Walking for Water

Fri 28th Nov, 2014

By APA Admin in San Francisco

Interview by Nicole Weingartner. Home page cover photo © Chris Majors.

Photographer and APA member Rudi Dundas has had a busy year. She was nominated for a Lucie Award as International Photographer of the Year for her project Walking for Water. She also received first place in the APA National Awards for portraiture for one of her Samburu portraits. Rudi sat down with us to talk about her southern upbringing, her shift from tapestry to digital photography, and her recent work on the worldwide water crisis.

© Polly Nimick. Rudi Dundas in Ethiopia with the Kara tribe.

Where were you born and describe your upbringing?
I grew up in a small town in eastern North Carolina during the time of racial segregation. My mother was English, a university professor and quite opposed to the existing southern "regime." My mother raised us to resist values that she felt were "wrong" and try to help to change them. As a young girl, I remember being very upset that I was not allowed to drink from the "colored" water fountain, as I imagined rainbows of color pouring out, as opposed to our banal "white" water. Perhaps this was the beginning of my social consciousness and interest in water!

Books were an early escape from small town life. I have always read a lot, and from an early age, heroes emerged, such as Georgia O'Keefe and Jane Goodall. While other girls wanted to be nurses or housewives, my pronounced future life was to start a chimpanzee farm in Africa.

How did you become a photographer?
Photography has always been part of my life. I studied fine art photography as an undergraduate in North Carolina, and later married a photographer. My graduate work in San Francisco and at The Gobelins in Paris, was in French tapestry, weaving "photorealistic" images in 15th c. French tapestry technique. I moved to New York City and founded a French tapestry studio in the 1980's weaving urban NYC scenes from my photographs, under my married name, Scheuer Tapestry Studio. With the economic setbacks of the late 1980's, I transformed the studio into a contemporary art gallery, funded as a non-profit space until it finally closed in 1995, when I moved part time to Italy to live with my second husband. I continued to work with photography, painting with mineral pigments to render the photo images in large scale. But when digital photography came into serious contention in the early 2000's, I threw out the paints and went back to the camera. It was an easy transition from what I had been doing with tapestry and paint, from dots of color to pixels...and I could do it all myself in color.

“What inspires me is connection with people. Eye to eye. There is that magical moment when I am laughing, talking with my subject, and they drop their mask, look beyond the camera and recognize that I am truly, sincerely interested in THEM. Not as a tourist or journalist. Not as a part of the environment or culture they represent, but in them as an individual. It is the difference between looking and seeing. Not everyone wants to be looked at, but everyone wants to be seen.”

When did you and your art shift focus to Africa?
My work in Africa started in 2009 with my first trip for Peet's Coffee, to Rwanda to cover their coffee farming projects. I was very impressed by how people there had recovered after the terrible genocide of 1994. Soon after, I met Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network, who told me "if you want to make a difference in the world as a photographer, then help us with drinking water." Lisa helped me to see that water is the basic starting point for all social change. I decided to make this commitment with my work.

Partnering with another photographer, Chris Majors, we were able to fund three photographic projects with local NGO's in India and Africa, which helped these small organizations to raise money and awareness for their water projects. Three grants from the Adobe Foundation, and combining trips with assignment work for US AID, coffee companies and other clients has funded this work. We followed up with presentations, exhibitions, assistance with promotions, websites, etc. I have since continued with this work in the series, The Face of Water, portraits and stories of people affected by the world water crisis. In addition to the documentary work I have done for the NGO's, the portraits add a personal, more intimate connection with the people themselves. I have now been to over 15 countries with my camera, photographing people and documenting their stories related to water problems. I am currently working on a book of The Face of Water portraits and stories which I hope to get published at some point.

© Rudi Dundas. 1st Place, Portraiture, 2014 APA Awards

Tell us about the Omo River Valley and your work there.
In addition to an assignment from an NGO to cover drinking water and women's groups in Sidamo arranged for me by Blue Planet Network, I wanted to go to Ethiopia with Chris Rainier, a photographer I have always admired, after my friend, Nancy Farese from PhotoPhilanthropy told me that he was taking a group of photographers to Ethiopia on a trip organized by National Geographic. Nancy joined me on the trip, as well as another colleague, I had met in Cuba, Polly Nimick. Chris has photographed for years in Ethiopia, and knows a lot of interesting people there, so it was wonderful being able to meet with tribes in the Omo River Valley through his personal connections. I had been to Ethiopia once before with Peet's Coffee, but never to the Omo River Valley. I wanted to go because of the work I had seen from other photographers: Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, Hans Silvester, Sebastiao Salgado, Steve McCurry, Brent Stirton and the recent work of Joey L. and Jimmy Nelson. But I was appalled when we got there and saw enormous roads being built on tribal lands and heard from Chris and our guides that the government had taken the land to build mega-sugar plantations, and even more importantly, one of the largest dams in the world, funded by the Chinese government. The dam will end flood plain farming in the Valley, which is how the tribes have fed themselves for thousands of years. There did not seem to be any plan in place to care for the 200,000 people dependent upon the annual overflow of the Omo River for their survival. I felt I had to reach out and try to let people elsewhere know about this.

