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Omo Valley Journeys – Banna and Tsemay People

Portrait of Koro, a beautiful Tsemay girl in the market of Key Afer in southern Ethiopia. She has just started her subtle face tattooing (note the single vertical tattoo on her forehead). As she grows older, she will end up with a series of lines on her face.

One of the largest ethnic groups in the Omo Valley is the cluster of tribal people belonging to the Hamer, Banna and Tsemay. 

We wandered down the streets of Turmi on a market day and it was a magical experience.  Hoping to do some street photos in low light was impossible.  After all, the market there really gets going  after around 1130am, which allows people from villages around the  region to walk to Turmi to trade their wares.

Portrait of a smiling Banna boy in the markets at Turmi

In the bustling throngs of locals, tourists and photographers, it is easy to write all of the people off there as Hamer, after all, Turmi is the central trading town for the Hamer people of the Omo Valley. 

Looking at their appearances more closely, it is possible to notice Banna amongst them too.

Bodo Shauki with his fantastic hair decorations and Banna necklaces in the markets at Key Afer

The Banna people, or Benna, are a Nilotic ethnic group in Ethiopia who are known for keeping bees.  They live in an area around Chari Mountain, near Kako Town and a savannah area near Dimeka.  They speak Hamer-Banna, which they share substantially with the Hamer.  The Banna, approximately 45,000 in number, are a mainly agricultural people who inhabit the highlands east of the Omo River.  They also practice pastoralism, hunting and gathering.  Cattle and goats provide milk and meat, as well as hides for clothing, shelter and sleeping mats. 

Bowjoyme – a traditional Banna man in the market at Key Afer

They are neighbours with the Hamer trip and it is believed that the Banna actually originated from them centuries ago. Just like most of the indigenous tribes in the lower Omo Valley, the Banna practice ritual dancing and singing.  Their look is very similar to the Hamer and they are often called Hamer-Banna.  Common rituals and traditions of other tribes are shared by the Banna.  Women of the tribe wear beads in their hair that is held together with butter.  The boys in the tribe participate in bull jumping.

A selection of traditionally decorated gourds sold by Tsemay and Banna people at the weekly markets in Key Afer

The Banna live in camps that consist of several related families.  The families live in tents arranged in a circle and the cattle are brought into the centre of the camp at night.  When the campsite is being set up, beds for the women and young children are built first; then the tent frame is built around it.  The tents are constructed with flexible poles set in the ground in a circular pattern.  The poles are bent upward, joining at the top, then tied.  The structures are covered with thatch during the dry season and canvas mats during the rainy season.  Men and older boys usually sleep on cots in the centre of the camp, near the cattle.

Although it is possible to find Banna people in Turmi, one of the funnier encounters you might have with them is on the road to Jinka where a group of young boys walk around the main road on long wooden stilts. There is a story abounding with these stilt walkers. They say that walking on stilts used to protect Banna men from wild animals while they hunted. There is no anthropological evidence to support this story but it’s quite a fun stop on a long drive to meet and photograph these young men!

A group of stilt-walking Banna boys on the main road to Jinka

Tsemay people, also known as Tsamai are principally cattle herders but they also engage in the agricultural practices of growing rice, millet, sorghum and other crops.  Traditionally Tsemay men wear bracelets and collars made out of beads and unmarried women wear a collar with long tails at the front and is  longer at the back. These beautiful collars are often made from animal skin and they are adorned with beads and cowrie shells.

Detail of the beautiful beadwork on the skirt of a Tsemay girl in the market at Key Afer

Similar to the Banna and Hamer people, Tsemay men engage in the bull jumping ceremony as they pass from boys into adulthood. 

Tsemay women, unlike Hamer and Banna women, engage in facial tattooing.  I am yet to discover what these tattoos actually mean.  I will update this post when I have more information. 

Aika – a Tsemay girl in Key Afer. She is slightly more heavily tattooed than Koro (pictured above)

Perhaps one of the reasons why the Banna, Hamer and Tsemay represent such a large group is that they are free to intermarry and have very few conflicts between each other.

Omo Valley Journeys – the Arbore People of Lake Chew Bahir

We started while it was still dark in Turmi, southern Ethiopia.  After loading our vehicles up with camera gear and food for the day, we drove a winding, rugged 4WD route through the beautiful Buska mountains.  The dark night really concealed a beautiful region but the beauty of leaving at this hour meant we could spot an occasional pair of glowing eyes from tiny Galagos in the trees as we drove.

