Samay, a Hadza hunter-gatherer (Martin Schoeller/National Geographic)
It doesn't matter if you're Jack Nicholson or a hunter-gatherer in remote Tanzania. If you're sitting for Martin Schoeller, you'll be photographed in exactly the same way: up-close, beneath big, bright lights, and on film.
Schoeller, a renowned portraitist whose work has appeared in numerous major magazines and in museums like D.C.'s National Portrait Gallery, has a distinct style and sensibility. Although he spends much of his time doing commercial and celebrity work, he's also been commissioned for documentary projects, including a project in the December issue of National Geographic magazine. Using his "Indiana Jones instinct," as he calls it, is his preferred way to work.
Barack Obama. (Martin Schoeller)
Last year, Schoeller spent about a month in the far-flung bush of Tanzania, equipped with two trucks of equipment, water and tents. His goal was to document and preserve the faces of the Hadza people, one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer societies in the world, with a population that now numbers about 1,000. The Hadza are not entirely unchanged by modern society, but contact with surrounding cultures has been minimal. For thousands of years, they have remained largely unchanged because of their remote and inhospitable habitat.
Read more after the jump.
"I gave them some Polaroids," Schoeller said on the phone, "and they would throw them outside minutes later, because you can't eat it, and you can't use it. They didn't even cherish their own picture."
So how do you photograph people who don't even know what it means to be photographed? A large majority of his time with the Hadza was spent not photographing, but building relationships so that he could photograph. "The hardest part," he said, "was to have them be themselves. And what you have to do with every portrait is make people feel so comfortable — and have them so well-entertained — that they forget they're being photographed ... You basically just hang out."
Making the Hadza comfortable often came at Schoeller's expense. "They have a great sense of humor," he said. "They see us being stung by thorns or afraid of bugs, or stumbling with all of our camera bags and having to drink every five minutes ... There are a lot of reasons for them to laugh." And getting them to laugh was his way of breaking the ice.
Schoeller's goal as a photographer is both historical and anthropological (artistic goals granted).
"As a photographer," he explained, "the idea of capturing something that will vanish — that's a big part of my excitement ... Hollywood will pretty much still be the same ... It's not necessarily going to go extinct." Though he's drawn to indigenous groups, Schoeller says he would not want to alter a culture that had never seen a camera. But he still gets his greatest thrill from documenting and preserving faces that might not be around in a few decades.
So Schoeller is a historian — as well as an egalitarian. He will photograph anyone and everyone in the same way, which has resulted in a collection of portraits that puts dramatically different faces on the same plane. Yes, he's photographed Britney Spears. But he'll put her right next to Holo, a Hadza woman. Schoeller has an elaborate studio setup, but he's not afraid to get down and dirty in the desert. View the rest of his Hadza portraits and documentary photographs on ngm.org, and learn more about the Hadza in the article.
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