A 40-year career, much of it spent travelling the globe in an effort to better understand the planet’s panoply of human communities and cultures, can yield astounding tales. In Wade Davis’ case, however, it also yields astounding images, as his new book, Wade Davis: Photographs attests.
Ahead of the noted anthropologist, writer and explorer’s public lecture about the book at the Royal Ontario Museum on Nov. 5, here’s an edited excerpt of its introduction and a special sneak peek at 14 of its 140 spectacular photos.
If there was one theme propelling my work as a young botanist and anthropologist it was a concern for the erosion of both cultural and biological diversity, and a recognition that the loss of the former was directly related to the sacrifice of the latter. The forces responsible for the destruction of habitat and the extinction of plants and animals, whether in the Amazon or Borneo, West Africa or Nepal, were essentially the same as those compromising the human legacy—egregious industrial practices, ill-conceived development schemes and policies, brute power and the triumph of ideology implicit in the ubiquitous cult of modernity.
In 1998, an assignment from the National Geographic Society (NGS) resulted in my story “Vanishing Cultures,” which appeared in the Society’s flagship magazine in August 1999. The follow-up surveys, which the NGS does for every article, indicated that the subject resonated powerfully with the readership. A year later I was invited to join the Society and its conservation mission as an Explorer-in-Residence (EIR), with the mandate of helping it address this crisis, even as we worked to change the way the world viewed and valued culture. In 2001 I published Light at the Edge of the World, a book of photographs and text that in a sense became the manifesto for my mission at the Society.
In that book I coined the term “ethnosphere” with the idea of inspiring a new way of thinking about this extraordinary matrix of cultures that envelops the planet. But how could we actually make a difference? When biologists such as Jane Goodall and the great oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who both served with me as EIRs at the Society, identify a region of critical importance in terms of biodiversity, they call for the creation of a protected area. One cannot designate a rainforest park of the mind, or sequester indigenous peoples in a preserve like some kind of zoological curiosity. As an anthropologist fully aware of the dynamic, ever-changing nature of culture, I had no interest in preserving anything. I just believed, as David Maybury-Lewis, my undergraduate tutor in anthropology once said, that all peoples ought to have the right to choose the components of their lives.
Recognizing that polemics are rarely persuasive, but with the hope that storytellers can change the world, I set out largely through the medium of film and photography to take the global audience of the NGS—literally hundreds of millions of people in 172 countries—to points in the ethnosphere where the beliefs, practices and intuitions are so dazzling that one cannot help but come away with a new appreciation for the wonder of the human imagination made manifest in culture.
My goal was not to document the exotic other, but rather to identify stories that had deep metaphorical resonance, something universal to tell us about the nature of being alive. We did not enter communities only as filmmakers and ethnographers; we were welcomed as collaborators, building on networks of relationships and friendships that often reached back for three decades or more. Our mandate fundamentally was to provide a platform for indigenous voices, even as our lens revealed inner horizons of thought, spirit and adaptation that might inspire, in the words of Father Thomas Berry, entirely new dreams of the earth.
Altogether, with various colleagues, all extraordinarily talented, I made seventeen films in my years at the NGS.
Many of the photographs in this book were taken as we made these films; others came out of other expeditions or the journeys I went on as a lecturer for the travel office at the NGS, a rare privilege that allowed me to visit some eighty nations, many repeatedly, over my years as an EIR.
The subjects photographed in this book have not been manipulated and their lives are not vestigial. They are not archaic relics stranded in time, having at best a vague advisory role to play in contemporary life. In truth, 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.
The photographs in this book most assuredly reflect a point of view. My goal is always to try to find in the chaos of visual perception and experience that perfect moment when subject, luminosity and perspective come together to affirm the eternal dignity of the human spirit.
Many years ago when I first joined the NGS and set out on this mission, I was asked to distill in a few lines the essence of what I hoped to achieve. “There is a fire burning over the earth,” I wrote at the time, “taking with it plants and animals, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written language composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets and saints—in short, the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human experience. Quelling this flame, this spreading inferno, and rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of the human spirit as expressed by culture, is among the central challenges of our times.” This book is one small contribution to this effort, one modest way of remembering just how lucky we all are to be human and alive.