Armed with an AK-47, a fierce-looking Karo tribesman sits next to his son on an Omo Valley riverbank in Ethiopia. Their eyes are intense, vigilant, and each of them is sheathed in white body paint, adding to their aura of menace. Feeling equally threatened, the Mundari cattle herders in South Sudan must ward off disease-spreading mosquitoes. To protect themselves, they set ablaze cow dung, rub the ash on their bodies, or cleanse themselves under streams of bovine urine. One orange-haired warrior in this searing photograph is also gripping an AK-47.These images are more than passing moments in time. Capturing the essence of the Danis’ militance in New Guinea, or an elderly Iranian woman hovering close to a fire, they resonate a life-affirming nobility, a will to survive.
That in itself is beauty, conviction, defiance in the face of adversity–characteristics that define many of Roberto Pazzi photographs. An IT engineer turned photo/journalist, this self-taught chronicler of “inner landscapes” is devoted to “looking at the world like a child.” It’s a sharpened vision, one that allows him to discover the “simplicities” and vitality of lives on the edge–indigenous people threatened by war, poverty, and the onslaught of globalization.His Nikons honor people. Casting a humble Nepalese lumberjack, or a turbaned Indian shoemaker as regal upholders of workaday values, Pazzi elevates them, underscoring their dignity. They become powerful “signatures,” keepers of tradition–images that last.
Intent on telling stories about a Sadhu Holy Man with piercing eyes, or of his prized “Begging Hands’ in Addis Ababa, Pazzi listens to their tales, then conveys the visual translation. “I want to capture humbleness, sacrifices, loneliness and strengths,” explains Pazzi, an award-winning photographer who has worked for National Geographic, the Guardian, and Geo Magazine. “Hands say a lot…about devotion, struggle, wanting to be free. My photo of a 15-year-old Mursi girl in Ethiopia having her lip cut so a plate can be inserted is a statement of freedom…women who are modified traditionally avoided being kidnapped, enslaved. I also wanted my freedom…I wanted to live life.”
Bored with technology, and feeling “out of touch” with his soul, Pazzi decided to quit his IT job in 2014. Organizing sales staff in the US and elsewhere just couldn’t compete with his urge to travel. He didn’t know much about photography, but that hardly mattered. It was time to “listen to my heart,” to take a risk. Ignoring the perils of photographing a “lost tribe” in Indonesia, Pazzi trekked through the hidden Baliem Valley to establish contact with the spear-carrying Danis. Convincing these shy tribesmen, who cover their faces with pig fat and ash, to speak to him about their primitive ways, he took a series of photos that further kindled his wanderlust.
His family was against these expeditions. But once those images of white-painted warriors in feathered headdresses and pig tusks in their noses gained prominence in Western media, Pazzi embarked on other forays. Fascinated by religious rituals, and their celebrating life and death, he next journeyed to Sulawesi, another Indonesian island. Carrying cigarettes and sugar to gain intimacy with the inhabitants, he was ultimately dissatisfied with the photos. “That was a learning time for me, the images just weren’t too good,” recollects Pazzi, who grew up in Milan, Italy, and now lives in Palma de Mallorca. “I realized I had to improve my management of the camera.”
His Mundari experience in South Sudan was far more encouraging. Focusing on “compositional point of view,” he tried “to capture the soul” of these superstitious warriors–and succeeded. The Mundari images are stunning, intimate reflections of the tribesmen’s daily life (“the smells among the cows were just horrible, I don’t know how they bear it”). He overcame that challenge, and convinced these people to feel comfortable with him, to be “spontaneous,” “They worship cows, treat them as equals,” Pazzi told London’s Daily Mail. He added, “They have this wonderful connection with Nature…something the First World should learn.”
Humanizing these warriors, yet still reflecting their primitive power, Pazzi’s photos are perceptive, exciting, and endlessly immersive. They allow us “to touch” these tribesmen, to be curious about their customs, to even feel a strong, reverential link with their sacred animals. To capture other bonds–the intensity of an old Vietnamese man fascinated by his raffle cards, or the plaintive eyes of an Ethiopian baby breast-feeding–Pazzi is an “anthropologist.” An “invisible” one–he tries to “lay back,” to approach people gingerly, unobtrusively, and “to always be sensitive to their customs.”
Those sensibilities are mirrored in many of his revelatory images. They are gentle yet forceful, and always penetrating. Admittedly Pazzi is maturing as an artist. He’s now limited by his inability to travel during the Pandemic. “I’m stuck at home, I can’t risk going to Namibia to photograph Bushmen,” he rues. “They don’t have medicine, a hospital. I must be very sensitive.”But his odyssey will continue one day. When it does, it’s clear he will resume another quest to accomplish what fabled photographer Alfred Steiglitz achieved.
“Great photography becomes more real than reality.”
Written by Edward Kiersh