As the sun rose, the mountains flattened and we were stunned by the incredibly vast expanse of Lake Chew Bahir, one of the fabled Rift Valley lakes of Africa.  It is sometimes called Lake Stephanie after the first European to visit the lake in 1888.  Count Samuel Teleki of Hungary named it after the then Princess Stephanie of Belgium.  Its original name of Chew Bahir is an Amharic term that means “salty lake” .

We stopped for breakfast under a nearby acacia tree, listening the morning chorus of African birds that had become synonymous with our early starts on the trip. 

While we were preparing breakfast from our car, we saw an Arbore shepherd herding a small group of goats along the road.  As he passed we said hello and offered him some food.  I was instantly struck by his beauty and the necklace he wore called a Kala.  This thick necklace, fixed to his neck with a strap of leather, is actually fashioned from the hair of a giraffe tail!  

An Arbore shepherd wearing a Kala necklace made from the hair of a giraffe’s tail.

Leaving our breakfast site we drove further around the northern edge of the lake to the only Arbore village that allows tourist visits.  Dust swirled in to the air as we arrived and the heat of the day was intensifying.  We noticed two beautiful young Arbore girls taking their goats and sheep out to graze for the day so we stopped to say hello to them.  It was our first introduction to the incredible beauty of Arbore women, who are known for their dark shawls and spectacular jewellery.

The first Arbore girl we met at Lake Chew Bahir. We were instantly struck by her wonderful jewellery and her simple beauty.
Arbore women fashion rings out of long coils of wire

The Arbore, or Uhlde as they are sometimes known, are perhaps best known for their high spiritual status in the Omo Valley.  Local legend says that once the devil attacked the Arbore, but the tribe managed to win and survive.  Since then it is believed that Arbore priests are endowed with a special strength and power and if the priests of another tribe can’t solve their problems, a delegation of elders with gifts is sent to Arbore to ask for help.  Thanks to this the Arbore lead a very quiet existence and no other Omo Valley tribe is brave enough to attack them or their cattle.

Portrait of Wata, a tribal elder of the Arbore people, standing in front of bound piles of papyrus. The Arbore people harvest papyrus from the lake and they dry it for use as animal fodder.

Arbore girls and married women adorn themselves with rich ornaments of beads and metal.  They also wear beaded leather skirts.  Unique beads are one of the main distinguishing features of the Arbore and it is easy to distinguish them from other tribes.  In addition, unmarried girls completely shave their skulls and cover their heads with a piece of black cloth to protect it from the sun. Married Arbore women braid their hair in short, tight braids and the men of the tribe wrap their heads with a piece of white cloth. 

Bariti. She is probably one of the most beautiful women I’ve photographed in Africa!

Rituals associated with marriage are extremely important for the Arbore people.

The beautiful smile of a young Arbore girl

Usually as soon as the boy reaches the age of marriage his father chooses a bride for him and four village elders are sent to the parents of the chosen one, bringing fat of a specially slaughtered sheep.  If the gift is accepted, the bride’s parents smear the fat on their shoulder and the family sets the date for the wedding. 

Before Arbore girls marry, they keep their head shaved as this young girl has

On the wedding day both families prepare four sheep for a festive meal, and after that the next morning the bride is circumcised and brought to her husband’s house.  There, a special dish is prepared for the bride and the groom – a lamb’s tail which they eat together.  Then their wrists are bound together with a piece of skin as a sign of a strong union.

Even as they age Arbore women retain their significant dignity and beauty

Unlike the Karo or Dassanech tribes that can bury their dead right next to their house, the Arbore set up graves further away from the villages.  When a man dies, his ornaments are buried with him and butter and milk are put in his mouth.  The body is wrapped in a new piece of fabric and sheep’s skin.  The dead man is asked to bless the cattle of the tribe and after a few days the loved ones of the deceased slaughter a goat; one of the goat’s legs and its fat is placed on the grave.  After that, the deceased’s cows are split between his sons.

Portrait of an Arbore elder. His eyes are likely to be affected by cataracts due to his age and many years of life in extremely harsh conditions.

