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An Interview with Photographer Chris Rainier

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NPR's Alex Chadwick: How long have you been working on this project?

Chris Rainier: It's a project that I've had as a life's mission for a very, very long time. Growing up overseas in places like Canada, Africa and Australia, and traveling through Africa, I've always had a keen interest in culture. And as a photographer, I've always had a keen passion in putting cultures on film. So Wade and I had something great in common, sharing this interest.

As Wade became explorer-in-residence at The National Geographic Society, he invited me to come to National Geographic and work on the project with him. The ethnosphere project here at the National Geographic Society is about two years old.

AC: You've been working on it in what capacity? What is your role there?

CR: There are several things that I am doing together with Wade. Number one, we've created at least a five-year journey around the world to document and discover the great stories and celebrations of culture. I'm in the process of searching out and researching the great cultural stories on the planet. We want to tell the stories of what it means to be a unique and thriving culture in the 21st century. We're also building a Web site. It's a further, grander elaboration of a Web site I helped start several years ago called Cultures on the Edge.

One of the most important things that I want to do with the ethnosphere project is not only document the great stories of humanity as well as photograph them, but have the world's largest and richest archive on the Internet, where people can come, hear the stories of society, have these great experiences of exploring culture, look at the writings of these remarkable people, and explore the interviews with indigenous peoples around the globe. Probably the most important aspect of our ethnosphere program is the notion that we wish to have indigenous cultures tell their own stories, in their own words.

For so long, Western people have been traveling around the world and interpreting, either through words or visually, indigenous cultures. I think it's so important as we move into the 21st century to allow the peoples of the world to share their story in their own words. We will do this by providing cameras, video and sound equipment to cultures that yearn to share what it means to still go on the great hunt, or to watch the sunrise over the rift valley in Ethiopia.

A very important component of the ethnosphere project is opening up a forum for indigenous cultures to share their stories and share their vision about their own culture. The Web site will be under the auspices of, and people from around the globe will be able to connect via the Web site.

They will be able to step into the glow of the virtual fireplace of the Internet and tell their story of existence. We in the West must step out of the way and let ancient cultures use modern technology to tell the stories of what it means to be human in 10,000 different ways.

AC: Tell me how you would define the ethnosphere.

CR: It's an amazing web that connects all cultures and where cultures lie at the beginning of the 21st century. As we look over our shoulder at the last century for the last time, and boldly step into this world of modern technology and this world of amazing advances in health and science and education, where does culture of today stand? Where do indigenous cultures that are on the edge stand? They are on the edge of a powerful, powerful change.

For me, it's not only identifying the cultures that are endangered, the cultures that are disappearing before our very eyes, but celebrating the cultures that withstand the onslaught of power, and also are in the middle of an amazing cultural renaissance. For example, in the Polynesian area of the Pacific Ocean, there's an absolute celebration in their cultural roots, in their history, in their culture, and the celebration is expanding. The elders said to the young children, "If you don't carry on the tradition it will die," and now it's actually coming back in a very powerful way.

So with our ethnosphere project and the Cultures on the Edge Web site, we want to celebrate those examples where culture is celebrating its own story. And as we drove through Mopti yesterday and as you experienced this amazing place that has been pulsing with life for thousands of years, I felt that in Africa there is the true pulse of the beginning of humanity.

AC: Still, you go to a place like the salt mine and in your own experience you've been there five times in the last eight years?

CR: Yes, over a period of years five times.

AC: You found that experience had pretty dramatically changed, didn't you? Compared to the number of caravans then and what you see now?

CR: Indeed, the number of caravans has dropped. It's an interesting thing to look at, but we must pause to get the whole story. I want to continue to go back to the salt mine, interview people, photograph the culture, peel away at the layers till I get to the real bottom of the issue here. Is the tradition of the salt camel caravans dying, or is it transforming? Is it in the middle of a change as the vehicles come in?

I suspect the vehicles that carry the salt will not be there in a few years. The market will not bear that amount of salt, the cost will drop and the vehicles and their drivers will be out of a job. An as has been the case for the past 700 years, the camel caravans will trace again across the Sahara desert undisturbed. There is one person that Wade and I were talking to that, in his mind, the vehicles will come and eventually flood the market and then the price will drop so much that they won't be able to afford to continue to go up there and then the camels will continue.

