The Mutual Awkwardness and Beauty of Interacting with Indigenous Groups
Being married to a travel photographer, I often find myself in sensitive situations when it comes to photographing indigenous peoples. No matter how familiar, I always end up tiptoeing around nervously, lurking around in the middle distance.
Seriously, though: what if a group of people from another continent knocked on my door and wanted to take some pics of me making a green smoothie in the morning? It would be awesome, for one. But unfortunately, this only goes one direction.
Michael’s been photographing remote cultures since the early ‘90s. Our basement is stacked wall-to-wall with film slides of the whale-hunting Lamalera and the Kazakh with their Mongolian falcons. For my husband, it's just another day on the job, but I also know it's his life passion. (Plus, his combination of fearlessness and humor always gets everyone laughing, regardless of the language barrier.)
We've gone into people's homes and participated in their most private rituals: preparing a fire, milling rice, and most recently with the Himba of northern Namibia, meeting a newborn baby.
Just imagine: What if we were born elsewhere and had a completely different set of life values? A unique trait of the human species is that our lifestyles, personalities and worldviews are decided by the accident of birth- to which culture we were born into. What if we traded places? Or better yet, spoke the same language and could chat about things like our relationships, or how our babies slept at night?
Are we meant to merge, to learn from one another and risk losing our cultural diversity? Or if we had the choice, is it better to go our own way?
Are we really that different from one another?
The Himba are a semi-nomadic pastoral tribe from the northwest part of Namibia. They have managed to preserve their unique cultural heritage despite many attempts to Christianize, colonize and "civilize" them from the time the country was a German colony. Water is extremely scarce, so women keep their bodies moisturized and sun-protected with a red paste of ochre and butterfat. They are, in a word, beautiful.
We arrived at the village and I felt my face flush in anticipation of our meet & greet. One of the wives of our friend, Moses (multiple partners is part of Himba modus operandi), walked over, said hello and took his cell phone to check her texts.
The kids ran over to meet Sia. Boy? Girl? they were asking in Bantu. Girl. The young girls' hair were fashioned in two braids entwined over their heads, like horns, and carried their younger brothers and sisters proudly in little goatskin backpacks.
I sat down in a circle of mothers who were breastfeeding their babies, sometimes two at a time. I was warming up past my awkward stage. We began a conversation of hand signals and laughter, what the babies' names were, how old I was. I signed "37" and the group unleashed a great deluge of chatter. They couldn't believe a woman in her thirties had such a young baby! Here in Kaokoland, I could have been a grandmother, at least!
The real kicker was when I decided to nurse Sia along with them. Her hair was starting to look like Keith Richards' circa Black and Blue, the foolproof tell that she needed a serious nap. I held her in my lap and started in. The women delicately circled around, fascinated to see a white baby breastfeeding, to see if I did it as they did.
But there was no denying it: loin cloths and red ochre or travel pants and Vans, we all had boobs.
When the shoot was over, we said our goodbyes, covering our shirts and hair in red paste in the process. Sia had red flecks of paint all over her face. I made a mental not to never wash my shirt.
We're becoming more connected, it's true. I can deny or embrace it, but it's not my say that matters. Today, cultural interactions especially with indigenous groups have become big business. They are some of the fiercest negotiators, from what I have seen, securing land deals and rights with tourism to work in their favor.
They are preserving their heritage as much as they can in a increasingly globalized world. They are doing what they know best: thriving despite the odds.
Maybe I'll never feel comfortable showing up to a community unannounced, maybe I'll always think the camera steals our souls, or maybe I should just embrace it all and realize we are part of a sea change of culture, of humanity, and the things that divide us are the same things that bring us together.