Arbore tribal people have virtually no conflicts with neighbours, largely due to the high spiritual status of the tribe, as well as sharing of natural resources, inter-tribal marriages and mastery of multiple languages.

View of a typical Arbore village with the spectacular Buska Mountains in the background

Their villages consist of high, dome-shaped huts abutted by piles of papyrus that are tied together, dried and stored as fodder for their animals.  The combination of the two lends almost a whimsical atmosphere when you visit them which, in my opinion anyway, made them the prettiest in the whole region. 

Arbore girls share a joke with each other next to one of their village huts. Along with beautiful jewellery, traditional Arbore women also wear two layered leather skirts that are fringed with metal studs

I also found the Arbore not just striking in their appearance but also incredibly friendly!  While we were there taking photos, I noticed a girl with pale brown eyes who had joined the throng of Arbore who seemed fascinated by what we were doing.  I was so struck by this girl, Adi, that I asked if I could photograph her in better light.  To find the right place meant walking through her village.  She saw me chasing the kids around on the way and asked (through sign language and translators) how many kids I have.  I told her 5 and asked her how many she had.  She also said 5!  I said “Get outta town!  You’re not old enough to have 5!!!!  She laughed and called me “mama” so I called her “mama” back.  It became our joke!

Adi. Her eyes say so much

While I was photographing some of her village friends in a nearby hut, I was joined by Arbore elders and many other girls.  I am not sure what overwhelmed me in the end – the rapid increase in temperature or simply being surrounded by so much beauty.  I never really wanted to leave but as we did, we were sent on our way by the entire village.  I called out “Adi!” and she ran over.   I hugged her and said “thank you for hosting us in your village”.  She smiled a shy smile and with that, I decided to return.

Two Arbore girls take shelter from the intensifying heat of the day

Portraits from the Omo Valley

When you decide to become a professional photographer there is one absolute guarantee. You are in for a hell of a ride! There will be things you do that make you scratch your head and think “Really? They don’t like my work? I thought these were some of the nicest photos I’ve taken!” and then other times the popularity of your work will come out of the blue and completely surprise you!

Before I went to the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia this year I did so much research about what it was like, what the nature and customs of each individual tribe I would meet are, how far were the different groups from each other, who fought with who or who got along with who, what languages they speak – everything. I was travelling with a solo client (now friend) in the region for over two weeks. We had the time of our lives enjoying these people and taking so many portraits that we are both still reeling, almost six weeks after our return.

What surprised me more than anything from this journey to Ethiopia was the sudden and intense international in the photographs that I shot there.

The Times UK

Within a week of returning from Ethiopia, I was approached by a national newspaper here in the UK, The Times, about featuring one of my portraits from the Suri tribe. I have never asked how they actually found me. I just received an email out of the blue from their picture desk hoping to use one of my images of a beautiful Suri girl we met early in our trip.

It was quite something to wake up and find that your work was suddenly published to an audience of almost half a million people here in the UK. I was on my way to London when I heard the news and I almost spilled my coffee!

Atlas of Humanity

Last year I was blessed to become one of the official photographers of India for the incredible Atlas of Humanity project. The Atlas of Humanity is contributed to by some of the finest people photographers in the world. They initially took an interest in my work with the residents of the former artist’s colony of Kathputli in Delhi. You can read the full story here .

In April this year they are holding an exhibition in the beautiful town of Desenzano del Garda, at the southern edge of Lake Garda in northern Italy. My work from Kathputli will be exhibited there but when the organisers found out that I could come over for the opening of the exhibition, they included two of the shots from Ethiopia.

Portrait of Bariti, an Arbore girl from Lake Chew Bahir in the great Rift Valley of southern Ethiopia
Portrait of Koro, a Tsemay girl from the market town of Key Afer in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia

These two images will be shown in Italy and the portrait of Koro, plus another image of mine from Kathputli will feature in a book of the exhibition.

The Atlas of Humanity have also generously shared my work with the Toubou people of Chad in their social media.

I am heading over to Italy this weekend for the opening. It is my first ever international (collaborative) exhibition and I feel really honoured to be included with such an esteemed group of people photographers from around the world!