What was a major obstacle you faced while completing this project?
The major obstacle in realizing this work became apparent as soon as we arrived to visit the Mursi. Even though Chris knows Olisarali Olibui, a Mursi tribesman who has made a wonderful film, Shooting with Mursi, and had met with the elders to make a donation to the village beforehand, we were overrun by tribal members upon putting a foot outside of the jeep, as people assaulted us to photograph them for additional money. They were obviously very experienced with "tourists" now that the enormous roads had been built into their previously inaccessible territories. And they were aggressive about it. One dollar per "click" or be harangued, even hit if you did not comply. I have never paid for photographs, as I feel it reduces people to begging, and I am usually traveling with fieldworkers or people from the communities I am visiting. This was a shock to say the least. But after discussion with Chris, we worked out a method. In each village, I hired a young "guide" who had enough schooling to be able to translate for me, as well as hold my flash and work as my photo-assistant for the day. This way, I was able to immerse myself more easily into the village, and with my photo-assistant as my guide, I was able to meet people, talk with them and photograph them in a mutually agreeable way.

What was your biggest “aha moment”?
My biggest "aha moment," I suppose, was when we stopped along the roadside for a break soon after leaving the Mursi tribe, and still in Mago National Park, and I saw container truck after container truck edging up the road…What is THAT? I asked, Chris....All the trucks carrying in the materials to build the sugar plantations here in the Valley. There were a lot. It struck me; this is going to REALLY change things, here...

© Rudi Dundas

What is a compelling story you heard while on the trip?
In Jinka, we went to visit Omo Child, started by Lale Labuko, of the Kara tribe, with the help of NG photographer, John Rowe. It is an "orphanage" to save children from "Mingi," the custom in many tribes in the Omo Valley, of killing "cursed" babies, by throwing them in the River, or filling their mouths with dirt and leaving them in the forest to die. A child can bring a curse to a village for many reasons. Their parents might not have followed the proper marriage rituals before they were born. Or their top teeth might have come in before the more common bottom teeth ("tooth Mingi") in which case, they were believed to put a curse onto the village bringing drought, crop failure or other disasters. Therefore they were simply killed. Omo Child has worked hard to end this practice and make a home for these "cursed" children, giving them a second chance in life. Find out more here.

How has the use of portraits helped to show the stories of your subjects?
The Face of Water is a tribute to the amazing people I have met while traveling. I have made many lifelong connections along the way. I have "adopted" and sent to university two young people whom I now consider my "godchildren..." True gifts in my life. My Facebook friends span the world. Many that I have met have shared compelling stories with me, which I feel is transmitted in their eyes and in their faces… By making iconic portraits, eye to eye, I hope to portray the dignity and beauty of the people I have had the privilege to meet. Whether it be the unique tribal life that they portray through their scarification, body painting or clothing, or more "ordinary" people who simply express a deep personality through their eyes, I try to make portraits that reveal the individual, the human being behind the stereotype.  Something in between the studio portrait and the environmental portrait…  I like to think of it as the "intimate moment" between photographer and subject.

What’s next?
With the drought in California, we have our own water issues which are becoming increasingly dire as rain evades us. I am hoping to do a story on life in the Delta which feeds into the SF Bay. Farmers have been settled there since the Gold Rush days, but that life is ending there with the water wars that our State is now experiencing.  

I have just purchased a used Hasselblad medium format camera that I plan to use for this project.  And will do documentary work, as well as portraits of the people I meet along the way with this new camera.  

In regards to the Omo River work, I posted the first photos with an essay on the Dam on Social Documentary Network and it won the Featured Photographer of the Month for November. 

I have already met several Ethiopians and other people who are committed to the area through this essay. We are in the process of trying to do something to help. There is a petition on the SDN site that people can sign, and I am hoping to use my photos to help those already at work on this issue, for greater publicity.

I have an upcoming exhibition of The Face of Water portraits at the World Affairs Council Gallery at 312 Sutter in San Francisco opening Tuesday, February 3rd, with a presentation about the work in Samburu and the Omo River at 6:00pm. More information will be seen here shortly.

I would love to invite anyone who is interested, to please join us for that evening! The exhibition will be up through April, 2015.

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