Chris Rainier

Chris Rainier

This conversation was first seen in the August/September, 1998 issue of Camera Arts magazine. Find out more about Camera Arts magazine at

Chris Rainier's photographs have appeared in numerous international publications including, Life, Time, and National Geographic and publications of the United Nations, Amnesty International, and the International Red Cross. His work for editorial magazines has allowed him to cover famines in Ethiopia and Sudan, and conflicts in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Somalia, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. Rainier is the recipient of five National Press Association Picture of the Year awards for his continued documentation of disappearing tribes of the world. He is also one of the first recipients of the Alfred Eisenstadt Awards. His first book Keepers of the Spirit was chosen as the International Golden Light award for Photographic Book of the Year in 1994. With numerous one man shows to his credit, his photographs reside in major collections throughout the world including The International Center for Photography, the Bibliotheque Nationale, The George Eastman House, and the Smithsonian. He lectures and teaches seminars on the use of photography as a social tool internationally. His new book Where Masks Still Dance: New Guinea has been released in conjunction with a World Museum exhibition touring internationally. Rainier is presently working on a book on traditional tattooing and scarification in both traditional and contemporary culture.

John Paul Caponigro I ask everyone this because the poll generated is quite interesting. How did you become involved in photography?

Chris Rainier Growing up overseas, my father was South African who's naturalized to a Canadian now. We hit the road when I was young and haven't stopped. We moved when I was two years old from Canada to Australia. We lived in Australia, lived in Africa, lived in Europe, and so saw this kind of thing from a very early age, and had a sensibility there of curiosity and exoticness. I asked why these people were different from us, my parents. I think being a visual person the natural evolution was to try and put it on film. So I got my first camera when I was 11 or 12. Dad had a super 8 camera and he got me a little Kodak Brownie insta-matic. And I never stopped. I just really enjoyed it. At one point or another, when one starts asking the question of how are you going to make a living and what the next step is, I wanted to travel. I thought put the two together and entertained the idea of trying to be a National Geographic photographer. Then realized that I really wanted to address things on a deeper level. Ask a different type of question - less travelogue and more of who are we, who are these people, and what context are we in on this planet. I always knew that I wanted to be involved in seeing and understanding from seeing around the world. Photography is a perfect way to do that.

JPC For many it seems like where you've come to is a long way from Ansel, but it sounds in that whole scheme of things that Ansel was just a stop along the way.

CR Absolutely, and I always knew it would be. I really didn't expect to work for Ansel. I took his workshop and really enjoyed it. What I enjoyed was that it was photography with a social conscience. I think that I had always had the understanding that art had some sort of deeper meaning, addressed the big questions in life. I had gotten that at an early age because of my family background with art. My great aunt was a real influence on me, she was an artist. But working with Ansel, what happened there was, "Oh, I could use photography as a social tool." His use of photography for environmental issues was phenomenal. I think that's the context that working with Ansel gave me on a certain level, and on another level the black and white medium, and then on another level was that sense of spiritualism that comes from his work and your father's work and a number of other artists. I met Linda Connor at that particular time and was profoundly touched by her work.

JPC Photography is an extremely scientific medium. It's an interesting notion to try and record spiritual energy in photographic media. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how that's possible and what kind of object is ultimately created.

CR I think the word metaphor keeps coming up. I always loved Alfred Steiglitz's equivalencie, trying to express an equivalent kind of emotion. I think this is really what I'm trying to do with the work from New Guinea or other sacred places. It's not a direct documentation of that place. We've seen a thousand images of the pyramids and thousand images of masks from New Guinea. But I'm trying to create that sense of the spiritual reason why these places or these masks exist. You're just setting up conduits. It's like electrical wire. You link enough people from that to an image on the wall and they get it. Does that make any sense?

JPC Absolutely. The notion of imbuing matter with spirit, at least a certain quality and amount of energy, is most curious. Specifically how does one get that kind energy to coalesce in an object? And is it merely a signifier that points the way towards something else, a vocabulary, or is it an actual energy that occupies that environment?

