Steve McCurry on His Image of the Shaolin Monastery Monks

 © Steve McCurry

By Steve McCurry

This image is of young monks training in the art of kung fu at the Shaolin Monastery in Hena, Province, China.

The original Shaolin Monastery was founded on Mount Shaoshi in the 5th Century. Though the practice of martial arts actually originated in China several hundred years before its construction, the temple has a long history associated with kung fu.  

There are many thoughts as to the beginnings of Shaolin kung fu.  The most common begins with a man named Bodhidharma.  According to the Yijin Jing, Bodhidharma stood facing a wall in total silence for nine years.  It is said that his stare created a hole in the wall.  After completing this task, he wished go back west to India.  The only thing he left behind was an iron chest which contained two books: the Marrow Cleansing Classic, which was taken by one of his disciples, and the Muscle Tendon Change Classic, or Yijin Jing. The story goes, that this second book was extremely coveted by all of the monks as well as the obsession for practicing the skills within.  The Shaolin have garnered a wealth of fame through their fighting skill.  If the stories of origin are true, the credit is due to their possession of this manuscript.

In Buddhism, there is a pervasive sense of the impermanence of life.  There is a cycle.  Things are born and they pass away.  Having spent a great deal of time in Buddhist monasteries, I’ve gained a strong appreciation for the unique way the monks look at life.  Rather than fear the certainty of aging and death, they expect and also embrace it.  Wander through the monastery or talk to devotees and you will see that their priorities and the things that they care about seem more sensible and more sane than in other parts of the world.

no strangers: ancient wisdom in a modern world opens at the Annenberg Space for Photography on Saturday, November 17 and runs through February 24, 2013. Learn more about Steve McCurry's work on his official website.

Thomas Kelly on Kayapo Dance

 © Thomas Kelly, Kayapo Dance

By Thomas Kelly

Sexual activity is regarded among the Kayapo as a natural and desired part of life. Rules regarding sexual activities are complex and vary between different sex and age groups; sexual faithfulness is a matter of individual choice rather than a common rule. "There are those men who do not like their women to be with someone else; there are others who do not mind," says Kwyra Ka. "Those who do not mind stay together, those who mind separate." It is a normal custom for Kayapo Indians to marry, split up and remarry several times, and as a rule chiefs have several sexual partners at the same time. Gorotire, Xingu Reserve, Brazilian Amazon.

In 1991, activist Anita Roddick founder of The Body Shop International, U.K. asked me to join her to document their fair-trade practices with the Kayapo Indians deep in the Brazilian Amazon with hopes the Kayapo wouldn’t surrender to outside pressure to sell out to gold miners, cattle rangers and forest destruction. 

We arrived in time for a ceremonial dance; the deafening sounds of wooden clubs beating against the central hut pillars by chiefs and warriors resounded through the moist air and within minutes I was focusing head on at a procession of freshly painted Kayapo women- plucked of their eyebrows, faces painted with red arucum seed paste, macaw parrot feathers in their hair, red and blue beads strung down to their waist and thighs, beads adorned their calves and ankles. I had a Canon F-1and 85mm 1.2 fixed lense loaded with Tri-x B&W film. After the dance, I set up a back drop at the ceremonial hut and had the extra-ordinary priviledge to make portraits of all the dancers. I spent the next ten days documenting the day and the life of the Kayapo.

Their seamless living in harmony with nature, uninterrupted by outside forces, afforded a way of life which supported their cultural values. 

I remember being awe-struck and not a little envious at the time of the Kayapo’s ease with their natural nakedness deep in the Amazon, and feeling awkward and overdressed in shorts in a shirt. That didn’t last long. After the ceremony, a gaggle of women laughing, hauled Anita and I over into a hut and stripped off our clothes and painted us naked. They were curious about our body hair and made comments about it.  They painfully plucked off our eyebrow, eyelash, and pubic hair. “That’s ugly,”they said. ”Now you are one of us.” They took Anita off into the forest and wrapped her waist with the root of a vine. Paikhan the chief turned to me and said, “You can take any woman you want now.” It makes me sad to think that very few Kayapo are likely walking around the village naked anymore. I guess this is considered progress, but I am not so sure. Like Octavio Paz who advocates the plurality of being as the very spice and color of life, what happens to us as humans when we start to wear clothes?

What is it we are concealing or what are we ashamed of? I loved their ease of being in their own natural skin. The Body Shop International created a Brazilain nut oil extraction business at source cutting out middle men and gave a cash injection that allowed the Kayapo to use the cash in whatever way they choose.

no strangers: ancient wisdom in a modern world will show at the Annenberg Space for Photography and runs through February 24, 2013. Learn more about Thomas Kelly's work on his official website.

