Fisher: Despite the visual change, in that many people now wear Western clothing, the underlying values and beliefs often remain fairly intact. But this may not last for much longer, which is why so many African elders welcome our efforts to document the ceremonies for future generations.
How do you work as a team and how have you managed to gain access to the most intimate ceremonies in Africa, including male initiations, where typically women are not allowed?
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Fisher: We always make the approach with respect and humility through the proper channels. Usually this means first meeting with the elders, who are usually men. Once they know who we are and what we are trying to do they open the way for us. The men make it possible for us to attend male ceremonies.
Beckwith: Usually we have no problem attending female ceremonies. We have found we have much in common with the women of Africa. We have a deep respect of their culture and way of life and participate as much as possible. In Niger, Wodaabe women asked if they could transform us to look more attractive and dressed us up in embroidered tunics and wrappers and painted delicate designs on our faces.
Fisher: We work well together. We decided long ago to share the credit for any photographic images we make when we're working together. That way we get our egos out of the way. In addition to being a photographic team, we sometimes specialise in different fields. I tend to focus on jewelry and body adornment and have designed jewelry for years. Carol shoots video and she has an amazing collection of footage of ceremonies as well as making drawings in the field, which we use in our books. Above all, we share a deep interest in everything we jointly do, working as a creative team with a passion for the ancient cultures of Africa.
You've taken a lot from Africa. What did you give back?
Beckwith: We believe in the African concept of reciprocityas a thank you for what we've been given, we've helped build schools, organize the digging of wells, and develop craft initiatives to help people during periods of drought. A portion of our book royalties goes toward helping fund these projects.
Fisher: We do realize that, while it is important to preserve tradition, people also want to improve their lives. Education is one of the best ways to do this.
Beckwith: We're touched to find that Africans hold a high respect for their cultures and really do appreciate our documentation of their traditional ways. People want their stories to be told, both for future generations of their children as well as the outside world.
Fisher: We've also helped Africa by telling a different side of their story. So much of what is published about Africa in the developed world is negative about the continent. We've always tried to show the extraordinary diversity, beauty, and dignity of the continent. Through our books and lectures we tell people about Africa's core values; respect for their elders, the benefit of growing up as part of a community, the value of rites of passage that help an individual move from one stage of life to another, the importance of living in harmony with nature and one's own spirit world.
Beckwith: When we look at the world today we feel that we could all benefit by going back to Africa to learn the fundamentals of what it means to be a human being.
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