Ancient and Modern Tattoos Celebrated in Photography Book

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As we enter and tumble into the 21st century, we're at a point in human evolution where traditional cultures pushed by the rough edge of modernity are really stepping back into their own traditions … Many traditional cultures are stepping back into their traditions, embracing their belief systems, and one of the manifestations of that is body marking—Maoris in New Zealand doing the full facial mokos, tribes of West Africa doing scarification. It's exciting to see.

At the same time, I think there is a whole sector of modern society—not just youth, but across all sorts of generations, genders, ethnic backgrounds—people in search of identity, people in search of meaning, people in search of ritual. Hence, a huge explosion of tribal tattooing, body marking—what's called the "modern primitive" movement within tattooing. I think there's a correlation because if you step back and look at it, it's the larger picture of mankind wanting identity, wanting a sense of place, a sense of ritual, and a sense of culture within their community. And there, in an ethnographic sense, I believe is the correlation between ancient and modern.

Body markings can be vibrant and colorful. Why have you decided to photograph in black and white?

I was [Ansel Adam's last] photographic assistant in the early 1980s, so I have a little bit of a bias to black and white. But above and beyond that, for me, color can sometimes get very seductive. You look at the color as content, it becomes the message.

For me, I wanted to go beyond that, beyond cultural stereotypes and go into a sociological, spiritual level, where you're dealing with a sense of being there, a sense of cultural spiritualism.

A very well known photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, once said he was looking for the equivalences. In other words, I'm trying to have you look at the image and hopefully have an equivalent emotional response that I did to that experience. So when you look at these images, hopefully you get that sense of place, that sense of culture, but also that sense of cultural spiritualism. I think that's best done in black and white.

They say a picture is worth one thousand words. In less than one thousand words, what do your pictures say?

For me, what I'm really trying to do, like I often say, is document a part of our primordial past, in the present, for future generations.

One of the main things I'm doing is documenting culture at the beginning of the 21st century. We live at this amazing crossroads of human evolution where literally beyond the frayed edge of maps in New Guinea there are tribes that still have not seen white people. And yet, we have the latest technology with monks using cell phones in Tibet. There's a cybercafé in Timbuktu.

We live in a spectrum of possibilities, and I think it's an exciting time to document ancient cultures dealing with modernity and modern cultures dealing with their ancient roots. I wanted to do a book that visually spoke to this, and I thought what more visible, visual way than the way we mark our bodies.

I think across the spectrum from mummies that they have found that pop out of Tyrolean glaciers in Europe, or the ice mummy in Peru, to the pharaohs, to contemporary culture, man has marked his body as a form of initiation and ritual. I really wanted to honor that, and to state that that's one of the most visible manifestations of who we are and what we believe in.

Editors Note: Chris Rainier is a National Geographic Society photographer and co-director of the Society's Ethnosphere Project, a series of expeditions over the next five years to study the web of cultural diversity around the Earth. Rainier and anthropologist Wade Davis, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, also co-head the National Geographic Cultures Initiative.

See more of Chris Rainier's photographs on West African Voodoo Dancing Masks, Voodoo Ceremonies, and Timbuktu.

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