CR And there are may be questions that we should never find the answers to. You know, in a world that quantifies everything. And this is what I wrote about in one of those essays in the New Guinea book. I hiked through this valley for a couple of weeks, and went through this valley of leeches, and got to the edge of this community, and this valley where this community lived, and the warriors met me - they knew that I was coming - and they said, "No. We are not going to let you in. We're not allowed to let you in." I was upset. I was frustrated. I had spent all that time and energy and money to get there. And then after a day or so of spending time on the outer perimeter of this valley with the warriors who were very kind to show me around on the fringes, I got it. It's good to know that there are places that are untouched, unmapped, not understood, and not quantified because then it still allows us to have the concept of the mystery of life. Once science takes over it quantifies everything, then we're done for.

CR I'm afraid of running out of time on this planet. I'm also really trying to be careful not to deal with stereotypes. I was most concerned that I didn't perpetuate the myth about the savage cannibal. In part that's why I didn't go in the direction of National Geographic. They have a colonial approach to the exotic. I didn't want to get into that. I wanted to try to be as honest about a culture as possible, which is never entirely possible, we always have our own cultural bias.

JPC Difficult for anyone in any culture to look into another culture without imposing one's own biases or prejudices. How do you prepare for a particular sight? There's research obviously. But I wonder if you don't approach it with an innocent eye first.

CR Absolutely. It's very important for me not to intellectualize too much. The New Guinea book was about learning just enough to get me to the door and then visually discovering things, being attracted to them, putting them on film, and trying to get the emotional response that I had at that particular time across in the image. Then what I would do is come back and read about them. Well what's the purpose? What are the gods? What are the spirits that are all here? Then I could do them justice in the captions in the book. But, yeah, it's very dangerous.

JPC Research happens after the photograph? Do you then go back into the field?

CR A combination of both. For example, these kinds of poles. (We are sitting in the Rockefeller wing of the Met surrounded by New Guinea totem poles.) I came back. I was so curious about them. I couldn't get a straight answer when I was with the indigenous people. So I came back, read about it, and went back again and again. The wrong thing that happens, in my mind, is that you're so prepped on western scientific explanations for things that you'll miss the point completely.

JPC Ask the question frame an answer.

CR Right. And what I've learned along the way is you have to ask the right question to get the right answer. Often as westerners we go in asking western questions and maybe that's not the question to be asked. You need to be asking the question in a New Guinea sense. In a sense of the relevancy of their culture not the relevancy of what we think it is. There's a big difference.

JPC How do you, a westerner, find that point of view? It's probably impossible to ultimately say, "Yes you've entered into the spirit of another culture."

CR Peter Mathesson wrote a book called the Nine Headed Dragon. It's his studies as a Zen Buddhist. There's one little story I loved. He wrote for years and years he tried to be a Japanese Zen Buddhist. He was frustrated by his inability and one day this monk whacked him on the back, which they do with sticks, and he got it. He's an American Zen Buddhist. He can never become Japanese. I can never become part of their culture. The best I can do is have my interpretation as a westerner, with all my sensibilities, of their culture. I could never step into the shoes of these people, maybe that's the wrong phrase as most of the people I photograph never wear shoes, so let's say enter the minds of these people and take photographs. This is what's going on in contemporary anthropology, trying to empower indigenous people to tell their own stories and get a more accurate story to tell other cultures.

JPC Sounds like my interviews. I understand exactly what you're saying.

CR It's presumptuous of me to document this culture and call it a documentation. It isn't a documentation, it is an interpretation of their culture. It comes down to semantics on some levels, but anthropologists have criticized my photographs and said this isn't anthropology. Touché, you're right. It isn't anthropology and I never claimed it to be. It is my interpretation of their culture, and their spiritual culture, as seen by a westerner - nothing more, nothing less. If you like it, if you feel it has some sort of accuracy, well then I'm flattered. But I'll be the first to admit in a panel of anthropologists I'm the least qualified. I don't know what's going on. It's a visual reference point for me and then I get enough information put down in the book or the exhibit to try and be accurate about the caption notes but much beyond that ...

