Lyle Owerko’s Reverential Portraits of the Samburu

Embark on a journey to East Africa, where the artistry of photography merges harmoniously with the quest for knowledge and empowerment. Acclaimed photographer Lyle Owerko‘s portraits encapsulate the very essence of the Samburu people of northern Kenya. In 2023, Owerko was honored with a prestigious Graphis Photography Gold Award for his extraordinary endeavor, “The Samburu,” as commissioned by The Thorn Tree Project. Equipped with his trusted Canon camera, Owerko ventured on an exhilarating odyssey, traversing the vibrant tapestry of the Samburu’s lives, aspirations, and dreams—with the unwavering support of The Thorn Tree Project’s educational infrastructure and scholarship programs. These portraits were unveiled in a book project that serves as an enduring testament to the transformative impact fostered by The Thorn Tree Project over two decades within the Samburu community.

By: Lyle Owerko

Seriene means ‘welcome’ in the Samburu language and can be heard as easily as the calling songs of birds within the East African brush as you make your way past the proud, elaborately adorned Warriors of the Samburu people. The Samburu peoples occupy a remote northern Kenya region near Mount Kenya’s foothills. Commonly known as cousins to the equally vibrant Maasai peoples, the Samburu (like their cousins) are semi-nomadic pastoralists. For centuries they’ve cultivated a culture of excellent blacksmithing trades and cattlemen skills and subsist primarily as farmers and herders. Drought has put an environmental strain on the Samburu, stifling their ability to keep livestock and grow even meager crops. Help has found them. This is how I was introduced to Samburu through The Thorn Tree Projects’ philanthropic endeavors. The Thorn Tree project identified a need for education infrastructure. It partnered with Chief George and the Samburu peoples of Seriolipi and Ndonyo-Wasin to cultivate a home-grown educational program that has successfully planted a learning seed for future generations. 

“The Samburu portrait series was shot as a document of the people The Thorntree Project supports. The Thorn Tree’s efforts are established through educational buildings, teacher training, and scholarship programs in northern Kenya. These portraits were released in a book project in June 2022 to commemorate 20 years of The Thorn Tree’s work in the Samburu community.

“Working in conditions with no electricity, limited resources, and ample sunshine, a rudimentary portrait studio was set up using tree branches and scrims made by a local tailor to create a unique environment to photograph in.

“As a part of The Thorntree Project’s endeavors, hundreds of students have been sent to higher education and college, bringing prosperity back to their families and community. This book project documented the soul of the community and their reach for a higher self in a changing world.”

Lyle Owerko is a photographer and filmmaker with a diverse roster of clients that include major brands, corporations, and human rights groups. Known for his keen perception and knowledge of urban movements, his instinctually crafted visual images have found an indelible place in the lexicon of both pop culture and journalism.

Recognized for his high-resolution documentation of Sept 11th (featured on the iconic 9/11 cover of TIME Magazine), his in-depth survey of the history and impact of boomboxes on popular culture, and his seminal portraits of distinct cultures residing in Africa and Mongolia, he’s seen and experienced disruption both on the global frontier and on the global stage.

Turning a page into a new era with his work, his current projects bridge the borders of sculpture, photography, and technique in a manner that documents the basic human inclination to elevate the universal condition. A recipient of numerous awards, editorial and television profiles, his work is collected and exhibited around the world. Lyle was raised in Calgary, Canada, studied at The Pratt Institute in New York, and currently resides in Los Angeles.

Check out more from Lyle Owerko here.

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Author: Graphis