Carlo Ottaviano Casana: Dani village, Papua Barat, Indonesia

The Image

Carlo Ottaviano Casana

Dani village, Kurulu area, Baliem valley, Papua Barat, Indonesia

Time / Date:
1:15pm / September 10, 2012

The Technical

Camera Body: Canon EOS 1D Mark II
Lens: Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L

Camera Settings:

Shutter Speed: 1/800s
Aperture: f/3.5
ISO: 800
Focal Length: 34mm

The Story


I had bought the first good camera of my life the year before that trip. I didn’t have much experience. My earlier cameras were always set to Auto. From my childhood I used to think I would have never fall into that passing by camera shop windows. I was never interested in those bulky objects (even if not as bulky as modern DSLR) a lot of people were handling making a lot of fuss. At home we had tons of old photos, from the earlier daguerreotypes till the contemporary ones. As a child, and later, I loved to look at them, but everything stopped there. I did not have the faintest knowledge of photography from a technical point of view. And I wasn’t even interested. I had crap cameras to be able to take snapshots now and then, but I wasn’t able to produce nothing but snapshots, and if you take awful pictures you won’t easily get involved in photography.

Twenty years ago, or so, I started diving. Through that I got in touch and became close friend with a bunch of people who had already travelled the world over to dive in the most beautiful and well known dive spots. When I joined the group they had just opened the “off the beaten track” chapter. So I started travelling to rather remote places. For somebody with my cultural formation (history and history of arts) travelling to the other part of the world just to dive would have been hardly justifiable. So every time my dive friends spotted an interesting dive site where to go, I looked for something interesting to visit there around.

In march 1999 my friends and I went to the Mergui archipelago in Burma for a dive cruise. Needless to say the place was fantastic. We also met many Moken see gipsy on their picturesque boats. After that I had planned to visit the Siem Reap area and the Angkor temples and Phnom Pen (not that close, but anyway I had already Burma’s mainland seen some years before.) In Angkor they were celebrating the Buddhist New Year and you can’t imagine haw interesting it was with all the monks coming from all the Theravada temples of the Far East with their more then picturesque dresses. . It was really!!! but really!!! something! When back home I saw the result of my photographic efforts.. I decided that something had to be done. The crap camera on duty at the time was put to rest, and I bought a Nikon Coolpix 990, the zoom and the wide angle. With that camera I learnt what those strange abbreviations meant, and those knobs were for. It lasted two years, Similan and Surin isalnds in Thailand and back to Agkor, Phnom Pen and Laos. Photos were fair this time. With the next step I was adopted by the Canon family.

But it was only three years later, in 2004, after seeing a picture I took in Wainyapu, a small village on the West Coast of Sumba (Lesser Sunda Islands, Indonesia), that I thought that maybe it would have been possible even to me to become a fair photographer.

The Scene: 

The Baliem Valley is the most famous and important tourist attraction of West Papua. It was discovered by mistake when a Dutch plane crashed in the central highlands of the island in the late thirties in a part of the island that everybody thought had no inhabitants. Instead they found the valley where three tribes lived isolated from the rest of the world since 50.000 years: the Dani, the Lani and the Yali. Apparently when they have been discovered these guys were living in the stone age life style.

The Baliem Valley is no doubt the most important tourist attraction of the place, but one has to consider that there is practically no tourism. So when I arrived on the 14th of October I was tourist number 127 from the beginning of the year.

There is only one place where you can stay, and that’s Wamena, the capital of the district, and move around by bus (challenging), or renting a car with a driver. Few hours drive from Wamena there is the little village you can see in the photo. It was a feast day and they killed a piglet, you can see the women on the left cooking it. Danis are reserved and rather shy, but also curious so it was fun and interesting being there and trying to understand each other with no language in common.


For this trip, I was going to hang around 40 days I brought: Canon 17-40, f/4L; Canon 24-70 f/2.8L; Canon 85, f/1.2L; Canon 100 f/2.8, Canon 100-400, F/4,5.5.6L.

While hanging around the village I used two lenses. Canon 85mm f/1.2L for portraits, and the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L for the main part of the shooting because it was by far the most versatile.

Making the Shot:

Bright sun and heavy dark grey clouds changing all the time, full sun and tree shadow was the light on the set. Manual exposure would have been unpractical. So I set the camera: AV to be able to play with the DOF, Spot metering because the main subject had always to be well exposed, and a reasonable high iso to be able to freeze the action.

Editing & Processing:

The workflow was very simple that time, a tad more complicated when I reprocessed the original raw image yesterday. I opened the photos in Adobe Camera Raw, neutralized colours, opened shadow with the curve slider, pulled down few highlights spots, a tad of sharpening. Then I opened it in PS CC, opened a separate layer in Color Efex 4, just a little bit of Detail Extractor filter and a little bit of Tonal Contrast filter, and here we are!

Looking Back:

I’m not sure if -the way I intend them- documentary photos can have a style:. you are there, you see something, you shoot. No time, no changes, camera has to be ready. That’s all.

I wasn’t trying to achieve anything, I was trying to freeze situations. And I’ve frozen a moment of tenderness between father and son in an uncommon environment, and because of that looks really universal!


When shooting photos in a place like that one has to use a grey card because of the green light (trees), and the reddish light (ground) so you can easily neutralize your pics, and be very careful to the exposition because huge very dark clouds alternate very quickly with an incredibly bright sun, so you have to keep in mind that you will easily be able to blow your highlight or shoot a very dark pic.


I’m addicted to how the world looks through a lens. How the device in my hands can control what we see and how we see it. It’s quite simply one of the most interesting phenomena I’ve ever encountered. The fact that this process can make us feel a certain way or understand a message or follow a story is fascinating to me. I love it when a simple picture succeeds at doing that.


About the Photographer

I started shooting photos paying attention to what I was doing only ten years ago, when I bought my first DSLR. I read the manual (very important IMHO). I shot 20 more or less jpgs, I thought they were rather different from the original scene, I set the camera on raw and never ever took a jpg any more.. My travel photos have been published one several magazines from different countries and books (between them Jared Diamond’s latest book on Papua: The World until yesterday), have been used by Greenpeace Australia, Sweden and Finland in campaigns for Papua . In the last three years I did four exhibitions of portraits (dogs), still life (fruit, vegetables, food), travel photos. Preparing an other portrait one (humans), and a street photography one.

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