Compiled by Jana-Mari Smith
Alegra kindly agreed to take part in a Q&A with Travel News Namibia – where she tells her own story, and the passion that fueled her to go where very few have gone.
The story of her one month stay with a group of ovaHimba in Namibia’s north-west region was created in a unique way – by immersing herself whole-heartedly into the lives the tribe, she managed to capture a way of life that both fascinates and intrigues us – and makes one think about the pros and cons about the Western, rat race lifestyle so many of us are deeply entwined with.
Her month long stay, and the stories and photographs she collected, are a stunning visual map of the ovaHimba people of Namibia, who continue to navigate a fragile truce between their ancient lifestyle in the face of the encroaching modern way of life.
Her stay in Namibia forms part of her “Wild Born” project – which she describes as being about “celebrating women and cultural diversity. On a personal level this project has been my teacher, helped me grow and develop as a person, and to understand the world and its complexities”. (Go to to Alegra Ally’s Website for more)
As a self-taught photographer, Ally’s natural talents shine through her work – an unmistakable homage of respect to those whose life stories she documents for a brief moment in time.
“On the last few days before the birth the mother would point at the moon and say, “When the moon passes over our head in this angle this is when my daughter would give birth”. Her prediction proved to be very accurate.” – Alegra Ally
IN CONVERSATION WITH ALEGRA ALLY
THE JOURNEY SO FAR
I was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Israel. Since a young age I was drawn to stories of explorations and the natural world. I was especially intrigued by tribal communities.
My fascination with stories of exploration and the natural world, especially tribal communities helped me to plan my first expedition to Papua New Guinea (PNG) at a very young age.
I would often sit in class daydreaming about jungles, and about living with tribes and experiencing their ways of life.
When I was 17, I traveled solo to Papua New Guinea and spent three months canoeing, trekking the Kokoda trail and I was even initiated into one of the tribes.
Upon my return I felt the world is too big not to explore and wanted to experience more of the same.
During the next decade, I travelled to 23 countries on all continents.
After many years of travelling, and a few years spent in South Africa, I still felt very strongly about my initial experience in Papua New Guinea and the indigenous people – I dreamed of going back.
In 2011 I felt ready to start developing a project that would combine my passions: Photography, indigenous communities, the environment and conservation. The Wild Born Project was created. http://www.alegraally.com/
The next four years have been dedicated to this project.
The project aims to document, through photography, film and writing, the ancient birth traditions and practices amongst tribal women in remote locations around the world.
I base my choices on whom to document on the fact that I wish to document birth stories where minimal modern medicinal intervention in use.
My project enables me to explore the differences and the similarities of traditional communities in the way that birth is practiced.
I IMMERSE MYSELF
I conduct all research in the field, learning about the practices and traditions by living with tribal communities. I don’t see myself solely as a photographer.
It usually takes me a few months or up to a year to plan an expedition.
Once I arrive in a community I try to create friendships and bond with the community in order to feel less like a stranger and to immerse myself and experience their ways of life.
I live in their houses usually with host family, eat what they eat, spend time with them on daily activities.
I admire and am fascinated by their way of life and I always learn so much from that experience.
The experience is mutual, as I feel they benefit as much from the friendship they receive from me, as I from them. My camera is not always present, and when it is often I use it in a very spontaneous way.
HOW DO YOU CONNECT?
While I was researching the ovaHimba I knew the region I wanted to visit but as my project focuses on a specific experience I can only research to a limited extent.
With the ova Himba, I was driving with my guide/ interpreter to see Epupa falls before we embarked into more isolated and less populated areas.
On the way to the falls I saw a few settlements and asked the guide to stop for a short visit.
Although my intention was to stay with a more isolated community, once we stopped at one of those villages I was fortunate to hear about a local woman who was nine months pregnant. I received permission to stay.
When I arrive in a new place I always talk openly and explain why I am there and about my project and its importance. The responses are usually positive and welcoming.
THIN LINE OF OBSERVER AND PARTICIPANT
When I am taking photographs it depends on what I am trying to accomplish.
In most cases, once I emerge myself in the community and they accept me, the relationships and the bonds created, and they understand what I am trying to achieve, it becomes very easy to communicate.
Working on my project, I am not always working with my camera. A lot of the time I am working with pen and paper- documenting stories and other times I just spend time with the people.
Naturally with my project I spend most of my time with the women and girls. The longer the duration of my stay, the easier it becomes for the members of the community to choose whether they will communicate with me.
Some choose to create strong bonds with me while others just live their lives around me.
This environment allows me to work more naturally with my camera and document real moments rather than staged ones. I am not really interested in directing people or situations.
I did not expect to see a “women centered” community where men are not around. The communities I stayed with consisted mostly of women and at first I was surprised.
My first impression was that there was a strong female connection and they are strong and independent, and that this structure works well.