Africa Geographic

In 2017 my work with the Priests of Lalibela in Ethiopia featured in the yearbook of Africa Geographic, which highlights the best images taken across the African continent each year. Fast forward to this year and my photo of a little Suri boy named Babuku has been shortlisted in this year’s competition. Fingers crossed it makes this year’s Year Book also!

Babuku! A young Suri boy in the Omo Valley

Instagram

Isn’t social media a double-edged sword? On the one hand it drives me mad, and on the other it brings me constant joy.

Perhaps one of the most amusing things that has happened since I started to post my work from Ethiopia is the number of bans I’ve had for showing the bare breasts of African women (and even one old man!) to the public!

This, at a time when the video of the massacre in Christchurch went viral and didn’t seem to have the same control!

My work from Ethiopia has been shared by some amazing people and pages since I returned.

Bariti

Bariti – her image has been shared by Malian pop singer Inna Modja ( @innamodjaofficiel ) where her 141,000 followers chose to like this image 4230 times! Jewellery designer Jewels By Lisa Lucy ( @mzle_le )also shared this image to her 27,100 fans who liked it 4206 times. The wonderful team at African Portraits ( @african_portraits ) published this image to their 136,000 followers who liked it 14,468 times. She is also featured in New Photosworld ( @new_photosworld ).

Babuku

Babuku was featured on the lovely site of Eyes Of Children Around the World ( @eyesofchildrenaroundtheworld ) whose 58,500 or so followers liked his image over a thousand times.

Adi. Her image is currently featured in African news and media page of Pin Africa ( @pin_africa ) whose 12,000 plus followers are currently enjoying her incredible beauty!

The hands of two Nyangatom women walking in friendship and the portrait of a young Suri girl with her Poinciana flowers was shared by the site World Colours People ( @worldcolours_people ) with their 9000 or so fans.

Suri girl with her baby sister

This image was shared by Marinella Secci ( @marinellasecci_africansoul ) who is just obsessed with African people and she shared it to her 13000 or so fans.

The two images of this stunning Suri girl are currently featured on the site Sinistar22 ( @sinistar22 ), a community of over 50,000 Afro-Caribbean people living in London!

Private Buyers

One of the greatest honours anyone can bestow upon me is to choose to live alongside my work in their homes every day. The following three images are now proudly on display in homes in the United Kingdom and Australia.

What A Journey!!!

All of this unexpected publicity has been revelatory for me. I’ve only been back for around six weeks (and I have since been to Ghana!) . I am leading the 2020 trip to the Omo Valley for my company Wild Images . If you would like me to introduce you to some of the most beautiful people in Africa please leave a comment below or contact me through my site contact form.

Portrait of a Himba Girl

Over the years I’ve spent meeting the Himba people in northern Namibia I have always enjoyed learning about the different phases that Himba women have in terms of their appearance. They generally start off with a shaved head, then, as little girls they wear their hair in two plaits that cover their faces. Finally, when they mature into women at the age of around 14 they add extensions to their hair and they cover their bodies and hair in ochre.

It wasn’t until 2017 when I visited remote Kaokoland with my group that I met a Himba girl who was in the transition to womanhood.

I found her sitting under a tree near a well and I was instantly struck by her appearance. She was in the shade of a large tree and her semi-done hair seemed to blend with the tangle of roots, leaves and rocks that surrounded her. She was a model of sensuality in the purest nature. I just thought she was incredibly beautiful.

I have wanted to share images of this girl in social media and even though I’ve heard they no longer ban photographs of nudity if they are artistic, I still risk them being taken down.

So I am posting these images here, where they are ‘safe’ on my blog.

I am planning to head back to this region in September this year and I will take prints of these images with me. Should I find this girl again, I will give her prints. It is a little difficult sometimes in remote Kaokoland. The Himbas are not strictly nomadic per se. They are semi-nomadic and will move to feed their herds of goats. I really hope I find her. She seemed a little mystified when I was taking her photo. Like she didn’t really understand how striking she is?

Images from Tibetan Sichuan

Earlier this year I led the inaugural South Eastern Tibet expedition for Wild Images. It was such an incredible journey that I have organised another trip to remote Sichuan in 2020. To see a summary of the work that I shot in Sichuan this year, I have compiled a Spark presentation here. My next trip will take place at a slightly different time of the year so we can join Tibetan nomads and stay with them at their camp plus visit the most prestigious horse racing festival on the Tibetan Plateau at Litang. If you would like to join me please message me for further details. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this glimpse into a side of Tibet that few western travellers ever see…

 

TIBETAN SICHUAN

L-Type by Lumejet Exhibition

Thank you so much L-Type Prints for featuring my work as part of the esteemed group of photographers in their Exhibition page. L-Type have done an incredible job of printing both my client and exhibition work since I started working with them. I highly recommend the quality of their products!