Announcing The No Strangers IRIS Nights Lecture Lineup

Our first IRIS Nights lecture for no strangers takes place this upcoming Saturday, the same day that the exhibit opens. This sold-out debut lecture will feature the amazing Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher.

We've just released the full list of presentation for this very popular series. Click here to see that list, which includes Chris Rainier, Bonnie Folkin, Caroline Bennett and Aaron Huey.

We expect the lecture series to conitune to be popular so  reserve your free spot as soon as tickets are released. You don't want to miss out on these great talks!

Hamid Sardar-Afkhami: 'The Duhalar Depend on...Domestic Reindeer Population'

© Hamid Sardar-Afkhami

By Hamid Sardar-Afkhami

The Duhalar reindeer people live in Hovsgol — the land of the blue lake — a territory of about 65,000 sq. km in Northwestern Mongolia bordering the tiny Russian Republic of Tuva. The Duhalar are the guardians of this hidden realm, patrolling a maze of evergreen forests and snow-capped mountains on the backs of their stocky reindeer. They gain a meager existence by hunting for furs and antlers, which they sell in a nearby Mongol town.

The Duhalar depend on a healthy domestic reindeer population not just for their milk and as a means of transport but also for their spirituality - to move through a forest haunted by the spirits of their ancestors who counsel the living through the shaman’s songs. If the reindeer vanish, the songlines of the ancestors will also cease to exist.

There are hundreds of ghost shrines, called “asars,” in the Hovsgol taiga. The entire forest is a burial ground. This explains why the Duhalar are so opposed to government plans to disfigure their landscape with mines. “I will become immortal in this forest after I die,” Tsuyan, the old shaman matriarch explained. 

“What is Dark Heaven?” I asked her. “It is the dark space on the other side,” Tsuyan says, “full of colors, sounds and voices from where the ancestors appear and reveal their message to the living.” On odd days of the waxing moon, Tsuyan would transform herself into a deer and fly off to a place called the Dark Heavens, a twilight world full of light, sounds and voices from where the ancestors reveal their hidden messages in the guise of various birds and beasts. “We exist in relation to three things she would say, “...our forest, our ancestor spirits and our reindeer. If we lose this connection, our spirits ‘ongots’ will abandon us and the demons will take hold of our destiny.”

The Duhalar choose one reindeer and mark it as a ‘totem deer’ that serves as a mount for the invisible guardian spirits of the tribe. In addition, every individual person is ceremonially linked to an individual deer that is believed to protect them throughout their life and follow them into the other worlds.

I was very much keen to express this ‘spiritual’ relationship between man and deer in my photographs. But after traveling with the Duhalar for several seasons and shooting thousands of pictures, I didn’t have anything that came close to what I would consider an iconic image. One day, after a long Autumn migration, I was talking photographs of the women milking the reindeer with children playing nearby. A young infant-girl sat next to her mother and soon fell asleep. Her mother gently placed her on the side of a white deer and continued milking. Suddenly, there it was. The composition of the sleeping child lying on the side of a magnificent antlered creature who was looking down at her with a protective, almost transcendental expression, perfectly captured my thoughts.

no strangers: ancient wisdom in a modern world will show at the Annenberg Space for Photography and runs through February 24, 2013. Learn more about Hamid Sardar-Afkhami's work on his official website.

Chris Johns On His Photograph of Botswana Bushman, Klaas Kruiper


© Chris Johns/National Geographic Stock

By Chris Johns

Klaas Kruiper could read the tracks left by wild animals the way other people read books. He was a bushman, one of southern Africa’s indigenous people.

Bushmen—there are about 85,000 left—teeter on the brink of cultural extinction. Klaas, who’d been a ranger in the Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park in Botswana, but who’d gone back to tracking—was tall and slender. He was quiet and shy, a man of few words.  He didn’t walk—he glided across the red sand dunes of the Kalahari. If an animal made a mark in the sand, he could say who made it, when, how fast it was traveling, its weight, and if it were well fed.  He could examine a blade of grass and calculate how long ago it had been bent by a passing wind or animal, taking into account temperature, humidity and the size of the animal.  He studied ants to calculate how many grains of sand they had moved inside a track in a specific interval. In short, he was a man completely in tune with his surroundings.

