we would like to leave at 3:00 a.m. on a very dark night, and be out of Surmaland by sunrise. They were thrilled with the day of celebration and agreed to honor us by participating. We left as planned; with a chief placed between each mule in our long procession.

When the sun came up, we looked up into the trees and saw Surma warriors with their Kalashnikov rifles pointed at us. But when they saw such an honorable procession that included their chiefs, they put down their rifles and allowed us to pass. We left Surmaland, and we're here to tell the tale today.

In celebration of the Club's 40th anniversary year of female membership, this article is part of a series of short stories from four of the "first women of The Explorers Club," offering rare behind-the-scenes glimpses of their can-do spirit. The series is comprised of extracted interviews conducted in late 2020 for the film, Pathfinders, which premieres Tuesday March 30th at 7pm through The Explorers Club.

The Explorers Club

The Explorers Club, a non-profit world leader in exploration. Since its inception in 1904, members of the Club have traversed the earth, the seas, the skies, and even the moon, on expeditions of exploration.

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