Interpreting culture: Chris Rainier's global perspective

  • Breaking
  • 29/05/2014

Photographer Chris Rainier is on a mission to document the world's endangered cultures before it's too late.

The National Geographic fellow, who has travelled the globe extensively taking photos for some of the world's top publications, says culture is far more than just "pretty costumes and dancing" – rather, it is a unique way of looking at the world.

Within these alternative views of reality, believes Rainier, may lie the answers to some the world's gravest problems, including overpopulation and climate change.

Rainier is travelling to New Zealand as part of the Auckland Festival of Photography and will be speaking at the Auckland Art Gallery today and at the Museum on Monday.


According to your National Geographic bio, your life mission is to "document endangered cultures and help empower them to use modern technology to save their ancient traditions". How can photography help in this quest? Why is it important to preserve these ancient traditions and what happens when ancient traditions and cultures die out?

Ancient traditions are much more than just pretty costumes and traditional clothes and people dancing, it is a different way of looking at the world.

In the Western world we assume that, based upon science and a modern way of looking at the world, that there's only one reality, but I think traditional cultures, and certainly the Maori culture teaches this too, that there's different ways of looking at the world. I think as we tumble into the 21st century and deal with all sorts of serious issues around population, climate issues, we need to be looking at multiple ways of solving our problems and so not only should we be collecting sample of sea banks and DNA diversity, but we need to be thinking about cultural and intellectual diversity and traditional cultures from the Maori to the Quechua in Peru, to the jungles of the Amazon or Native Americans.

In Australia the aborigines have different ways of looking at the world, different ways of solving problems and certainly many of these traditional cultures have been around for a very, very long time and have dealt with sustainability issues. I think we're really in a race against time to document, preserve and maintain and even empower traditional cultures to keep their knowledge, keep their traditions, keep their mythologies, keep their way of life and at the very least preserve it for future generations.

I think photography plays a role in that because what it does is it can serve as a catalyst for revitalisation. There's an American photographer from the turn of the 20th century, a gentleman called Edward Curtis and his work of documenting Native American culture is now really used by contemporary Native American culture to help revitalise some of their traditional dances, some of their paintings, some of their costumes, some of their rituals, and if it wasn't for someone documenting it many of the traditions would have fallen away and never have been able to be accessed.

I think photography, and film for that matter, play a very important role in maintaining culture and revitalising culture.

Your photos are often very intimate, especially those from your project Ancient Marks & Tattooing – how do you build up trust with your subjects and gain entry to their often very closed worlds, such as your work photographing yakuza in Japan?

I think time is one of the most precious commodities that any photographer has, and you highlight an image that had infinite amount of time – it took me five years to eventually get permission to be able to be in that room with what happened to be the concubine or mistress of a head of the yakuza in Tokyo. Patience, and willingness to persevere, which I did with the yakuza.

But also once you are with the person that you want to photograph, whether it's yakuza or in New Guinea where I spent a lot of time, or for that matter the Maori in your country, the longer you spend with your subject matter – there's a sort of saying the quality of the portrait is in direct proportion to the quality of the relationship that you create and build up that level of trust. And so for me, and certainly what National Geographic has allowed me to do over the years, and then in my own personal work, is the time to really create these relationships and build up the levels of trust.

That's getting harder to do in today's world of 'parachute journalism'.

Absolutely, and then the digital technology too – instant gratification, instant results – and we tend to forget that it's all about creating relationships.

Have you faced any difficulties with people who haven't wanted to be photographed, and how do you deal with these encounters?

For every photograph that I've been successful at there's probably been 10 to 15 failures of people saying no or not wanting to be photographed. For many years I was a Time magazine war photographer so I was often in situations where people didn't want to be photographed, either because of what they were illegally doing or in a war zone-type situation like that, or in a famine where you're seeing people in very horrific, compromised positions, so one has to be in a position where you accept that you need to walk away, you need to leave someone's dignity in place at times. That's often very hard because sometimes the most dramatic images are the most sensational images, are the most tempting but they're morally – at least my compass doesn't want to go there.

How can a war photographer make sure they don't become emotionally numb after witnessing such horrific scenes over and over?

I think for those years that I did do a lot of that, I happened to live in a stunningly beautiful part of the United States, in Aspen Colorado, so I would compensate, you know; I would fly in from the hell of famine in Somalia and I would arrive and meet my friends at the local coffee shop in the morning and they'd sort of say, 'Well, let's go skiing,' so I think I needed to create opportunities to affirm life is beautiful.

For all those projects that I stepped into Dante's inferno I was working on projects in places like New Guinea where man had one foot still in the Garden of Eden – so for me that was very important, and during that period of time I was also doing fluffy travel assignments for travel magazines and being shipped off to Bora Bora, meanwhile two weeks before I had been in Sarajevo or Rwanda or something like that.

So it's fitting the bad into the human spectrum that encompasses the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly?

Yeah, for me photography is a vehicle, it's a passport; it's an opportunity to explore the human psyche that includes beauty and the positives of life.


(Photo: Chris Rainier)

You grew up in Africa, Australia, Europe, and southern California – how did such a varied upbringing affect your world view and how do you translate that view into your photography?

I think inevitably it did inform me having a kind of global perspective so I was as a kid going off to Aborigine communities, or in Africa going to see the Maasai when I was 10 or so. That global perspective I think informed the way I look at the world and still informs the way I look at the world in the sense that I see it as a cohesive community where all humans are yearning to tell stories and share our stories, and visually share our stories as well.