Dispossessed, displaced, many bushmen live lives of quiet desperation and Klaas was no exception. He’d struggled with addiction.  He had marital problems. I’ll never forget the awful moment when I got a phone call from Paul Funston, a lion researcher working in the Kalahari who had invited me to track lions with Klaas.  I had known Klaas for five years at that point, and jumped at the chance. Then one day the phone rang. “Our trip is cancelled,” Paul said, and I could hear the sob in his voice. “Klaas has been murdered.” I never found out why he was murdered. Only that he’d been stabbed with a knife. There are those you meet on assignment who become deeply embedded in your memory and, even, your soul.  They are extraordinary humans and their loss becomes a loss, not just for friends and family, but for all of humanity. Klaas Kruiper was such a man.

no strangers: ancient wisdom in a modern world will show at the Annenberg Space for Photography and runs through February 24, 2013. Learn more about Chris John here.

No Strangers Opening Gala

The no strangers opening gala was a great celebration with the exhibit's photographers alongside their powerful images. A terrific time was had by all.

Guests enjoyed a sneak peek of the exhibit.

Aside from the art, there was great world music for the attendees.

Bill Pullman came to support his friend, no strangers guest curator, Wade Davis.

These opening events are always such a nice way to see photographers from our previous shows come together with those in our current exhibit. Here's Digital Darkroom photographer, Mike Pucher.

And here is a group shot of all of the no strangers photographers who were able to attend the party. From left to right: Randy Olson, Angela Fisher, Carol Beckwith, Thomas Kelly, Wade Davis, Chris Johns, Caroline Bennett, Chirs Rainier and Aaron Huey.

So why not get an all inclusive group shot of all of the photogs who were there that night? Here it is above!

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David Hiser on the Nomadic Penan Hunter-Gatherers of Borneo

 © David Hiser

By David Hiser

In my 20 years as a National Geographic freelancer I’d often been on the unwelcome side of various weapons but this was my first experience with a poison-dart-shooting blowpipe.The Penan hunter in this scene, Asik Nyelit, is using the traditional hunting tool of the Penan which shoots a dart coated with an extremely poisonous latex collected from a tree in the surrounding forest. They told me that a monkey or boar {or a man) shot with a dart would die within five minutes.

In 1993 I was a guest of the nomadic Penan of the Ubong River in  Borneo, Malaysia. I was on an assignment for Wade Davis’ Endangered Peoples Project to document the threatened  existence of one of the last cultures of truly nomadic hunter-gatherers. They are distinct from other surviving hunter-gatherer groups which live in fixed locations and practice some agriculture.

The Penan prepared food in their treehouse-like dwellings, open sided huts erected on four stout poles with a floor about five feet above the ground. A hearth is made by piling red clay on the log floor over which an iron pot, one their few tools from the "outside", is suspended. Wild meat and fish are a relatively small part of their diet which relies mainly of gathered plants, fruits, and sago, a flour they refine from the pith of the sago palm.  A picture in the no strangers exhibit shows a family displaying  an assortment of these foods in their hut.

Besides a few cooking pots and machetes these Penan possessed little from the modern world. Almost everything they needed came from the surrounding forest .They kept few possessions as they moved their camps frequently to let the forest regenerate the resources they lived on and they carried everything themselves They had no beasts of burden so, every few weeks, they would pack everything in woven rattan packs and baskets and take to the trail.

The Penan culture is based on sharing and as their guest I was given my own hut to sleep in and was expected to join in their meals. I had brought rice to share with them but but it was quite an adventure when I was presented with a platter of steamed rice and monkey parts.

Living below a tall, continuous forest canopy, near the equator, the Penan do not often see the stars or experience the passing of seasons. Time there is not measured but flows as a continuous stream No one knows how old they are and specific times in the past are remembered only by unique events such as when an accident occurred or a child was born.

Photography in the soft diffused light of the forest understory went easily as the light was always agreeable and there was none of the usual waiting for “the magic hour” at sunrise and sunset that often drives the schedule of outdoor  photography.  I occasionally used a small electronic flash to augment the light from the hearths in the huts.  The people, having no mirrors or expressed interest in their own appearance, let me shoot freely with little interest in the results of my work.

The Penan have lived well in the primary rainforest for thousands of years but in recent decades their homeland has been disappearing as Borneo endures the world’s highest rate of industrial deforestation. They live under a government which has denied them basic human rights, licensed their land to corrupt logging concessions and considers them a national embarrassment. “We don’t want them running around like animals” said a state minister. 

The Penan group I photographed were in the  protected Gunung Mulu National Park but  distant sounds of logging operations were growing louder. Asik, the man with the blowpipe, had participated in road closures and demonstrations organized by the Penan in their attempts to keep the logging  companies from pushing further into their ancestral  homelands.

I visited the Penan with Ian MacKenzie, a linguist who is compiling a dictionary of the Penan language and is transcribing a history of the culture so that their future generations will better understand the life of their ancestors. He continues to work with these same Penan, who by now, because of pressure from the government and loss of habitat, have moved to fixed communities. Although they still take some sustenance from the forest they live in rough plank-sided longhouses and tend nearby rice fields. Most now wear the shorts and teeshirts so commonly worn by the dispossessed of the tropical world. 