JPC The outsider's point of view often yields important revelations too, revelations different from those who are immersed are able to provide. As a witness you may be able to serve as bridge in a way that no amount of scientific information could.

CR Absolutely, and if I may use your father's stonehenge images, that to me is stonehenge far more than any other documentary, with tons of archeological information or some stock image of sunrise coming up over stonehenge. He, in my sense, captured the essence of what that place is all about. And to me that is far more accurate than anything else. And that's what I hope to do with sacred places, to really ask, "What is the purpose of this?" We can look at it and yes it's used in a village for this, but also for a higher purpose, and that is connecting it to the larger question. That's a pretty lofty, verging on presumptuous, task to take on but ...

JPC But, if we didn't take it on where would we be?

CR Where would we be? That's the great thing for me about artists, they ask the questions that have never been asked before. Ansel told me the great story about Edwin Land and his daughter who was like 4 years old. He took a picture and the daughter said, "Daddy why can't I see the picture right now?" Land said, "I don't see why not. Let me get into the lab and I'll get back to you." And he created Polaroid.

JPC That's a terrific story.

So where do you feel the work that you're producing falls? It's poetic and scientific, spiritual and material. There's personal influence, expression, and a social influence, documentation. It's a curious hybrid

CR It is. And it's a documentation very different from others, I want it to be know that I feel this is an interpretation because I think there is an argument that hasn't quite found it's voice yet. It has in small circles. but when we look at television and we look at photographs we believe that that is reality and it isn't. It's only an interpretation. In New Guinea the number one TV program is Bay Watch. So that's their anthropological documentation of our culture. But is that real?

So yes in one sense this is documentation and I hope it has value in preserving what's left. The minute an indigenous culture becomes aware of its value to other cultures it shifts its tone and its perspective. Then they become aware that there's a market out there. The village that does all of these totem poles now, they're cranking them out for museums. There are museums lined around the block wanting to buy these and they're back ordered about three years. They've got 30 guys doing these incredible poles. Yes, they still worship them. Yes, they weren't allowed to take them out of the hut for me to photograph them because the spirits would get angry. But it's changed perspective. It's now for the market. So I think that shifts things. I really do want to continue to try and do a documentation but it is an interpretation, only an interpretation, of a culture. My mission is a race against time.

JPC Often work is appreciated after a culture is gone. I wonder if that's not part of exoticism, it's safe and no longer inconvenient to appreciate it once it's gone. The PBS series Civilization finished on an interesting note describing currently vanishing cultures as "rainforests of the spirit." In Keepers of the Spirit you quoted Oren Lyons, "Can we survive another 500 hundred years of sustainable development? I don't think so. ... We must join hands with the rest of creation speaking of common sense, responsibility, brotherhood. Only as true partners can we survive." I think there might be growing sensibility that our ecological concerns might also extend to indigenous cultures that are intimately connected with the land. One can't separate Aboriginal fires from Australian ecosystems. It's not simply natural wonders and all the scientific information they might hold but also these cultural wonders that might be worth preserving.

CR Absolutely. I think that because of little aberrations in the evolution of modern culture, they're going to be able to hold onto their land and cultural beliefs. You take them out of that context and they've lost their roots, they have lost their sense of being nourished. That's exactly what we've lost. Look at this city, it's a prime example of being so disconnected from our sense of order and our sense of purpose. We're like fish out of water. You put a lot of the people in the city back into an environment that makes them at first very uncomfortable, then keep them there long enough, then they'd start growing roots back into a place that they know exists within them that feels really wonderful. I think that is so prevalent. What's going on in New Guinea in terms of deforestation and being seduced by a lot of Malaysian and Japanese timber companies that come in and bribe the people and cut down their forest. Then they head off to the city. The gang scenarios going on in Port Morisbee and a couple of the other cities in New Guinea are really dangerous. Alcoholism is becoming very prevalent. All the typical third world modern city syndromes. And it's a direct correlation to being disconnected from their soul and purpose.

