Modern life, culture, and spirituality
Ethnosphere project; World cultures
NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
24 Jan 2003
- 13.905556 -4.555
- SONY TCD-D7
- Sennheiser MKH 50
- Sennheiser MKH 30
Decoded MS Stereo
Log of DAT #:14A
Date: January 24th, 2003
G = Godfried Peter Agbezudor
IM = Issa Mohammed
R = Roberto Cerea
WD = Wade Davis
CR = Chris Rainier
AC = Alex Chadwick
CJ = Carolyn Jensen
Leo = Leo del Aguila
0:19 WD-Issa, you've had obviously in Mali lot's of anthropologists "study" cultures here, but you've also been a Malian historian in America so you've seen America through the Malian lens. You've obviously seen all the wonderful things about America and enjoyed them, but what have you seen about America that has left you confused, if anything?
0:50 IM-My confusion is due to the fact that how is it that somebody is wealthy? Most people do have what they need but there is a sort of an unhappiness and that you can see it in relationship between husband and wife, you can see it between children and parents, you can see it at work. Most people will tell you "I'm just trying to make the ends meet, I don't like this job", you see. So this is really how for me things are not really fitting in. How is it that somebody has their cars, their homes and things and money, and yet they are not quite happy. There is something that is missing. And that you can see it yourself, Wade, in the new trend, in new spiritual trend, in new take-off where people go and meditate and ponder either because they go back to Christianity, to Judaism, to Islam, or to Hinduism. So there is something that the human soul is seeking.
WD-And that brought you back to Islam?
2:09 IM-Ya, that myself brought me back to Islam because I get carried away a little bit myself and finally I find myself empty inside. It is a little bit like a plant that is drying. You see, there is a lot of water around me, still I was drying inside. So I picked up a copy of the Koran and I started reading it. Then the tears were just coming down and my heart became warm and I said yes, this is what I am missing. You see? So now this Koran around here with the material base that America is providing me I am a complete human being to be able to marry your spiritual side with your material side.
WD-What does this then tell you about the future in a sense of the world as all different cultures are becoming intermingled or intertwined? Often we lament that process because we see it as a process of assimilation, acculturation, we see it as a language loss and so on, but there's also a positive aspect to it, of course, which is that we all hope that we can benefit from the aspects of all the collective imagination as being brought into being by culture.
3:41 IM-Yes. For me the collective imagination, cultures coming together represents unity and understanding for me. And there is a term in business that say a global village, that the world is becoming an economic global village, but we need to act with a global, spiritual, cultural, and social village. I think that is for our benefit as human beings. Provided that we really honor and respect other cultures, that there is no arrogance in terms of this is a supreme culture and this is an indigenous, archaic, you know I'm glad I'm not part of this but I can watch it on Discovery Channel. We have to be able to embrace because every culture has it's own specific set of knowledge, which when shared with humanity becomes beneficial to all. We cross the Sahara desert. We travel with a guide. He didn't go to Harvard, he didn't go to the Sur Bon to study navigation systems. But all our lives are in God's hands and in his hands. So we benefited from that knowledge. And there is also the knowledge that came from the caravan. We benefited from that knowledge the caravan, the salt trade is not just a commercial commodity. It does have spiritual dimensions, cultural dimensions, traditional dimensions, etc. So is every culture that we meet and embrace. We come out of it victorious, more fortified. Just like here, we are the crew here. We cruised Mali for almost two weeks and I am sure that by the time we all get back to America we will have something beautiful to share with our friends at the Starbuck coffee.
6:01 WD-Let's close by asking you the same last question we've asked everybody. What is the loss to humanity when a culture slips away? What is the loss, for example, when we try to explain to someone from a suburban background in America why it matters to them if this knowledge that we've seen in the desert, in the caravan, in the salt caravans, what it matters to them if this knowledge is lost.
6:35 IM-Well, every culture and every group of people, let's take the Eskimos for instance. What kind of knowledge do the Eskimo have that allows them to live in that ice? And yet you saw how much we suffer just by crossing the Sahara in that cold for three to four days. And yet they live in this vast ice land for, I mean for eternity, for their entire life. They were able to adopt, they were able to master that environment and adopt it to their realities someone having a house made of snow. Just when you take a cube of ice in your hands you will drop it. So they have a certain knowledge that if they were gone allows us to master and adopt the ice to our way of living. So is the Tuareg who is in the desert. If he vanishes, then his camel vanishes. Then we as a human being also have lost something. It's like there is a song that says she is gone with a part of me. So this is what's happening. Every culture that we lose will go with a part of us. This is a divine given part of us, you see. And that's why in the Koran it says we created you in a diverse tribe, not that you hate each other or despise each other, but that you love each other and recognize my greatness as your Lord.
