Wilfred Thesiger

by Alexander Maitland
ISBN: 0002572249

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A Review of: Wilfred Thesiger: A Life in Pictures
by Christopher Ondaatje

Some day soon someone will write the definitive biography of Sir Wilfred Thesiger, without doubt the twentieth century's greatest traveller and explorer-but also a complicated man and an anachronism. Hopefully this will be done by Alexander Maitland, Thesiger's friend and authorised biographer. But this book is not that biography. Instead Alexander Maitland has produced a pictorial volume celebrating Thesiger's achievements and introducing nearly two hundred of his unique photographs, some of them not published before. It is a pleasing retrospective with an outstanding introduction by the author. But there is more to Thesiger than this slender book can possibly reveal.
Wilfred Thesiger was born in 1910 at the original British Legation in Addis Ababa. He spent his early years in what was then Abyssinia. Returning to England he was first educated at St. Aubyns (where he was sadistically beaten by the school's new headmaster R.C.V. Lang), then at Eton and Oxford, before joining the Sudan political service in 1935. He served during the Second World War in Abyssinia, the Middle East and North Africa. It was at Eton that Thesiger discovered T.E. Lawrence's Revolt in the Desert, the popular abridgement of Lawrence's privately printed Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Both books were to introduce him to an involvement with Arabia which permanently altered and shaped his life.
In 1933, when he was only twenty-three, Thesiger was the first European to cross the forbidden interior of Aussa in Danakil country in order to discover how and where the Awash river ended. Thereafter Thesiger twice crossed the Empty Quarter in Arabia (dismissed by Lawrence in 1929 as uncrossable), and explored the interior of Oman. For eight years in 1950 he lived in Southern Iraq with the Marsh Arabs, travelling also in Kurdistan, Morocco and the Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges in western Asia. Later, from 1978 onwards, Thesiger spent most of his time with the Samburu tribes in Northern Kenya, before returning to England in 1994. He died in Surrey in August 2003. He never married.
The greater part of Maitland's treatise on Thesiger is of the explorer's photography. Using only a damaged Kodak box camera, discarded by his father, he took some excellent photographs of the Danakil and their country. Then in 1933 or 1934 he bought his first Leica 35mm to replace the defective box camera. Using the Leica, Maitland write, "he took some fine photographs in the Sudan, but by far the greatest majority of his best photographs were taken in Arabia, Iraq and western Asia after the war. In 1938 Thesiger had not yet acquired the techniques which he exploited so successfully in later years: getting as close as possible to subjects for intimate portraiture, either kneeling or squatting down to photograph people or objects at an upward angle, with the sky as a neutral background." He photographed the Nuer with their striking features and slender build. In 1939 he preempted the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl by taking pictures of the Nuba wrestlers-among the few action photographs he ever took. The quality of his photography improved substantially a decade later, and most of his superb Arabian photographs were reproduced in his two favourite and best books Arabian Sands (1959) and The Marsh Arabs (1964). Maitland speculates that Thesiger has been to travel photography what Orientalists were to painting. He adds however that "the artists' sensual voyeuristic preference for Eastern bathing scenes and shapely odalisques has been replaced, for Thesiger, by tribal ceremonies and photogenic warriors." Thesiger photographed landscapes and buildings from mosques to mud-walled skyscrapers in southern Arabia. However, as he admits in Arabian Sands, he had a perverse attraction to the East and portraiture of remote peoples became a favourite subject. In my opinion Thesiger was only ever an amateur photographer with an excellent eye. He was no Alfred Eisenstaedt or Cartier Bresson. In fact his photographs are much more similar to those taken by the Swiss-born Werner Bischof in 1951 of the POW camps in South Korea and the famine in Bihar, India, that same year; and also those of the sensitive Indian photographer Kishor Parekh who recorded the bloody emergence of an independent Bangladesh in 1971, and has become a human chronicler of the Asian continent. Like both these now famous world photographers (Masters of Photography, Exeter Books, New York 1987), Thesiger always strove to portray the people in his pictures as retaining their dignity as human beings. If nothing else Thesiger's massive archive of over 30,000 photographs, together with all his original negatives, now donated to Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum, are an invaluable record of tribes, ceremonies, landscapes, dwellings, and other people on the point of extinction or no longer there. Maitland also speculates that the Orientalist painter and eclectic Jacques Morelle "would have found it ironic that Thesiger, an empathist of Orientalism, identified himself with photography, since it had been the camera's increasing precision and popularity that led to the decline of Orientalist art, half a century before."
Thesiger was never commercially minded; nor did he ever travel for the sole purpose of writing a book. Luckily for him his grandmother, Lady Chelmsford, left him a substantial annuity in 1926 that ensured his independence and added to his "arcane charisma". According to his own estimate, by 1970 he had walked over forty thousand miles - twice the circumference of the globe - a phenomenal feat. In the end, at least for armchair travellers, he became one of the twentieth century's most charismatic icons. Concluding his introduction Alexander Maitland notes that "While it is true that Thesiger was inclined to be temperamental, the fact remains, had he been less determined, ruthless, or self-centred, it is unlikely that he would have achieved his greatest aims as an explorer and a traveller." As any restless voyager will tell you, it is the accident of discovery that propels the true adventurer; and the stimulation of achievement that drives the explorer. This book is a tribute to an extraordinary man to whom "challenge gave an undiminished zest for living".

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