What is wonderful, and this is the project I'm working on now, tattooing is the thread, is that there's a real renaissance going on in indigenous cultures now. In New Zealand young men are tattooing their faces. In American Somoa there's a lot of the tattooing. In West Africa the act of scarification had died out and it's begun again. There's a tremendous amount simultaneously going on around the world, and unrelated to each other. At this moment in evolution a lot of indigenous cultures are stepping back into tradition. I think what's really exciting is seeing that there's something going on. Even with contemporary culture, there's something going on with all of this piercing and scarring and tattooing. I think it's tribal, I really do. I think as this world gets more and more information connected and out of control, people are trying to identify with a family or tribe. I haven't quite evolved the hypothesis for it but there's something going on and I'm exploring it. It's an exciting time for indigenous cultures. There are a lot of indigenous cultures now that are becoming empowered, some even connecting on the internet and putting up homepages and talking. It's wild! Using the new technology to preserve the old.

JPC Interesting, so you see hope and even continuance?

CR You know I really do. And there are many examples of where they're being overrun. But there's power in information and there are enough organizations like Cultural Survival, Conservation International, Shaman Pharmaceutical. Shaman Pharmaceutical is actually going into the forest and documenting what the shamans are using but they are also linking up the shamans so they can talk to each other. So there are shamans in Borneo talking to shamans in the Amazon, "Hey what kind of leaves do you use?" I think technology is being used in a constructive way to help people preserve their cultures.

JPC Isn't that great.

CR And I have hope, I really do have hope. There's something about the human spirit that has to express itself. I see it in New Guinea, there's a pride, especially when they see a lot of people traveling, tourists coming to their place. They go, "We are special. I want to hold onto this." People often ask me about tourism, "You're going to overrun them if you do a book on New Guinea." But I'd rather see a guy who has a choice between being forced to move to the city to get a job at a gas station and lose his culture or if I come into the village and I pay him to get dressed up in his costume, or a group of tourists come in and ask him to perform his rituals. He then gets the message that his culture has a lot of value to other people, as well as he makes an income. I think that's a good thing. Now the key is don't make it like Tahiti and the hula hula skirts, the Disneyland of it. But if there is a sensible tourism in the 21 century, we can preserve these cultures.

JPC Authentic ecotourism in the 21st century? Sounds noble. But I'll try and avoid that word. As long as it doesn't intrude on the sacred aspect of their cultures, as long as they are able to live in an energetic way it could certainly provide continuance and affirmation of their value. Which I think is sorely needed. That's terrific to hear.

I had heard a story about some of the Aborigine tribes deciding not to have children because we'd taken the earth past a point of no return ecologically.

CR And I think that is very definitely true in some areas or in some cultures. I was just down in Brazil, after we saw each other in Maine, there were once over 1,000 tribes and now there are only 80. The damage has been done. The vast majority has been done. Look at the American Indian, the North American Indian. There is no question the travesty of first world countries on third world countries and colonial consuming of land and culture around the world has done most of the damage that it can possibly do. But, I think in the last part of 20th century there's enough of a shift going on, and part of it is through global communication and awareness and education, that I think there is hope. There is a chance that the shift will go far enough that the people themselves creating this are going to be empowered enough to go, "No! You can't do that anymore!" And this is what's going on in New Guinea. I only got permission to do that book by the New Guinea government, they wouldn't even let me in unless I clearly stated to them that this documentation would go back to the people of New Guinea and I would make every effort to try disseminate the value of their culture around the world through my documentation. Because they're seeing a lot drained out of their country, that a lot of third world countries (and I use that like the word primitive very loosely) going, "No. That time is over." Like the French were penalized in the South Pacific for doing their nuclear tests. The Polynesians went, "Please. Stop that. You could have done that twenty years ago but we are aware of what's going on now." I think that shift has turned in a really good way and will continue to solidify.

JPC And yet the stakes have never been higher, we've never had more opportunity, and it's never been more important that we make the most of it.

