We are a species of movement and curiosity. Since the dawn of humanity, we have cast our imaginations beyond the horizon and set our internal compass to seek the unknown, to discover new lands, and to create ways to share our finds with our fellow humans. Science has now proven that all people on the planet are related, that we are all brothers and sisters originally from the plains of East Africa and that we migrated to every corner of the planet some 100,000 years ago.
From then, right from the beginning, we have been storytellers. The earliest examples of this can be found in the caves of Africa, Indonesia and France dating back as far back as 64,000 years: scenes of the great hunt and etched depictions of exotic animals and landscapes. From the Vikings to the travels of Marco Polo, and even in the seabound journeys of Captain Cook, the history of exploration through the centuries has been marked by remarkable painted illustrations of far-away places—landscapes, cultures and wildlife that defied the West’s imagination of the time.
The “golden” era of exploration (stretching from Captain Cook’s ocean journeys and the finding of the source of the Nile to the placing of flags by British explorers at the South and North Poles) was in large part driven by the desire to expand the reach of the British Empire and funded by the wealthy aristocracy of Victorian London in the 17th and 18th centuries. The germ of what is now global tourism began with lectures given in cigar smoke-filled gentlemen’s clubs.
Photography was invented in the early 1800s and, within several decades, travel photography began with haunting images taken by photographic pioneers like Francis Frith, famous for taking the first known images of the pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt. By 1889, the National Geographic Society began to use this powerful new medium of photography to take us around the world and show us all that is remarkable about our planet. Today, several billion photographic images are loaded onto the internet every single day, and a significant percentage of them are travel related. What incredible change the camera, together with the jet, has brought; we can travel anywhere in the world in a matter of hours, and through the glowing screens of our phones and computers, we can be transported there in seconds.
My own journey into travel photography began when I was 8 years old. My family was living in Australia when my father gave me my first camera. In that instant, I knew that I wanted to be a photographer, a visual storyteller, and to use the camera as my passport to explore the world and discover cultures and places beyond my imagination.
In the 1980s, fresh out of photography school, I was honored to be asked by the noted landscape photographer Ansel Adams to be his photographic assistant. For five years, I worked closely with him in the darkroom and in the field, assisting him in his photographic efforts to help preserve the wilderness and national parks of America. After leaving Ansel’s studio, I began my own journey to all corners of the planet to document landscapes and endangered cultures—a journey that continues today some 40 years later. In 2001, by then a National Geographic Fellow co-directing a program focused on documenting traditional cultures and languages, I worked with the most culturally endangered communities, often spending months with my camera, video system and audio recorder documenting their daily lives and traditions.
During the same period, I also helped to start and direct All Roads, a global program to support underrepresented Indigenous storytellers. Many Indigenous peoples have at the heart of their culture a refined art of storytelling. With 80 percent of the world’s traditional languages being oral, knowledge is passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, generation to generation. The leap from oral story to photographic story is a natural and quick one. Indigenous storytellers take to photography as an expression of their culture and respect for nature and for their fellow human beings—for all life.
In my own journey as a photographer, I have also wanted to tell stories, mainly around two themes. The first is sacred places, both man-made and natural, the basis of my book SACRED. The second is traditional culture. Photographing cultures can take many forms but, always with an eye to the most visual impacts, I have focused on the rich and diverse beauty of traditional regalia, tattooing and, most recently, masks. My book MASK records my travels to photograph spiritual traditions through masks and masked rituals around the world.
When I began the MASK project, I knew that I wanted to explore and document the rituals of traditional mask dancing and the use of masks in spiritual practice in as many places as I could. For every photograph taken, often there are weeks or even months of research and preparation required to ensure that each expedition will succeed—and with the chance of failure being reduced to as close to zero as possible. As Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
I often tell students, do not expect success without working hard and doing your homework about your subject; whether it is a landscape or a person that you wish to photograph, do your research. Ansel encouraged me to, “Put off short-term gains for long-term goals.” I always think of this advice, and I have always tried to heed it. Indeed, my book projects can take decades to complete. In both MASK and SACRED, you see images that I have taken over 40 years.
I also learned early on about the importance of respect. As a cultural photographer, my relationship with my photographic subject must be borne of respect, of a common bond of friendship and humanity. I never, ever parachute into a location, grab my images and go. I passionately believe that the quality of an image is in direct proportion to the quality of the relationship with the subject. You can see it: The greater the mutual engagement, trust and respect, the greater the power and success of the portrait. Treat people the way you wish to be treated.
I often spend days, even weeks, in a village or with a community, working with the men and women in the fields, playing with their children and sharing meals around the fire late into the night before I even take my camera out of its bag. I want the exchange to be real, to be respectful, to speak of humanity—a friendship forged as meaningful as the image I want to create.
