Photographer Andrew Geiger is afraid the subjects of his favorite work are going extinct.
The self-sustaining tribes scattered across the remote regions of Ethiopia. An elderly woman in Burma whose ethnic group had been all but wiped out. Centuries-old architecture and traditional rituals, dress and cultural norms.
“I go back to some of these places and everyone is wearing Nike-swoosh T-shirts,” Geiger, of Kalispell, said. “It disgusts me because I don’t think my kids will get to see these places and people. And I want to capture the rawness of what the reality is now in my pictures.”
In addition to a busy commercial photography schedule, Geiger has made it an ongoing personal project to document countries where he feels capitalistic or Western ideas are changing the culture at a rapid rate. After becoming interested in that type of work, Geiger began in earnest after being successfully treated for cancer about eight years ago.
“It was kind of an epiphany,” he said. “It made me think if I was going to do this I needed to get going, and really amped up my efforts.”
Since then, the project has taken Geiger to Burma, Mali and, most recently, Ethiopia.
On Jan. 22, Geiger will bring his work much closer to home, marking the opening of his new Kalispell gallery with a free event and a series of images from Ethiopia. Geiger’s gallery is in the lower level of the Eastside Brick apartments, the site of the old Kalispell hospital on Fifth Avenue East.
Geiger’s photos from Ethiopia feature tribes where life has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years. With detail shots and portraits, Geiger’s photos pay particular homage to the beautiful array of body art by scarring, piercing and painting used by the Mursi tribe.
One of the most famous of all the indigenous Ethiopian tribes, the Mursi are located in the Southern Omo Valley. Geiger’s trip there began with a stop at a military headquarters where he and his traveling companions were assigned two armed guards. From there, Geiger’s interpreter, a pre-teen boy, helped him communicate with the native residents.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “In some of these places, if you don’t have a local, you don’t get in.”
But as evidenced by his work, Geiger’s planning, patience and interpreter gained him extensive access. There are close-up shots of Mursi women who split their lower lip and insert a round clay plate at a young age, stretching the bottom of their faces into a broad oval. Men and women alike cut their skin in elaborate patterns, rubbing ash in the wounds to infect them and create a raised look.
Geiger even photographed a cow-jumping ceremony, a traditional event marking a Mursi boy’s transition to manhood. As part of the day-long ceremony, Mursi women taunt and encourage the tribe’s men to hit them with wooden switches.
“It’s bloody and intense and unlike anything we think is OK or normal,” he said. “But when you’re there, it’s different. You’re an observer, but also kind of an invader.”
Geiger spent most of his childhood in Glendive, before moving to Kalispell where he graduated from Flathead High School. He accepted a scholarship to study engineering at the University of Montana but, already an avid photographer, left school about a year later to start shooting full time.
Geiger freelanced across the western states and Australia before moving to New York to establish a larger and more diverse client base. But the more connections and work he found in New York, the more he ended up returning to Montana.
“People kept sending me on assignments out here,” he said. “They figured that because I was from Montana I could shoot it better. Finally, I decided enough of this, I’m moving back.”
For the past 12 years Geiger and his family, wife Dena and daughters Hannah, 5, and Madison, 1, have lived in Kalispell. Geiger satiates his love for travel with photo assignments around the country and abroad – and, of course, with his private project.
He has traveled to more than 25 countries – a number he describes as “not that many, not enough” – and his client list includes names like Cabela’s, Audobon, Field and Stream, Forbes, Newsweek, People, Timberland and Discover, among others.
“A lot of photographers like to stick to one kind of work, say commercial or portraits or landscape,” Geiger said. “I can’t do that; I’d get bored. And being able to do a lot of different things has sort of become my niche.”
If You Go:
Gallery Opening, Images from Ethiopia
Andrew Geiger’s Gallery, 723 5th Avenue East Loft #44B, Kalispell
Jan. 22 at 5:30 p.m.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.