CR I in my lowest moments ask "How?" In Brazil I was down there at a critical time documenting this little park that the Brazilian government had set up. It was about 1,000 square miles and basically no one is allowed to go in without permission from the Indians. I got permission to go in and it was like the garden of Eden. It was incredible. A four hour flight out of there and I was in San Paul, 21 million people and expected to double within 10 years.

JPC One set of statistics projects a global population of 40 billion by the year 2030.

CR This is sustainable? What is sustainable? What is privilege? What is a necessity? What is just barely living?

JPC It's scary. I'm thinking of a difference between a endangered species and endangered cultures. The elimination of a few key species will actual break the chain of the natural cycle that we're dependent on. I don't think that we consider that we might also be breaking a cultural cycle if we let these ways of life disappear. Preservation is problematic, even cultures evolve, some become extinct. But now we're in control not nature. If these cultures are lost or changed before their times I think we will be facing a kind of spiritual impoverishment.

CR How do you put a value on art? How do you put a value on a little kid who comes wandering through here, and has a shift in his perspective, and is profoundly affected, and becomes the next Picasso or the next President of the United States. It's these things you can't put quantitative values on. You can't do that with art, you can't do that with indigenous cultures. It's my belief that it is indigenous cultures that still have family values and a sense of connection between them, the land, and the spiritual connection of all things. That is the greatest gift they can give to us. There are some gifts that we can give to them - certainly medicine and technology to preserve their culture, video or email or the internet. What they need to give to us is a sense of what we have already lost. I think they are really our last chance to reconnect. I think people are appreciating these kind of cultures more and more because they see the differences - what we don't have and what they do. Maybe we did take a wrong route back several hundred years ago.

JPC Is there anything we haven't touched on that you'd like to address?

CR I'd like to touch upon that thing that completes the circle. That's the documentation of some of these emotional social issues in the world and how it's for me an important necessity, as much as doing sacred places. It is the yin and yang, the extreme corners of human experience from the Garden of Eden, still left on the planet, to the Dante's Inferno of places like Sarajevo, Rwanda, or Chechnya for here lies the mysteries of man's inner light as well as his inner darkness. This truly makes this work complete. As a photographer I'm curious to go into these extreme corners and put them on film.

JPC Often it is those trials which test one's faith.

I eavesdropped on your talk at Photo Plus last fall. You were recounting a story of holding a child in your arms in the back of a truck. That was a moving story. Tell me the story again.

CR That's actually the image I'd like to send along. It would go well in the magazine and it expresses stepping into the roles of participant and observer, something I think every photographer must do. It was a powerful turning point in my career.

Basically we were driving along at the height of the famine in Somalia in 1992 and we saw this man under a building. We drove over and got out. I knew he was going to reach out for help and I got my camera ready. And indeed he reached out of the shadow and into the light, reaching for the light so to speak. I clicked the shutter. Beside him were the wrapped up cloths of several of his children and his wife. There was his last remaining child, barely alive. So we helped him into the back of the truck and put the son into his arms. The man was not doing very well so I gave him some water. I put my camera down and said I would hold his son. While he was holding onto the water his son died in my arms. It was really a powerful experience of no longer looking through the lens, almost in abstract observation, but I was participating. It was passageway I passed through and never could return. It was turning point in my life and my career, to suddenly realize my role and responsibility which I must continue to have.

JPC This is a very hard line for documentary photographers. They are privileged to be able to witness without having to become a participant. Taking part in the event makes the whole thing dicier. In combat if they act the gun will be pointed at them. Certainly this is not that but you have been in these situations and I wonder where you draw the line.

CR It's very hard. It's a very blurry line. We're always told to be objective. Well there is no such thing as objective. There is no such thing. We all have an opinion. As visual storytellers we must form opinions therefore things become subjective and the more intense they become they become extraordinarily subjective. I think the powerful images in documentary and photojournalism, if not in other areas of our field, are the ones where people have taken a stance and made a subjective opinion.