Ian told me recently that when he and I were there in 1993, we were the last to document a vanishing way of life, much like Edward Curtis did with the original inhabitants of the American West. For myself, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel back in time to see how man once lived in balance with the natural world.

no strangers: ancient wisdom in a modern world will show at the Annenberg Space for Photography and runs through February 24, 2013. Learn more about David Hiser here.

Thomas Kelly on the Nyinba People of Nepal


© Thomas Kelly

By Thomas Kelly

The Nyinba (the word means “people of the sunny valley”) migrated into the vertical mountainous forested sanctuary of Nepal’s northwestern Himalayas from the Tibetan plateau steppe Zhangzhung kingdom over 15,000 years ago. The Zhangzhung kingdom’s capitol was located near the sacred peak of Mt. Kailash, believed to be the axis mundi of the universe, where heaven and earth meet for Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bon. They brought with them a richly developed cultural heritage of this ancient Bon culture reflected in their unique dress.

My wife and I spent several years among the Nyinba, who practice polyandry, the custom where one woman marries all the brothers in a family. “You mean you don’t share your wife with your brother?” I remember Sherzoom asking me incredulous. Traditional shoes are left outside the bedroom door to indicate who is with the wife. The photo above is of the bride’s female relatives who each hold willow branches in their hands. They are re-enacting opera-fashion the wedding of the Chinese Princess Wen Chen Konjo to Srongtsen Gampo in the 8th century. They sing clever riddles like, “What lives at the bottom of the sea and carries his home on his back?” The groomsmen are required to answer their questions in order to win the bride.

The perak, the headdress shaped like a cobra’s head and studded with turquoise, is found throughout Ladakh and the Nyinba are the furthest east community to wear them. Worn now only for ceremonial occasions, these heirloom pieces were traditionally worn by women even in the fields so that they could escape invading armies with the family jewels. Wearing enormous gaus-portable altars of silver and gold stuffed with magical sacred mantras of protection, and large amber necklaces, the women symbolize wealth itself—the wealth of fertility and offspring. The coral is considered heating, feminine and is believed to arouse fertility. The turquoise is considered cooling and masculine and together they balance and protect health. These heirloom pieces are worn and passed down generation to generation. No Tethys Sea (Tibetan plateau) coral exists anymore except in these treasured necklaces. The turquoise is believed to absorb harm-protecting the wearer from misfortune. (Said to come when divine sheep scratch the heavenly cloud floors upon which they graze, causing turquoise to tumble from the sky.) Long necklaces made from shell from the Bay of Bengal dangle down beyond their waists, many wearing cowrie studded belts. Cowrie was once traded throughout Afghanistan and northern India as a form of money. Victorian coins are strung into necklaces,  the women wear handwoven gowns, rainbows decorate the Nyinba women’s shoulders and cuffs-symbolizing them as rainbow body dakinis in living form.

The gowns, dyed from plants, and decorated with tie-dyed suns symbolizing the name of who they are: Nyinba—people of the sunny valley.

Polyandry is dissolving after the Maoist conflict which attracted many of the young single women to join. Sonam,  the oldest groom of this marriage, ran off and left the bride with his younger brothers. Tourism and the death of the salt and wool trade route has changed the ancient triadic economies of the Nyinba in which each brother would contribute to the family pot and share a wife. My wife was amongst the very women in this photograph just last month on a women’s health medical expedition. While their reproductive health challenges continue with the majority of child-bearing women having had at least one infant death, they are still singing their songs, their voices filled with pride, still wearing their unique dress, these rainbow body Bonpo protector dakinis.

No strangers: ancient wisdom in a modern world will show at the Annenberg Space for Photography and runs through February 24, 2013. Learn more about Thomas Kelly's work on his official website.

Lynn Johnson Awarded National Geographic Photographer’s Photographer Award

Just announced days ago was the news that No Strangers featured photographer Lynn Johnson has won the 3rd Annual National Geographic Photographer’s Photographer Award.

The award was presented to her by fellow photog, George Steinmetz who had this to say about this year's winner:

"This photographer is a practitioner of a technique sometimes known as 30-cups-of-coffee-for-a-frame.   For this photographer, the people and their relationships are more important than the pictures, and that is really saying something about those relationships, as the pictures are really extraordinary.  It is this photographer’s humility and delicate respect for the subjects that makes these pictures so outstanding.  For this photographer, still waters run deep."

Big congrats to Lynn!

Above photo by Vincent Musi

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