8:33-8:49-Ambi. Bird chirping.
10:11 AC-This is an interview with Chris Rainier. We're in Djenne. We're going to talk about the ethnosphere project.
Chris Rainier wants to be referred to as co-producer with Wade of the ethnosphere project at the National Geographic Society.
11:03 AC-How long have you been working on this project?
CR-Well, it's interesting. It's a project that I've had as a life's mission for a very, very long time. Growing up overseas in places like South Africa and Australia and traveling through Africa I've always had a keen interest in culture and as a photographer I've always had a keen interest in putting it on film so Wade and I had something in common and as Wade became explorer in residence he invited me to come into the National Geographic and work on this so the ethnosphere is about a year, a year and a half old.
AC-And you've been working on it in what capacity? What is your role there?
11:50 CR-Well basically there are several things we're doing. Number one is we've created at least a 5 year journey around the world to document and discover the great stories and celebrations of culture so I'm in the process of collaborating all those explorations with Wade as well as also we're building a website, and it's sort of a further elaboration of a website called cultures on the edge that I started several years ago. And one of the most important things that I want to do with the ethnosphere project is not only document the great stories, photograph them, but have an archive on the internet where people can come to, hear the interviews, have these great experiences, as well look at the writings, the interviews of the indigenous people. For so long Western people have been traveling around the world and interpreting, either through the word or visually, indigenous cultures. And I think it's so important as we move into the 21st century now is to allow the peoples of the world to share their story. So a very, very important component of the ethnosphere project and within that the website is opening up a forum for indigenous cultures to share their stories and share their vision about their own culture.
AC-Tell me how you would define the ethnosphere.
13:36 CR-It's sort of an umbrella over the concept of culture and where is culture at the beginning of the 21st century and as we look over our shoulder at the last century sort of almost for the last time and boldly stepped into this world of modern technology and this world of amazing advances in health and science and education where does the culture of today stand? Where does the indigenous culture stand? And for me it's not only identifying the cultures that are endangered, the cultures that are going extinct, the cultures that are disappearing before our very eyes, but also celebrating in the cultures that sometimes withstand the onslaught of technology, and also are in the middle of the renaissance. For example in the Polynesian area there's an absolute celebration in their roots, in their history, in their culture, and it's expanding. It's as if it got stretched like a rubber band and that's as far as it could go. The elders said to the young children if you don't carry on the tradition it will die and it's actually coming back in a very powerful way. So we want to celebrate those examples where culture is expanding. And as you drove through Mopti yesterday and as you experienced this place that has sort of been pulsing with that kind of life for hundreds of years, I felt that no other place is going to change the richness and the spirit of a place like Africa.
AC-Still you go to a place like the salt mine and in your own experience you've been there 5 times in the last five years?
15:33 CR-Well over a period of years five times.
AC-Five times. You find that experience pretty dramatically changed don't you? Compared to the number of caravans then and what you see now?
15:47 CR-Indeed have dropped and so it's an interesting thing to look at, but I think that it's very, we must pause to get the whole story. We blasted through that area fairly quickly. Driving up there, interviewing a few people. And for me I want to continue to go back, interviewing people, peeling away at the layers till I get to the real bottom of the issue here. Is it dying, is it transforming, is it in the middle of a crises as the vehicles come in? I had one person that Wade and I were talking to that in his mind the vehicles will come and eventually flood the market and then the price will drop so much that they won't be able to afford to continue to go up there and then the camels will continue. So for me to take a slice of time and make a judgment on it it's very important for me to pause and see where it's going. And it may die. It may end. But that's all a part of cultures transforming.
AC-You've spent a lot of time in New Guinea. When you're out in these societies perhaps for weeks on end, months
AC-And you're out there, how do you incorporate that into the life that you lead when you're back in the west?
17:30 CR-Well, whenever people ask me how do you get these little windows of culture, how do you take these photographs? I like to say it's time. I give myself the gift of time. And it's only when one really steps out of one's own culture and goes through that sort of transition, letting go of some of the static and business we have in the west, especially now with the internet where we're all so addicted to it, and sort of detox from that experience, spend several weeks going through that transition and truly stepping in to a culture. And that's why I would stay in New Guinea for two, three months at a time, really dig deeper, go beyond the clichés, go beyond the stereotypes and really try and humble myself, really try and discover as much as possible, as a westerner, and then put it on film. And that's very important for me in terms¿
18:58 CR-Indeed it's so important for me to give myself the gift of time to spend with a culture and sort of go past all of the influence that I bring from the west and keeping in communication with the internet or whatever and truly step into the culture and slow down enough to attention to the daily rhythms. I'll go into places sometimes and spend a week, 10 days before I even take the camera out, building up that level of trust. As we experienced in our journey through the desert, the turning point for our relationship with the rest of the people from Mali was us all sitting around the fireplace and having an opportunity for sharing the stories and having them feel free to ask the questions and then there was a shift, there was a turn. So I try to create that as much as possible. And then the camera comes out and then the portraits begin and then the experience of not taking photographs that merely bounce across the surface, but indeed go beyond the stereotype. And I try to go beyond the surface of who people are and where they live.
