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Why Wade Davis Photographs

BC’s most celebrated explorer on his education, craft, and a life immersed in culture.

Ian Gill 16 Nov

Ian Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. He is currently president of Discourse Media. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here.

British Columbia’s most celebrated explorer, Wade Davis, has published a new book, titled simply Wade Davis Photographs. It is nothing short of spectacular, capturing the breadth of Davis’s travels, the stunning diversity of the peoples and places he encounters along the way, the sweep of his provocative intellect and his bracing invocation — in a marvelously wrought introduction — for anthropologists, indeed for all of us to be activists in the celebration of life and, through his photographs, the light at the end of the world.

Davis relocated to Vancouver from Washington D.C. two years ago to assume a new role as B.C. Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. He remains as peripatetic as ever, but in October he was in Vancouver and I was fortunate enough to be his interlocutor at a lecture-cum-recitation at the Vancouver Writers Fest. This month, at the request of The Tyee, I conducted the following Q&A with Wade Davis.

The Tyee: Since this is first and foremost a book of photographs, let’s start with the first photo when you open the book, the picture of the flying fish on the Sargasso Sea. It’s almost miraculously beautiful. How did you get that shot?

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A flying fish ripples the surface of the Sargasso Sea. Photo by Wade Davis.

Wade Davis: I had been on a National Geographic ship circumnavigating Newfoundland, and when the passengers disembarked in St. Johns I deadheaded with the crew south to Trinidad to pick up another mob for a journey south along the Atlantic coast of Brazil to Buenos Aires. I was on the bridge as we crossed into the Sargasso Sea to the east of Bermuda. I had never seen such a luminous shade of blue. The ocean was dead calm. Flying fish were scuttling before the bow, creating these amazing patterns in the water. I just worked the scene until I got the image I wanted, a bird flying into the heavens, with only the double helix like trail on the surface of the sea to remind one that it was in fact a fish.

You are of course known globally for your writing about cultures and languages. How important is it to your work to also bring back images from the field? What do they add to your stories?

It is simply amazing what has happened to photography in the last decade. Something on the order of 3.5 trillion images have been taken since the invention of photography. Today, every two minutes as many images are snapped as were exposed in photography’s first 75 years. The digital camera for millions of people has become a teacher and partner in the creation of art. The sheer number of images, the ease of colour correction and manipulation, and the very speed with which photographs may be dispatched around the world has generated a popular tsunami that may well drown photography as a professional vocation.

When I first hosted travel trips for the National Geographic Society the most avid amateur photographers brought along perhaps 30 rolls of film; on my last such journey just one of the guests took over 16,000 frames in a fortnight. Wherever one travels these days everyone is taking pictures. Gone are the days when photography was the monopoly of the tourist, when gawky and intrusive visitors “took pictures” and “shot film” in what Susan Sontag described as an aggressive act of non-intervention. The digital revolution has provoked the democratization of an art form in a manner that is both rare and welcome, however disruptive it may be for those trying to make a living with their cameras. More people in more places are taking better and better images, taking the craft to ever-higher levels of artistic and journalistic achievement.

To be sure we have become a visual world. When I was first recruited to the National Geographic as an Explorer-in-Residence the marketing people asked me to send them for promotional purposes all the photographs and video that I had of myself in the field. I found the request very strange. No one in my generation had much interest in turning the lens into a mirror. After 30 years of travel I had perhaps a half-dozen snapshots of myself and that was it. The young Nat Geo staffers found this inconceivable and some actually questioned whether I had really been to all the places listed on my resume! The age of the selfie, of course, signals a new reality, the end of discretion and decorum, with people everywhere being quite prepared to litter the world with themselves, even as they casually yield their feelings to the analysis of strangers.

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A polar bear hunts on the sea ice about 10 kilometres off the eastern shore of Baffin Island. Photo by Wade Davis.

On a more hopeful note photography has become a marvelous conduit to culture. One is never the only photographer at a public ritual, as might well have been the case when I started out 40 years ago. Everyone has become a photographer. I work with that and turn every event into an ongoing photographic workshop. I’ll work to get the image that I want, even as I jump in and advise those around me, local people new to photography, on what they might do to improve their images. Just the basics — paying attention to light and composition, the fundamentals of aperture and depth of field, shutter speed and ISO or what we once thought of as film speed. Part of the magic of photography is that everyone can distinguish a great image from a mediocre one, and thus everyone is always poised and keen to become a better photographer.

How did you get your start in photography?

I became a photographer by paying attention to light and composition, and by studying intently the work of the masters. When I was a college senior a brilliant and irreverent photographer, Tod Papageorge, later director of the graduate photography department at Yale for three decades, came to Harvard as a visiting artist to teach an advanced seminar. It was designed only for those few highly accomplished photographers who had majored in visual studies and intended to work as professionals in the field.

