Interview: Olivia Wyatt and “Staring into the Sun”



I recently discovered ethnographic filmmaker and artist, Olivia Wyatt through one of my fave underground record labels, Sublime Frequencies.  They specialize in releasing rare (and often vintage) recordings of music from around the world- tribal, folk and pop compilations, and radio collages.  Think “Musical Brotherhoods of the Trans-Saharan Highway” or “Singapore A-Go-Go”.  So I ordered Olivia’s beautiful little compilation book “Staring into the Sun” that includes a CD of Ethiopian tribal music, a collection of polaroids from her trip, and a film that is a collage of sights and sounds of the tribes she spent time with while in Ethiopia.  

I was really curious about her process and what inspired her to embark on that journey.  I decided to reach out to her about an interview and discovered she is a longtime resident of the Rockaways which was hit so very hard by Hurricane Sandy last week.  She lost everything.  This is an especially timely interview, because it reminds all of us that Rockaway, Queens is not only a home to locals that have spent their entire lives there, but also artists, young families, and New York’s surf culture.

You can read about Olivia’s inspiring project in Ethiopia below, but also hopefully will be inspired to donate time, money, or supplies to this devastated area.  A good place to start would be The Red Cross or Waves for Water.  


W + C: Where are you currently and where are you headed next?

OW: “I just want to preface this whole thing by saying that everything I own was in Rockaway when the storm hit (Hurricane Sandy) and I have lost almost all of it, except for what was in the car with me at the time and my little 14 ft. sailboat (how did you survive Queequeg?.. I will never know!** ).  I drove 21 straight hours to get back here to try and salvage things, but it seems as though there is nothing I can do at this point in time, and in an effort to generate a bit of income, I am continuing on with the current plans. If I had anything left to donate or to help others out, I would because there is so much loss in the area I have called home for 6 years, that it feels like a third world country.

I am currently on tour with both “Staring into the Sun” and “The Pierced Heart and the Machete” (new documentary on Haitian Vodou). I have been to Baltimore, Jacksonville, Little Rock, Louisville, Nashville, New Orleans, and I am on my way to Boston now. After tour, I am heading to La Paz, Mexico for a little bit and then I am going to the Mojave desert.”

** editor’s note: Queequeg is a character from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (I had to look it up too!)

W + C: What inspired your project “Staring into the Sun” and how did you go about planning the trip to Ethiopia?

OW: “Ethiopia fascinates me because there are around 80 diverse ethnic groups and since the landscape is so harsh, many have maintained their traditions and are living as they have for thousands of years. So I decided to apply for a Fulbright to work on a project with the Dassanech tribe in Ethiopia. While I was applying, my boyfriend at the time, sent me a link to the Festival of a Thousand Stars, which showcases the music of each of the 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. I said if I get the grant we gotta go to the festival together. I unfortunately, did not get the grant, but it was approaching the time of the festival, and I still wanted to go. So I started writing to companies and magazines to see if anyone was interested in some photos or footage. Sublime Frequencies got back to me and said it was up their alley and they would be interested in distributing, but of course they would need to see what I brought back. So I started emailing friends of friends who had been there, found a translator, raised money on Kickstarter and off I went by myself to Ethiopia. However, when I arrived, the festival was cancelled and I ended up hitchhiking my way across the country on the backs of Isuzu trucks and visiting as many tribes as I possibly could.




W + C: Did you have a traveling companion as you made your way around the country? What was it like being a woman documenting the tribes there? Do you have advice for other women/ people traveling in Africa?

OW: “I had a translator for the North and another for the South. At moments it was frightening to be a woman traveling alone and at other times, I felt as though people were more curious about me and gentle with me. Women in the tribes would run up to me and touch my hair, skin, and my breasts just to see if it felt like theirs, then they would braid my hair like theirs, and dressing me in ways that they dress. I felt that the men had a respect for me as a foreign woman traveling solo, that I did not see them have with women from their own communities.

My advice for women traveling to Africa, would just be to stay open-minded and always be aware of your surroundings and remain alert.

Also as a side note, I was the most frightened as a woman, when I was riding in the front of the Isuzu truck and Yibltal (my translator) was in the back. We couldn’t communicate, and I was wedged in between two drunk men and a driver who was pretty high on chat. One of the men kept touching me. I would say “yellum” (no), but he would keep on doing it, and then the guy on the other side–the owner of the truck–would occasionally try to put his arm around me. These thoughts kept flashing through my head that they were going to lock the doors and have their way with me, so I made a scene and got the driver to stop the car, so I could communicate with Yibltal what was happening and have him move into the front and the man with roaming hands moved to the back.”


