Jane Baldwin is an American photographer and educator who gives voice to people on the verge of displacement from their ancestral land and loss of cultural identity. Since 2005, she has made annual trips to photograph and record stories from the women of indigenous communities in Ethiopia's Omo River Valley and Kenya's Lake Turkana watershed.
Her recent body of work, Kara Women Speak / Stories from Women
, is a multi-sensory, immersive body of work about women, culture, human rights and the environmental issues that threaten the communities of the Omo River Valley and Lake Turkana. It distills ten years of travel in the Omo River Valley in which she photographed and recorded stories from the women of indigenous communities living in Southwestern Ethiopia. This valley is home to roughly 12 indigenous tribal groups that are intimately connected to the natural world and have evolved over hundreds of years. These images and stories, along with field recordings of ambient sound, provide a sensory perception of life and time on the Omo River.
As Jane has described
: “I made my first trip to the Omo in 2005, and at that time, what struck me about the cultures, people and land of the Omo River was the sense of going back in time. Time is tracked by the seasons and seasonal floods, by the moon, sun, and stars. It is not tracked with clocks and schedules, but a time much, much older.”
This project began when Baldwin, along with a group of four other women and their pilot, embarked on a low-level flying expedition following the great rivers and waterways that define life in Africa. They flew over 5900 miles in the six-seat Cessna 210 airplane named Ewaso, the Maasai word for “water”, traveling from the Nile’s source in Ethiopia to Cape Town, South Africa. During this trip, Baldwin learned about the Omo River Valley of Southwestern Ethiopia, one of the most remote and culturally diverse areas of the continent.
“The people of the Omo made me acutely aware of the integral role their river and forests have on their self-sustainability,” Jane has said. “They grow all of their own food, make their own clothes from the leathers of their goats, and forage wild fruits, seeds, and edible plants from the forest. They harvest honey from their beehives and gather medicinal plants. The Omo River provides fish and abundant water for their cattle, goats, and their communities. Our western consumer society is largely dependent on corporations to provide most of our basic needs. Planting an olive grove and producing olive oil and planting a small a garden and growing grapes for wine has given me a sense of independence. The lessons of self-sufficiency that I observed among the Omo River cultures created a heightened awareness about the importance of my own contribution to a more sustainable way of living.”
Since 2005, Baldwin has made annual trips to visit with women of the Omo River Valley. Her photographic process is intuitive and experiential. She works slowly and photographs along the way, often traveling by boat to isolated villages to spend time with the women.
“My projects have always started without clear goals, not by design; it's just the way my mind works,” Jane says. “On my first trip to the Omo, I didn't know what I wanted to photograph. I'd go into villages and walk around telling myself that I'd figure it out, and that it was ok to not know where to begin. By the end of the trip, I felt a visceral connection to the land and people, especially the women. Artists define their own way of working depending on their intention and objective. National Geographic and Magnum photographers receive an assignment to document a story within a given time period. My project started without an objective or intention, and through curiosity, became an act of discovery. The curiosity of discovery led to a connection with the Kara women.”
Her short film "Kara Women Speak" has been screened at national and international film festivals. Her photographic work has been featured in selected publications, reviews, exhibitions and online sites, including the Global Oneness Project; LensCulture; Peace Palace Library at Bibliotheque du Palais de la Paix; Washington Center for Photography in Washington DC; Washington Post; and most recently, PBS Learning media and a 2015 solo exhibition at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art
Jane lives in Sonoma Valley, California. She is a founding board member of PhotoAlliance in San Francisco, and is currently a member of the board of director of International Rivers in Berkeley. She received a BA in English Literature from the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, and studied photography at UC Berkeley-San Francisco's Extended Learning program.