So, too, if you photograph landscapes, your relationship to the land must come through. Your respect for earth must be seen. I learned from Ansel that the power and depth of his images were based upon years or even decades of connection to the land. He had a deep understanding of the weather, of the seasons, of the subtle shades of light as it fell on to the valley of Yosemite, the deep ravines of the Grand Canyon and the sand dunes of Death Valley. The most successful of my landscape photographs also show, I hope, a sense of inner presence, a primordial pulse of the heartbeat of the earth and a gentle but persistent reminder that we must work hard to respect and protect our fragile planet.
In much of my work, landscape and culture are inextricably linked. Having originally been a landscape photographer but now primarily focused on people and cultures, I create what I call environmental portraits. I want the background, the surroundings in which my human subject exists, to be as important as the person. It creates context and provides a visual home. I try to show a powerful landscape that speaks to who my subject is. I choose the time of day, the light, the mood, sometimes seeking to create drama with oncoming storm clouds or mystery with a shaft of light illuminating my subject. I believe strongly that the weather, the time of day and the season in which I choose to photograph my subjects are all crucial to the mood and message I wish to convey to the viewer.
I want to say that all is not well for traditional societies. I want to show fragility alongside pride and strength. I want to suggest the approaching threat. With the onslaught of modernity sweeping across the world like a tsunami of devastating change, Indigenous communities are losing their traditions and languages at catastrophic rates. Climate change and wilderness degradation are forcing urbanization and a retreat from our connection to nature. In choosing moody, often dark weather in my images and in using desaturated tones, I want the viewer to sense something unseen, perhaps to be a little unnerved, and to know deep down, perhaps on a subconscious level, that our planet and many of the cultures that live upon it are in danger and need help.
In my new book, SACRED, I want to show both the beauty and fragility of our planet home, too. I have been documenting sacred places and power places ever since I left Ansel’s studio 40 years ago. As I traveled the world, whether on assignment for National Geographic, Time or others, I would often take a few extra days or weeks to stop off, go to the end of the pavement and journey deep into nature looking for sacred places. I have found them in the jungles of Cambodia while there to photograph the ruins of Angkor Wat; deep in the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia amid the ancient burial caves of the Nabateans at Al-‘Ula; in the icy wonders of Antarctica and the waterfalls of Iceland; among the red rocks of Australia and the Southwest desert of the U.S.; and in the untouched high plateaus of Tibet and Mongolia. SACRED asks what sacredness is and what does it mean to be on a spiritual photographic journey.
That journey is not over. I am on a mission to continue to document the remarkable, the endangered—those places that remain untouched by the hand of modern man and those peoples whose thousand-years-old traditions are still revered. We live in extraordinary times, where scenes from our primordial past still exist in the present—but for how long? I feel that I am in a race against time to document the beauty of our planet, the wonder of diversity of the human spirit and what it means to be human.
My advice to young photographers who are starting out on their journey is to save up, grab your camera and a small bag of clothes and buy yourself a ticket to the place that you have always dreamed of going. Take a few weeks, a few months, even a year and go. Discover who you are and what makes you passionate. That office job, that city career can wait. Or, start a new one as a travel photographer. Go spend those 10,000 hours running thousands and thousands of images through your camera. Learn through your failures (and there will be failures) and celebrate your successes. Find your photographic voice. Discover your point of view and decide what you think is important. Identify your unique vision and style, and use your photographs to say something, to do something, whether it is to shine light on an injustice, to tell an untold story or to help save our fragile planet. Be part of the solution.
Many years ago, I was trekking through the highlands of New Guinea. After traversing a mountain range and arriving at a high pass, I came across an elder sitting there waiting for me. I realized that the old man had been watching me for some time as I hiked up the steep slope. I sat down beside him to rest.
He looked at me for a few minutes and then, through my translator, he asked, “What valley are you from?” I smiled and said that I was from a valley far, far away. His question was completely reasonable, for the people of this part of New Guinea rarely journey from their valley, remaining mostly isolated in their hidden pockets of paradise and never encountering tribes from the next valley. It was quite conceivable that I was from a nearby valley.
He asked again, insistent on finding out the answer. He then pondered on his own question and, looking toward the horizon, said, “I know, you are from where the green meets the blue.” He had heard of a place where the green land became the blue ocean, a place that he could only imagine. I have never forgotten that old man and that conversation, his confidence that I was from where the green meets the blue. Now, so many years later, I realize that he was right, of course. We are all from where the green meets the blue: on this tiny planet, spinning through the universe, fragile and finite, in desperate need of help.
See more of Chris Rainier’s work at chrisrainier.org.