You have said before you believe photography can be used as a social tool – in our modern society which is saturated with images do you think photography can continue to retain its power and the interest of the viewer?

A billion images a day are essentially uploaded to the internet and I've been doing a lot of research on that phenomenon in terms of how do we curate, how do we look for the good images – it's a challenge, we are drowning in a sea of images but I think quality, context, curation are all words that come to mind in terms of finding the right place to look at the work.

I don't think Facebook is a place to find quality work, and so I think it's important to be able to find places where you respect the work…you seek places where it's been curated and you respect the vision, so when you come into a gallery you know that the work is good. I think in a sea of images you need to find the places that you know you're going to see good work.

During the 1980s you spent five years working as Ansell Adams's photo assistant – how has Adams' influenced your work?

I think the big message I got from him was that you can be an artist and also deal with the social issues.

His work no question was art photography – his interpretation of these great national parks, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, many of the great iconic American landscapes – and yet he was a social photographer, he was a documentary photographer. He used his photography in a social context and as a social tool. That to me was profoundly influencing that I could actually be a photojournalist, a documentary photographer, an art photographer and yet not float away into the art world and lose relevance but actually could use it as a social tool and I've really gone on to try in every possible way to use photography in that context.

Like Ansell, you shoot a lot in black and white. But you also shoot in colour – how do you choose which medium to use?

I think now, 35 years in to the medium, I've got pretty good at discerning what I think works best in colour and what works in black and white. As a colour photographer I'm just getting to the point where I understand and am becoming to mature enough with colour, and I love actually that place where colour and black and white meet – just early, it looks like black and white but there's barely some colour in there. I think for me that is an exciting new direction that I'm moving in.

But I love black and white – there's something very powerful about it.

Do you get much time to take photos on these short trips or does your photography only consist of long-term project work?

Well that's the great thing about today's digital world and the smartphone – I think it's loosened up and freed us up to have fun with our cameras but not any real social, serious projects – I separate the two, so I come to a festival and really jump into that, and then go off and do my own personal projects.

Coming back to culture, how do you use photography to understand culture on a deeper lever, getting past clichés?

I think the genesis of where I am now is I will always continue to photograph culture, but only with the understanding that it's my interpretation of the culture. So where I am now is most interested in empowering indigenous cultures to tell their own stories.

Let's use the Maori as an example; I can come in as a Westerner, as a North American photographer and do my interpretation of the Maori revitalisation movement, the moko – the traditional tattooing – but I'm also very focused on ensuring that the Maori have their own culture and their own ability to tell stories, and that's what's so exciting about what's going on in New Zealand and in many parts of the world where there's a huge revitalisation going on: you are finding amazing Maori photographers, South African photographers, Bangladeshi photographers.

The classic image – the Afghani girl, the National Geographic shot by Steve McCurry, that amazing image of the woman with the green eyes – it's a fantastic image, but quite frankly, I'm more interested in what the Afghani girl would do if she were given a camera. I think it's not an either/or – I'm not saying get rid of the Steve McCurrys in the world, I'm just think we now live in an opportunity where we could put more seats at the table. The technology allows us to all kind of gather around that virtual fireplace so to speak of the digital world and share images and what it means to be human.

You mentioned the revitalisation of Maori culture – in recent years New Zealand has attempted to revitalise the Maori language. What's the link between language and culture and why is it so important that languages don't die out, that the world doesn't all speak a handful of languages?

I think embedded in the DNA of a sentence structure is a way of looking at the world, and so language is the indicator of how people view their world. It's the old cliché that an Eskimo, an Inuit, has 27 words for snow, or you go to the Sahara Desert and the Tuareg have 30 words for sand. What you live in is your reality and you create a language to codify it and to communicate it, so when you do away with that looking at the world and that way of articulating it you do away with a reality that may have the clues to survival for the human species.

Embedded in that is maybe the cure for cancer or the cure for malaria or the way for us to look at climate change in a different way – to be able to come up with solutions.

The Western perspective, the scientific perspective is not the only reality – there are other realities out there and if we lose the language around those other realities it's like burning down a library. We lived through an era in the middle of the 20th century where information and libraries and culture was being done away with, during the Second World War, and we would never permit that to happen, and yet we're sitting back and every two weeks an elder passes away with a language. Eighty-percent of the world's languages – 6000, 7000 languages give or take – are oral, so if that language is not passed on to the next generation all of that information, all of that amazing intellectual diversity just dies away – and it doesn't have to happen.

In Australia I was very privileged to be a part of a documentary on Aborigine 'dreamtime' – about six years ago – about a non-linear way of looking at the world. From a Western perspective it just doesn't make sense, everything is obviously sequenced in a linear fashion but that is not the only form of reality – there are other ways of processing information.

And we also live in a consumer society where more and more everything is oriented towards a kind of commodity – as this is what people often say, 'Wouldn't it be cool to have a language, one language, the language that you could communicate with everyone around the world?' That's talking about efficiency, that's talking commercialisation and commodifying the world but that's not the only reality that we live in.

Margaret Mead, the great social anthropologist once said having been born into a polychromatic world, her greatest fear for her children and our grandchildren was that one day we'll all wake up in a monochromatic world and not ever know there was a difference.


For more information on the Auckland Festival of Photography and Chris Rainier see and

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