To take a slice of time and make a judgment on it is very important for me; to pause and see where it's going. And it may die. It may end. But that's all a part of cultures transforming. Cultures do not stand still, they evolve, they die, they become something else. My role is document them, to show what we are losing, what we are seeing, a slice in a moment, and in the end, to celebrate the wondrous story they have to offer all of humanity.

AC: You've spent a lot of time in New Guinea. When you're out in these societies perhaps for weeks on end, even months, and you're out there, how do you take those pictures, how do you really photograph the culture?

CR: Whenever people ask me how do you in your pictures get these little windows of culture, how do you take these photographs, I like to say it's all about time. I give myself the gift of time. I spend several weeks going through that transition and truly stepping into a new culture. And that's why I would stay in New Guinea for two, three months at a time, really digging deeper, to go beyond the clichés, to go beyond the stereotypes and really try and humble myself, really try and discover as much as possible, as a Westerner, and then put it on film.

It's so important for me to give myself the gift of time to spend with a culture and go past all of the influence that I bring from the West and slow down enough to pay attention to the daily rhythms of tribal life. I'll go into places sometimes and spend a week, even 10 days before I even take the camera out, building up that level of trust with the people. They become friends. As we experienced in our journey through the desert, the turning point for our relationship with the rest of the people from Mali was us sitting around the fireplace and having an opportunity for sharing stories. Having them feel free to ask the questions -- and then there was a shift, there was a turn in the mood and the relationship. I try to create that as much as possible in my life. It is a beautiful thing. And then the camera comes out, then the portraits begin, and then the experience of taking photographs that do not merely bounce across the surface, but instead go beyond the stereotype begins to unfold. I try to go beyond the surface of who people are and where they live and truly let them speak through the images of what it means to be filled with pride and to be of a unique culture.

AC: You had a remarkable experience as a young man. In your formative years, you were assistant to Ansel Adams for a period of five years. He is perhaps the most famous landscape photographer of the 20th century, certainly American, but you don't work in landscapes, or at least primarily in landscapes, but in people. I wonder about his influence on your work. I mean, you distinctly do not work on landscapes but rather among people.

CR: It's interesting. I came to his sphere with a love of culture and a love of documenting cultures and was profoundly moved by his work of art, his work as a message of landscape conservation. Those five years that I worked for him, I then could clearly see how photography could be used as a social tool, how photography could be used to influence people to preserve a place. So I've used that sense of understanding to try and be a part of a process of preserving culture -- and when I take a successful image -- for me the ingredient for that is a combination of a powerful landscape with a person present in it. For me, a portrait not only speaks of who that person is but where they come from, their personal environment.

For example, this morning, sitting on the rooftop with Issa Mohamed, it was not only Issa being there and talking about Islam, but it was the backdrop of this amazing Djenne mosque. The other thing I profoundly learned from Ansel Adams was picking the moment where the magic happens. This morning it was when the light swept across him and we saw that fantastic beam of light coming up as the sun rose. He was lit up in this bright white sunshine and he was lit up by this adobe mosque behind him. To me, those were the right ingredients of culture: The landscape of the mosque behind, and the lighting falling on him all coming together to create a powerful metaphor, and the message of a unique culture.

AC: You've talked a lot about trying not to be romantic in your approach here, but I notice when you take a picture of the mosque you're careful not to include telephone lines, things that suggest modern times and perhaps the real context of the place today.

CR: Very good question. I'm often categorized as a romantic with my photographs, but very much like Edward Curtis of the early 20th century. It is those images of the American Indian which stand out as one of the great documentations of a culture that has transformed and, in a lot of their traditions, no longer exists. At the very least I hope that my images serve as documentation of many cultures that are passing so very quickly. Yes, I tend to isolate out some of the things that show modern technology, but I think that we're in a desperate race to preserve what last traditions still lie on the planet before they are changed. We'll have ample time, 20, 30, 40 years into the future to show the wonderful combination of technology and culture, but what a privilege it is in the beginning of the 21st century to journey with the camels in the Sahara desert to the ancient salt mine, exactly like it was in the middle of the 12th century. We're all in this amazing crossroads in human evolution, where Stone Age people exist on the planet, with one foot out of the Garden of Eden, and yet we have put a man on the moon. Did you notice the other day as we observed the ancient camel caravan there was a jet trail above us?

And that is such a privilege in the beginning of the 21st century, to know that there are these cultures that exist beyond the edge of the frayed map and still exist in the way that they have for thousands of years.

Photographer Chris Rainier in Mali. Photographer Chris Rainier in Mali.
Photo: Carolyn Jensen


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