Chris Rainier has spent three decades photographing ancient cultures, often in places that cartographers have labeled uncharted, among “peoples from the past who were living in the present.” As he has repeatedly returned to New Guinea, South America and Africa, he has witnessed an onslaught of global American culture and technology erode the remnants of those cultures. Time is running short to preserve knowledge that he believes is important for all of humankind.
Mr. Rainier has dedicated himself to helping save the intellectual and linguistic diversity of endangered societies through the National Geographic Enduring Voices Project. He has also used technology to help create opportunities for people who are not technologically connected to tell their narratives in his Last Mile Technology Program.
“We consider biological diversity of these different flora and fauna crucial to our survival, but don’t think about intellectual diversity — in fact, we kind of look at it in a global market level, wouldn’t it be great to have one language?” said Mr. Ranier, 55. “Well, if all we’re doing is communicating about commerce, perfect. But what about diversity that comes up in a language. Each language has its own unique way of looking at things.”
Like Edward Curtis, who photographed American Indians, Mr. Rainier has helped preserve tribal languages and rituals in remote areas. Mr. Curtis is sometimes maligned for portraying his subjects as noble savages and for staging images, but his work has allowed some American Indian tribes to reclaim their language, customs and rituals.
Mr. Rainier undertook a documentation of more than 50 tribes that inhabit both sides of the island of New Guinea. Some groups he lived with, he said, had never been photographed, and one had never seen a white man before. He hopes that as cultures change rapidly, his photos might be a resource for future tribe members.
While Mr. Rainier has devoted his life to preserving vanishing cultures, he has no illusions about his role as an outsider. In the introduction to his most recent book “Cultures on the Edge,” published by National Geographic, he wrote:
I have come to realize that the further I evolve as a photographer, regardless of where I point my camera, I am taking a self-portrait — a reflection of my own story, my own beliefs, my own point of view. Nothing more. Nor do I presume that where I point my camera and take a picture is a reflection of the absolute truth. There is no such thing as an absolute truth. All images merely reflect the emotion of the photographer and the opinion of the reviewer. As it is stated in photography, there always exists two individuals in every image, the artist and the observer, and their sets of beliefs and cultural biases.