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

Chris Rainier: Photography is the 'Role of Postcards to the Future'

Here's an exclusive video interview with No Strangers featured photographer Chris Rainier. In the clip, the lensman talks about his passion saying: "My philosophy is to use photography as an art form and also as a social tool to celebrate culture."

Watch a previsouly posted exclusive video interview with fellow featured photographer, Steve McCurry, here.

Hamid Sardar-Afkhami: My Journey As a Photographer...Has Been a Personal Pilgrimage

Hamid Sardar-Afkhami talks about his photography in the above video clip which is part of the 'No Strangers' exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography. Sardar-Afkhami, who is one of the show's featured photographers, says: "My journey as a photographer and as an ethnographer has been a personal pilgrimage. I am in search of the very soul of a people, a place, a culture." Watch the clip to learn more about him and his work in Mongolia.