"The Way We Are Now," began with a photo I saw in an exhibition taken in 1908 by British anthropologist Thomas Whiffen. It shows a group of Okaina girls in the Colombian Amazon standing in a line with their bodies painted (below).
- In spite of cameras becoming ever more ubiquitous, this photo over a hundred years old appeared to be the last visual evidence of an art that disappeared completely over the following years. This struck me as extremely sad and I felt an urgency to investigate to what extent body and face-painting does or doesn't still go on throughout Colombia's indigenous tribes today, and create a visual record before it is all gone forever.
My hope was to capture an honest document of how things are now, avoiding romanticism and not omitting the digital watches, wellington boots and Barcelona FC football shirts. I wanted to capture my subjects in a dignified way, rather than in the anthropological way in which the indigenous are typically portrayed, so that in 100 years time there exists a high quality record of how things were.
Colombia is a large country, the size of France and Spain put together, and 65% of it's surface area is rainforest comprising a large part of the Amazon jungle. However, different to it's Amazonian neighbours, Colombia has been embroiled in an internal conflict for nearly five decades, which has led it's indigenous groups down an accelerated evolutionary path, albeit for the worse. With the guerrilla tending to reside in the jungle and typically being quite violent towards indigenous tribes, these people have suffered a whole host of traumas over the years and in the process have suffered a rapid loss of their culture.
Whereas for example in Brazil photographers have been able to jump on a boat-plane out to the middle of the jungle to photograph remote communities without any serious safety concerns, in Colombia the only photographers in the jungle for the last few decades have been war correspondants who have very different photographic agendas to a portrait photographer. So whilst Colombia's indigenous people have probably undergone much more rapid change than their neighbours, at the same time these changes have been barely recorded, leaving a large hole in the country's visual history.
On the one hand this project is a celebration of the beauty of the ancestral arts which have been lucky enough to survive, but on the other hand it is perhaps the dismantling of the romantic visions that the world has of indigenous people, as "innocent" and "untouched by us". It provokes us to wonder that if even the remotest tribes in the Amazon jungle are ceding readily to western culture, including those who were unknown to the outside world until 1988, such as the Nukak, then surely there is little hope that any tribe on the planet can protect it's culture.
Nowadays almost all indigenous people in the Colombian jungle, no matter how remote, wear western clothes and trainers, cheap copies of designer brands such as Nike, Diesel, Gucci, Prada, Armani, most likely all made in China, and I feel strongly that what you see here is a proxy for how communities are evolving around the world in general. It is a generic story of cultural change, of globalisation, of homogenisation. Everywhere different peoples seem to be slowly turning away from their traditional ways of dressing in favour of wearing the same copies of the same western labels. It is an apparently unstoppable trend towards global uniformity, and one imagines that at this rate soon the Masai Mara in Kenya, the Nukak in Colombia, and the Khampas in Tibet are all going to end up looking the same.
To realise the project I travelled solo with 45 kilos of camera equipment. All photos are shot on location with natural light.
- Piers Calvert