AC-You had a remarkable experience as a young man in your formative years you were assistant to Ansel Adams for a period of five years. He is perhaps the most famous landscape photographer of the 20th century, certainly American, but you don't work in landscapes, or at least primarily in landscapes, but in people. I wonder about his influence on your work and if that. I mean, you distinctly do not work on landscapes but rather among people.
20:56 CR-Well it's interesting. I came to his sphere with a love of culture and a love of documenting cultures and was profoundly moved by his work of art, his work as a message of conservation. And those five years that I worked for him I could clearly see indeed how photography could be used as a social tool, how photography could be used to influence people to preserve a place. So I've used that sense of understanding to try and be a part of a process of preserving culture and when I take a successful image for me the ingredients for that is a powerful landscape with someone present in it and for me a portrait not only speaks of who that person is but where they come from, their environment. So for me a photograph has to have not only an expression, for example this morning me sitting on the rooftop with Issa, it was not only Issa being there and talking about Islam, but it was the backdrop of this amazing mosque. And then the other thing I profoundly learned from Ansel Adams was picking that moment where the magic happens. That light sweeps across him and we saw that fantastic sort of beam of light coming up as the sun rose and he was lit up in this bright white sunshine and he was lit up in this adobe mosque behind him. And that to me was the ingredients of culture the landscape of the mosque behind, and the lighting falling on him.
22:57 AC-Uh, I have to ask about, and this is not a, I'm not critical in any of my questions, I'm asking you to explain things. You've talked a lot about trying not to be romantic in your approach here, but I notice when you take a picture of the mosque you're careful not to include telephone lines, things that suggest modern times and perhaps the real context of the place today.
23:27 CR-Very good question and I'm often sort of categorized maybe as a romantic with my photographs, but very much like Edward Curtis of the early 20th century. It is those images of the American Indian which stand out as one of the great documentations of a culture that has transformed and certainly in a lot of their traditions no longer exist. And at the very least I hope that my images serve as documentation of many cultures that are passing so very quickly. And so yes I tend to isolate some of the things that show modern technology, or whatever, but I think that we're in a desperate race to preserve and certainly this is what we're trying to do with the ethnosphere project, preserve what last traditions still lye on the planet before they are changed. We'll have ample time, 20, 30, 40 years into the future to show the wonderful combination of technology and culture, but what a privilege it is in the beginning of the 21st century to journey with the camels in the Sahara desert to the ancient salt mine, much like and exactly like it was in the middle of the 12th century. And for all of us we're in this amazing crossroads in human evolution what we label as stone-age people, and yet there are jets screaming over the island of New Guinea on their way to Tokyo. Or I even noticed the other day as we were pausing for a moment coming down with the camel caravan there was a jet trail above me. And that is such a privilege in the beginning of the 21st century to know that there are these cultures that exist beyond the edge of the frayed map and still exist in the way that they have for thousands of years.
AC-Someone's still walking across that desert with a camel and a load of salt.
25:39 CR-Yes. And that is just such a wonderful experience to see and be humbled by.
Waiting to begin the call to prayer. Leo says recording levels are the same.
45:53 FX. Call to prayer begins, but is drowned by motor sound.
46:12-58:49-FX. Call to prayer, (motor still present in background but less prominent).
58:50-1:07:19-Ambi. Surroundings of mosque.
1:08:26 Wade tells someone what they are doing around the mosque.
1:09:19-They say they are really happy to see you in Djenne here.
The Imam speaking French.
1:09:28-He say if you don't need the people you don't come to find him.
-He say if you need to you can also be a Muslim also.
-They say they need to also you can go inside the mosque to go pray always.
-He say you have a friend who was in the (unintelligible mosque).
1:10:09 WD-Oh, thank you, thank the Imam so much. Our friend Issa Mohammed is our guide and friend traveling all around Mali and
1:10:39 translator-He says he also takes many pictures
He said they already have pictures here.
WD-Oh, well he's a very true and pure hearted Muslim and throughout the deserts and Taoudenni he's been teaching us every day about the Koran.
1:11:09 WD-And the most important thing is that he has taught us what we already knew that Islam is a great religion of ethics and peace and joy for humanity. Comprehend?
French-lots of people thanking each other.