Living Tribes

by Colin Prior, Carolyn Fry
ISBN: 1552977463

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A Review of: Living Tribes
by Olga Stein

One of my favorites among this year's crop of photography books, is "Living Tribes". With his extraordinary photos Colin Prior brings us the face of contemporary tribal societies. I say face' because this is what he so often brilliantly captures-a moment of pride, a wondering expression, a shy smile, and all those other universal qualities which render the photographed subject instantly familiar. The face may be that of a young woman of the Himba, a tribe inhabiting the remote region of northern Namibia, or that of a Herero girl from southern Namibia. It may be a young man of the Kenya-Tanzania Maasai peoples, marked with white paint and wearing a traditional beaded headdresses which announces his upcoming graduation to warrior status, or a young mother of northwest Kenya's Turkana tribe, her neck encircled by countless beaded rings, her ears decorated with large leaf-shaped pieces of brass or copper. We are shown the men and women of Kenya's Saburu with their beaded ornaments and metal chains worn across the face, and as we follow Prior northward to Morocco, we meet the Berber in their adobe villages situated on the edge of the Sahara. There is much more: There are superb, revealing closeups of the Balti of the Karkoram mountains in northern Pakistan, the Ladakhi of north India, the Bhutanese, descendants of the Mongols, living in Bhutan since the seventh century AD, the Lisu hilltribe of the Golden Triangle (an area which includes northern Thailand, eastern Myanmar and northwestern Laos), and the Padaung, a small sub-group of the Karen, "a loose confederation of heterogenous but closely related tribes" of Thailand and Myanmar.
Each of the 15 sets of photos of a tribe or ethnic community "linked by common practices, clothing, language, religion and customs" is accompanied by text describing the group's history, daily life and rituals, and the problems stemming from globalized travel and tourism, local government action designed to attract foreign investment, and the growing temptation of earning a living outside of the tribal milieu. In fact it is a mini thesis of Prior's, stated in his well-managed introduction, that these societies are in danger of losing their distinctiveness-hence the importance of this visual record of ways of life which are bound in Prior's view to become parts of the past.
My sense, from looking at this book, is that the danger of cultural loss is somewhat overstated. Ancient societies have shown themselves resilient, incorporating whatever technology and comforts the outside world made available in order to improve the quality of tribal life, but without giving up the essentials-their religious practices, artistic traditions, etc. The Inuit of the American Arctic and Inuvialuit of Canada may have traded in their dog teams and sleds for snowmobiles, and caribou-skin clothing for hi-tech ski wear, but even Prior concedes they keep their culture "through singing, carving, drawing, writing and documentary film-making." What I most enjoy about these photos is the very fact of looking at people who are different and yet no so different.

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