In no way did I qualify, but by good fortune several of the young photographers were close friends and they essentially obliged Papageorge to accept me in the class, if only to provide entertainment value. And that was about all I could come up with for the first weeks of term. But Papageorge was an inspired teacher, in good measure because he had no interest in soliciting student opinion about anything. Each week he projected on the screen the work of the masters and for two hours, without pause, he explained why a photograph was good. He did not tolerate discussion and thus the atmosphere of the class was mercifully uncluttered by idle opinion. His laser insights went right to the source and like the photographs themselves became indelibly imprinted on the emulsion sheet of one’s mind. I can still see [Eugène] Atget’s Paris in the morning mist, the raw urban notes of Robert Frank, the timeless landscapes of Ansel Adams that led Henri Cartier-Bresson in frustration to lament during the 1940s that the entire world was falling apart and Ansel was still taking pictures of stones. “You are writing with light,” Papageorge would proclaim, “go and find something to say.”

After weeks of frustration I went to Virginia over spring break and found, in the shadows of a landscape, something magical and moving. I returned and showed Papageorge my images. Something had happened. Somehow I had got it right. It was not about talent or skill or raw creativity. It was about listening and seeing and paying attention.

Obviously, by the very nature of the places you travel to and the people you meet, these are utterly exotic images. What is the message you are trying to convey about the cultural diversity represented in the book?

We have this idea that these Indigenous peoples, these distant others, quaint and colourful though they may be, are somehow destined to fade away, as if by natural law, as if they are failed attempts at being modern, failed attempts at being us. This is simply not true. Change is no threat to culture, nor is technology. What imperils the integrity of cultures all over the world is power, the crude face of domination. In every case these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable and overwhelming external forces. This is actually an optimistic observation, for it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be the facilitators of cultural survival.

There is an image in the book from the Sacred Headwaters in northern B.C. What is the importance of the gathering of the First Nations that took place there back in 2006?

That was a very important, indeed historic, moment for the Tahltan First Nation. The Sacred Headwaters refers to Klabona, the headwater valley where three of the great salmon rivers of British Columbia, the Stikine, Skeena and the Nass, are born in remarkably close proximity. At the time Shell Canada had in place a proposal to extract methane gas from a million-acre tenure that would have imposed a network of roads, pipelines and wells over much of the valley.

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The Sacred Headwaters, BC, 2006. Photo by Wade Davis.

In the summer of 2006 the Tahltan invited representatives from all the First Nations whose traditional territories are traversed by these rivers to gather in the headwaters. Each brought a small vessel of water from their homelands, and in a solemn ritual that was deeply moving, the leaders spoke in solidarity as they added their water to a cedar bent box. The mixing of the waters symbolized a collective commitment from all the First Nations to stop the industrialization of the Sacred Headwaters. There remains much to be done to secure permanent protection for the valley, but in the short term the Tahltan were successful in having a 10-year moratorium put in place by the provincial government. It was significant victory of the Tahltan and one that has inspired any number of positive outcomes for the people.

Lillian Moyer, the woman portrayed in the photo you mention, had been the first to be arrested at the blockade earlier in the year and she was the last to speak at the gathering. Dressed in army fatigue pants, her shoulders covered by an elegant button blanket, she reached out her arms as if in prayer. Sunlight sparkled on her silver bracelets. “The elders are keepers of the land,” she said. “When we stand with them we stand with the ancestors. I did not get arrested for the fun of it. I did it to protect the land. We have the power to stop whatever we want to stop.” She then turned to address the entire gathering. “We need your help to protect this land. It is not just for the native people. It is for all people. Not just for us. And that is the way it should be. It is all connected. We are all connected.”

How important is activism in anthropology? At what point is being an academic simply not enough?

As an undergraduate student at Harvard I was very fortunate to fall into the orbit of renowned anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis, who became my tutor. My other great mentor was Richard Evans Schultes, the legendary Amazonian plant explorer. If Schultes inspired by the example of his deeds, David awakened the imagination through the sheer power of his intellect, the wonder of his words and ideas and the integrity of his political convictions. For a year we met once a week in his book-lined office overlooking the courtyard of the Tozzer Library. His mind ranged over the entire history of the discipline. “Every culture has something to say,” David explained at the outset, “and each deserves to be heard.”

For David these were not idle sentiments, but deeply held convictions that made him, like Franz Boas, a tireless campaigner for human rights. In 1972 he and his Swedish wife, Pia, who with their infant son had accompanied him into the wilds of central Brazil, founded Cultural Survival, an organization that to this day remains a powerful voice for Indigenous peoples throughout the world. They both believed that anthropologists had an obligation to be not just advocates for the cultures with which they had worked and lived, but activists committed to a global vision of pluralism that would celebrate the wonder and contributions of all peoples of the world. Critically this did not imply blind acceptance of all human behaviour. Nor did it suggest that every trait of culture had to be defended simply because it exists. Anthropology, as David would always say, never calls for the elimination of judgment; it calls only for its suspension, so that those judgments we are ethically and morally obliged to make as human beings can be conscious and informed.