The full gallery called “Sheltering Desert” is beautiful.  If you would like to see it please follow this link:  http://www.l-type.com/exhibition/Sheltering_Desert?#thumbs-109

  

  

  

Snow Leopard Conservation at Woodland Park Zoo

Well it’s not every day that you wake up and find out that a photo of yours is bringing a sense of wonder and fascination to children and their families on the other side of the world! Thank you Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, United States for featuring my “Where’s Wally?” Snow Leopard image in their Snow Leopard conservation campaign! I hope it brings much joy to your guests!

A small update on Bineta

I have been meaning to write an update about Bineta for some time now but this year has been busy for me with travel, running a business and all that is associated with both.

If you have been following my story about finding my African ‘daughter’ Bineta here  http://ingervandyke.com/2017/03/finding-african-daughter/

life has been going on OK for her I believe.  She is still at school and she loved the books that everyone so kindly recommended and donated.  When I sent her the books, I also added a few more of my own to them that she may like to read to practice her English.  I got a very grateful message back from her after she received them.

Everything runs slowly in Senegal.  Mail takes ages to arrive.  Updates on how Bineta is going are slow but the trickle gets through eventually.  I always love news about her or from her.

Since I last posted I have received news that her parents are happy for me to send her to university.  I heard about this when I was in Japan earlier this year and was thrilled.  Bineta is running late to attend university due to the schooling system in Senegal and she will start when she is 24 years old, in 2020.  It is her dream to become a school teacher.

The acceptance by her parents for Bineta to attend university is huge.  Although I shouldn’t need to seek their permission I did so because her culture is different from mine, her parents may have had other ideas for her future and I wanted their blessings before we all went any further down this somewhat daunting path together.  I am hoping that she will pass her baccalaureate in early 2020 and that she will begin her studies at Cheikh Ante Diop university in Dakar.  It is Senegal’s foremost university and if she can make it I will help her study there.

I’ve always believed in a longstanding commitment to children I support.  In Africa particularly it is vital for children to have support that is lasting, rather than someone like me being just another person coming in to and out of their lives.  I started supporting Bineta in the year 2000.  I am still here and I will be for as long as she wants me to be.

From early 2019 I will start to make arrangements with the university for her admission.  Although this might be a difficult task, I am really hoping I can facilitate a bursary through the university for her study fees and expenses.

I should point out that even if she doesn’t pass her exam for entry I will still be there if she needs me and wants me to be there.  Whatever she decides she will have my support.  Please wish us all godspeed as we work together to help her have a brighter future.  My hope is, that whatever happens, she is happy.

 

The Men of Pakistan – A Photographic Essay

I recently returned from Pakistan where I was blessed to spend time photographing some Pakistani people.

men of pakistan

Using the new Portrait feature on iPhones

Do you love using your iPhone to create imagery when you are travelling?  I do!  In fact there are some situations where using my phone has not only been a much faster option for photography, it has also been a lot less fussy than swapping lenses and getting ready to shoot a scene – especially when you just want to capture the moment and that moment is so fleeting.

Shortly before I went on my recent trip to India, I upgraded my phone to the new iPhone 10 and I realised that my newer model now comes with a Portrait feature.

This incredible piece of technology allows you to create studio style portraits within your phone so in India, I took my phone on the road and experimented.

India is one of the most amazing places in the world for portrait photography.  Not only are the people there beautiful to photograph, they also love having their photo taken with you.  It’s no wonder that you see so many large billboards on the streets of India advertising “The best phone for selfies”.  I’ve lost count of the amount of requests I’ve had from Indian people wishing to take my photo.  This recent trip was no different.  I’m convinced that I am a super famous star on Facebook in India.  When I ask “Is that going on Facebook?”, I usually get a smiling Indian waggling his head and sheepishly confessing “yes”.  It never worries me.  I simply love seeing a country that is so enthralled by photography and the equipment of choice is usually a phone on the streets of India.