W + C: Do you consider yourself a documentarian/ cultural anthropologist/ photographer/ filmmaker/ artist? Or a mix? What is your background?

OW: “I consider myself a mix. I have a background in photojournalism with a minor in history, but I was always too artsy for some of my teachers. When I graduated, I got a job creating multimedia for one of the biggest photographer-run photo agencies in the world, Magnum Photos. It was there that I started editing video, and decided to generate video myself.”

W + C: What equipment did you travel to Ethiopia with? 

OW: “I had a Sony HD camera that records still to mini-DV tape, a Sony TCD5M cassette tape recorder for audio, a Rode NT4 stereo Microphone, a Polaroid camera and a lot of film.”

W + C: What was the most surprising thing you learned there? What is something that Americans/ “Westerners” could learn from the tribes you spent time with or Ethiopian culture in general?

OW:  “I have found that within tribal communities there is extensive knowledge of and a symbiotic relationship between the people and their surroundings. Whether it be with plants, animals, or the sea, there’s knowledge so vast and so rich, yet something that I personally am so disconnected from. Most people I know (including myself) would have to go to school for years–maybe even a lifetime–to learn the information indigenous peoples know almost innately. So I feel that this is something that we could all learn from and should respect. In general, I love how Ethiopians take time to share meals together, even with strangers, it is considered impolite to eat alone. I also like how much music and dance is incorporated into their lives, as though It is one of the main threads keeping communities alive.”


W + C: Tell me about the styles of the different tribes. Did anything stand out to you as particularly beautiful or thought provoking? Did you return with any new ideas about dress, costume, or the ceremony of dress?

OW: “When it comes to the styles of the tribes, everything stood out to me as particularly beautiful and thought provoking! From the hair, to the jewelry, to the patterns on their clothes. What I loved the most and wish I had, are the bracelets that also served as an instrument when the Hamar women would rub their wrists together.”


W + C: I noticed some of the pics show women together dressed the same– are all the women of that tribe dressed that way or do groups within the tribe dress the same to show some sort of classification?

OW: “Everyone in a community will have the same style of dress, but often times, best friends or siblings will make their dresses with the exact same fabric and it makes them appear as though they are twins or triplets.”



W + C: What role do music and dance play in these tribes?

OW:  “In the communities I visited in Ethiopia, I found that music was a way to connect with everyone, and everyone was involved in making it. They do it when they work, when they play, when they walk, when they drive, when there is a celebration… always. In general, I find that in our culture we are disconnected, and creating more and more things that further disconnect us, which is perhaps what draws me to tribal communities.”

W + C: What is your next project?

OW: “Sea Gypsies”, exploring the culture of one of the smallest ethnic minority groups in Asia. Their life revolves entirely around water. They can swim deeper than any other human being, their eye lenses change shape and they can see further underwater than any other human being, and they predicted the tsunami before scientists. Unfortunately, a variety of sociopolitical groups are stripping them of their indigenous beliefs and my goal is to capture and preserve as many aspects of their culture as possible, before it is completely altered.

Woman Make Movies has just agreed to be my fiscal sponsor for Sea Gypsies, however I am still looking for grants and individual donors, who would of course receive a tax break. People can donate via the links above: (it is listed under Sea Gypsies).”

W + C: If you could go anywhere tomorrow, where would you go and why?

OW: “On a sailboat heading around the world and stopping wherever my heart desired, because I love both sailing and traveling.”

W + C: What do you always have in your bag when you travel/ can’t leave home without?

OW: “Just the equipment really. I do always have a Polaroid camera, but actually I am not always inspired to use it.”

W + C: Who or what defines yr idea of true style?

OW: “Mother Nature.”

W + C: Many thanks Olivia!


You can order “Staring into the Sun” at Sublime Frequencies or support Olivia’s current project at the “Sea Gypsies” link above.

One Response to “Interview: Olivia Wyatt and “Staring into the Sun””

  1. Carole Mayne says:

    What an ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS AND FASCINATING woman Olivia is. Wow a 1000 times! Thank you for this ‘arm chair’ excursion with her. Courage, and the determination to follow your passion really is an inspiration. Best wishes to you both for going forward ‘in the direction of your dreams’. (-:

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