This subtlety of interpretation and analysis led David to believe strongly that the insights of anthropology deserved and needed to be part of the public discourse. In this respect he was very much in the lineage of Franz Boas. Cultural anthropology as a science, Boas maintained, made sense only if it was practiced in the service of a higher tolerance. Margaret Mead, perhaps the best-known popular anthropologist of her era, was a student of Boas, as was Ruth Benedict, who distilled the essence of the discipline in a single line: “The main purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

Inspired by such scholars I came out of graduate school with a strong conviction that the lessons of anthropology were far too important to be sequestered in the silos of the academy, which is one reason I pursued an independent career as a writer, photographer and, in time, filmmaker.

You travel to places most people can only dream of. Your book is full of celebratory imagery, and yet the people and the places you show are often under dire threat from industrial development, war, famine.... In choosing these images, did you also choose, in effect, hope over despair?

Photography, as Susan Sontag wrote, is a twilight art, an art of elegy. The very act of taking a photograph ensures that the images will in time resonate with nostalgia. Edward Curtis considered photography to be a salvage operation, and he posed his subjects with the explicit intention of recording the last vestiges of what he viewed as a doomed world. Even his exterior shots are reminiscent of the painted backdrops used by frontier photographers of the American West, who captured and froze Geronimo and Sitting Bull in defeat. For many it has become impossible to look at any photograph of tribal peoples engaged in ritual activities and not think of Curtis. There is even a sense among some anthropologists that to publish any celebratory image of an Indigenous person or a traditional ritual is to reduce that person or event to a fetish, as if only images of misery and despair can properly bear witness to the plight and circumstances of those struggling in the post-colonial world. This view is generally held, it seems, by scholars who have never had the opportunity to live among peoples such as those portrayed in this book, cultures impacted but never vanquished by the colonial experience. I find such an attitude not only joyless, but also patronizing in the extreme.

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On the south terrace of the Taj Mahal a group of young women in colourful saris gaze over the great bend of the Yamuna River. Photo by Wade Davis.

The subjects photographed in this book have not been manipulated and their lives are not vestigial. Indeed every encounter that led to these images was a collaborative one in which all of us in the moment were working together to make a statement — through film, photography, the written and spoken word — about what kind of world we want to bequeath to our children. All the cultures documented in this book — the Arhuacos and Tibetans, the San, Barasana, Makuna and Penan, the Rendille, Dogon, Inuit, Tamashek and Tuareg, not to mention all the traditional cultures of West Africa, Mongolia, Australia and Polynesia, and indeed the Colombian people as a nation — are very much alive and fighting not only for their cultural survival but also to take part in a global dialogue that will determine the future of life on Earth.

What is the central message you wish to convey in this book?

The myriad of cultures of the world, with their own traditions and beliefs, are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us. Each is an inspired expression of our collective genius, each a unique answer to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? All have an equal claim on reality, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine. As David Maybury-Lewis told me so many years ago, every culture has something to say, and each deserves to be heard.

Let’s end where we began, with a photo: What’s your favorite image in Wade Davis Photographs?

Perhaps the portrait of the young Barasana youth that is on the cover of the book. The Barasana, Makuna, Tanimukas and other “Peoples of the Anaconda,” as they are sometimes known, live in the remote reaches of the Colombian Amazon, a stretch of roadless tropical rainforest the size of France.

When I first visited the Barasana in 1974 on the Río Pira Parana their entire world seemed on the edge of collapse, so effective had the missionaries been in undermining their lives and their culture. Then in 1986 Colombian president Virgilio Barco Vargas told Martin von Hildebrand, then head of Indigenous Affairs to “do something for the Indians.” In five extraordinary years von Hildebrand secured for the native people of the Colombian Amazon legal title to an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, land rights that were encoded in the 1991 political constitution. In the years that followed, as Colombia endured the ravages of war, a veil of isolation fell upon the Northwest Amazon. And behind this veil a cultural revival took place unlike anything previously seen in South America.

When Martin and I asked some of the elders why they had tolerated the presence of the missionaries for so many years until finally forcing them to leave, they responded, “Because they promised that they could make us human.” This of course is the essence of colonialism, persuading the colonized of their inherent inferiority. When Stephen Hugh-Jones, head of anthropology at Cambridge, first joined Martin and me in the field as we made a film with the Barasana, he was simply astonished to witness a two-day ceremony in which 250 men and women in full ritual regalia celebrated Cassava Woman, symbol of fertility. He borrowed the satellite phone and called his wife Christine in London. Both as anthropologists had lived with the Barasana beginning in 1968, a time when everyone had predicted that their culture was destined to disappear. Stephen could not hide his excitement as he shouted into the phone, “It’s incredible. Forty years on and the only thing that has disappeared are the bloody missionaries!”

Photos as appearing in Wade Davis Photographs, published by Douglas & McIntyre, 2016.  [Tyee]

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