Later I heard stories from different women and learned about the circumstances that cause this phenomenon.
In the area where I stayed, men did not live permanently in the village, attracted to nearby urban areas – especially the young men who seem to group together and spend their days moving between the towns.
LESSONS FROM THE ovaHIMBA
Living with the ovaHimba for a month, I witnessed their relationship with their natural environment and saw that there is a balance in which humans and nature can coexist, without overwhelming the natural surroundings or dominating it.
The ovaHimba seem to have achieved the right balance. I loved feeling the connection to the land and as much as I love the outdoors, living in a developed world I accumulated certain habits.
At first, life in nature 24 hours a day for a long period of time, without the luxury of running water, a comfortable bed or electricity, can feel uncomfortable.
But as the days go by you begin to loosen up and enjoy the moments of simply sitting around the fire with the locals, looking at the milky way and falling asleep to complete silence.
Another thing that left an impression is the ovaHimba, as a semi-nomadic group, do not have the tendency to accumulate possessions as Westerners do. Their lifestyle does not allow many possessions and they are a non-consumer society.
Having “less” does not necessarily mean you are poor or less fortunate. It makes you question our consumer driven society.
I really enjoyed spending time with ovaHimba women. I admire their independence, hard work and being surrounded by lots of laughter.
Their ability to laugh often is more proof that happiness is not necessarily dependent on wealth or earthly possessions. The ovaHimba seemed very happy and have close bonds.
Documenting the ovaHimba. Photo ©Alegra Ally
The main challenge is the uncertainty. Searching for a nine-month pregnant woman is not always easy as timing is crucial.
I am not always as fortunate as in Namibia where I found the right women within days.
It sometimes takes weeks to find a woman who will bond with me and will be happy and willing to share her journey with me.
It can also be tricky, as many of these women are unable to accurately state when they are due.
In some cases I found women that said they are on the 9th month but after a few weeks with them it was apparent they are actually on the 7th month. In Papua New Guinea I stayed with a 9 months pregnant woman for close to a month and at the end she gave birth in the middle of the night in the storm and I missed the birth although I was sleeping less than 30 metres away.
In the case of the ovaHimba, as I was getting close to one month I had to extend my stay in order to increase the chances of being there on the day of the birth.
The mother of the young pregnant women had calculated the time of birth by counting moon cycles. On the last few days before the birth the mother would point at the moon and say, “When the moon passes over our head in this angle this is when my daughter would give birth”. Her prediction proved to be very accurate.
GOAL AND VISION
This project is about celebrating women and cultural diversity. On a personal level this project has been my teacher, helped me grow and develop as a person, and to understand the world and its complexities.
This journey that I have chosen is a spiritual journey, its about growth and experiences. Equally important it’s about being able to channel and share the experiences, the complexities, my ideas, thoughts and my values with the world.
More specifically this project is scheduled to be completed within ten years and will result in a comprehensive collection of birth stories and practices of tribal women from around the world in a book format and a documentary film.
BEING FEATURED IN AFRICA GEOGRAPHIC
I was very happy to be featured in the magazine. It is a great opportunity to be used as a platform to share my stories as it has a vast audience.
Being able to share the story with as many people as possible is essential, it’s all about raising awareness and educating the public about indigenous peoples, about other ways of life, about the challenges they are facing and it helps to diminish prejudice.
MY EQUIPMENT & STYLE
I use the Canon 5D mk2. My three favourite lenses are 50mm f1.4, 24-105 f4 and the 70-200mm f2.8.
I mostly work with those lenses as my subjects are people and I love portraits, emotions and expressions.
I am mainly interested in documentary photography. As a self-taught photographer, technical photography is a field where I have a lot to learn, but I love working with natural light.
I usually don’t carry many accessories with me. The story that transfers through the image is more important than the “perfect” image.
ADVICE FOR OTHERS
I don’t see myself as only a photographer but as a storyteller. I have always struggled with definitions – being called a photographer brings assumptions to it.
I follow my passion driven by a calling to contribute to a higher purpose. The best way to express my passions and ideas with the world is through photography but also through writing, expedition planning, filming and connecting. All of those are equally important.
The best advice I could give is to avoid definitions.
We are many things – not only photographers. Respect and be truly inquisitive towards the people and culture you visit. Prepare yourself to working in the wild by expecting the unexpected. Things usually don’t work according to plan. Don’t over romanticise situations, live in the moment, and make sure you are doing what you do for the right reasons. Leave expectations behind and be prepared to be surprised. Be willing to be non-judgmental. Be prepared for an adventure!
WOULD YOU VISIT NAMIBIA AGAIN?
I would definitely want to come back and visit the same families I have visited but also other communities such as the bushmen. I love Namibia. I have found the people to be very generous and have felt safe.
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