So with phone in hand I went to India where I found myself in speeding minibuses travelling the back roads of Gujarat and watching the world unfold through the windows of a car in traffic.  At one point we came across a large wedding procession in the area so we had to slow down to not hit everyone crossing the road.  All of a sudden we were momentarily swept up with the crowd so we stopped.  Realising I had the wrong lens on my camera, I decided spontaneously to use my phone.  In the crowd of kids who instantly surrounded us, I saw this little girl so I asked if I could take her photo.  Within seconds this is what I had created.

 

Right then and there I had just shot my most favourite image of the trip – on my phone.

How to Use the Portrait Feature

To use the Portrait feature of your phone just follow these steps:

  1. Open the camera on your phone
  2. In the various camera functions at the bottom of the screen, choose Portrait
  3. Shoot your image

The incredible aspect of this feature is that you can use ONE of the settings within it to shoot an image but later on you can switch between them to get different effects.

So always start with shooting the original image in Portrait mode to unlock this capability.

A Few Tips on Shooting Good Images using Portrait

It is important to remember a few tips when you start to use this new feature of your phone:

  1. Try to ask whoever you are photographing to stand in the shade.  You will find it doesn’t work well if there is direct sunlight creating shadows on faces or the light is too strong.
  2. It is best if your subject is standing a little bit away from whatever background you have.  If they stay too close to the background, parts of that will show too much in the black surrounds of the image.
  3. Keep a bit of distance from your subject.  The camera will tell you if you are too close and that you need to stand back.
  4. There are five different modes to use in Portrait.  Choosing one over another doesn’t matter.  You can edit the photo later by switching through the modes.  So long as you shoot the original image in Portrait mode, you can do this.
  5. Portrait mode editing does NOT work with images shot in other modes on your phone.  You MUST shoot in Portrait to work further in Portrait.

The Five Different Settings in Portrait Mode

The image above can be seen in five different ways.

This is the first (or original) image shot in Portrait Mode’s “Natural Light” setting.

 

The second image below is using the “Studio Light” setting.  As you can see the lighting on this little girl’s face is just a bit brighter, yet still subtle.

The third image uses the “Contour Light” setting.  You will see the increased contrasts in the image creating greater depth and detail.

The fourth (and in my opinion most dramatic) image is the option using “Stage Light”.  See the instant black background?  To me this setting adds an instant “Wow!” factor.

If you prefer your Portrait images in black and white, the fifth image below is shot in “Stage Light Mono”.  (This is the original image I posted above).

The black and white image above was the mode I shot the original image in when I met this little girl.  Immediately after I took her photo I showed her and this lovely smile washed over her face.  I don’t think she realised just how pretty she looked!

Editing Images Shot in Portrait Mode Using the Photo App

As I mentioned earlier, if you shoot a Portrait image using this mode, you can easily switch it back to the other modes like my examples above.

  1. Go to the photos app in your phone.
  2. Select the image you shot in Portrait mode.
  3. Press “Edit” in the top right hand corner and wait for a second.
  4. You will see the Portrait icon appear in the top middle of the screen, press on that and you will see the five different Portrait modes at the bottom.  From there you can easily switch between each to look at the different effects.
  5. You can also play with other edits using that app but if you really want to bring out the best of these images I would suggest you open the image in a third party app.

Editing Images Shot in Portrait Mode Using Third Party Photo Apps

If you are planning to take your editing one step further, then I would suggest you edit your Portrait images in a third party app like:

  1. Snapseed
  2. Carbon (for Black and White editing)

Using these apps will allow you to alter sharpness, colour saturation, contours, brightness and even change the facial features of your Portrait subject!

Never Underestimate The Powerful Tool You Have With Your Phone!

As you can see from this image and others below, I loved playing with the Portrait feature on my iPhone.  I am about to leave for China and I hope to use it more when I am there.  After all, the image itself is around 2.5MB as shot from my phone in JPEG format, which is a big enough size to use in blogs, Facebook posts etc.

Later in the trip we were lucky enough to do a formal portrait shoot with some local Mir Rajasthani women in Gujarat.  While I shot a lot of images there using my DSLR, I also shot a few using my phone as follows.

The effect is quite stunning isn’t it?  Tell me what you think!