It is only by protecting the protectors can we survive on the planet into the future.
JR: It is hard to decide where to begin when speaking about your work. There is, of course, the inherent beauty of the photographs, the technical development, and your professional pedigree. I spent considerable time in the first installment championing what I felt was your intention and the power of what was revealed in your book MASK. My impression is that you agree, we are not divorced from our embodied spiritual lineages. I gained from your work that the living and endangered cultures and individuals safekeeping these objects and portals to the sacred are a profound reminder of our identities. Identities with which we must not lose touch.
I know from your own words that ecological devastation and degradation is linked entirely with the cultural genociding of indigenous peoples. Do you see a way for photographers to embrace these concerns, considering their subjects, even if their topics are simply beautiful landscapes, and if so how?
CR: I have spent my life using photography as a witness to the beauty of nature and the celebration of wilderness. And indeed just as important as that – I have concentrated my energy and focus on the Indigenous cultures that live within nature and protect nature for my entire career. It is only by protecting the protectors can we survive on the planet into the future. Traditional cultures play a crucial role in helping protect nature – their own backyards. There is so much beauty within the planet – in both nature and the traditional cultures that live upon it – I think it is crucial to celebrate that beauty. Photography can do this. The key element I learned with Ansel Adams photography – when I worked for him as his last photographic assistant in the early 1980’s – was that his photography celebrated and honored nature. His images allowed the viewer to celebrate their awe and respect for nature. Ansel’s images are a searing testament to the belief – that by celebrating nature we can save it. His photography arguably saved many of the wilderness areas and National Parks in America in the 20th Century. They helped galvanize a movement to help save the precious natural wonders of America. I took what I learned from Ansel and journeyed internationally to use my camera as a tool to help protect what we have left on the planet within the biosphere as well as the cultural-sphere. Photography can be a powerful tool in the conservation and cultural preservation movement that is active and alive today.
There is so much beauty within the planet – in both nature and the traditional cultures that live upon it – I think it is crucial to celebrate that beauty. Photography can do this.
JR: I have been to Mongolia and visited traditional rural communities and Buddhist temples there. My own Buddhist Temple in Toronto is closely linked with revitalizing the Tibetan lineage of Buddhism in Mongolia (The Dali Lama lineage was installed by Mongolia). As well as Buddhism, the indigenous Bon religion and practices were devastated or confused by both communist China and the imperial reach of the USSR. It is now further influenced by the wild lure of capitalist riches through their oil and resource industry.
My wife (and one of the co-owners of LULA), Irene, made a pilgrimage with our Lama to Mongolia. She was able to stay in the desert and practice in our temple’s sister monastery. She was going to dedicate her life to learning and disseminating the Dakini lineage (the nun sect of Mongolian Buddhism) there herself, before I swooped into her life and ruined that plan.
Tell our readers a bit about Mongolia and the nomadic world you encountered. Your imagery captures a very magical place which I only touched briefly and most will never have a chance to do.
CR: Mongolia is indeed a special place on the planet. It embodies nature and culture as it has been for thousands of years and countless generations of traditional culture. The land is primordial and vast. It is a place where you come to terms with your finiteness and the earth’s power. And the culture there powerfully responds to that earth energy. They are wild and nomadic people and live a life close to humans as we once were. I have been working there with the Foundation I direct ( Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation www.culturalsanctuaries.org ) For over ten years I have worked in Mongolia – I have spent time with the Eagle Hunters in the West, and the Reindeer people and Shamans that live in the North. Shamanism is one of the oldest “religions” or formal spiritual belief systems on the planet – and it is alive – and indeed growing in Mongolia. I had the great fortune of photographing them for my new book MASK with their remarkable mask and trance rituals. Mongolia draws me back time and time again – it has vast landscapes that stretch across the horizon – with no roads – you are free to ride as we once did wherever your spirit directs you..
JR: Have you seen the film “Hema Hema Sing Me a Song” by Dzongsar Kheentse Rinpoche ? It is a film about the mask rituals of Bhutan directed by a very famous Buddhist filmmaker and adept Lama who I have some connection with. Could you generally describe for The Luminous Landscape community what you learned about the Bhutanese traditional Buddhist culture and this unique country and people?
CR: Bhutan is the Shangra-la that all Buddhists seek. It is a small isolated country hiding in the great Himalayas sandwiched between India and China. This is the land of Gross National Happiness. That is not only a Buddhist slogan- but as well the statement maintains a true way of being that insures everything and everybody works towards genuine pure happiness – even when one is dealing with a business transaction! Think about that for a moment – the mission of every human is to insure all humans are happy – even happier than you. Bhutan is a sacred place that shows the world by example that the Buddhist way is not a religious way so much – but a way of life – a philosophy – a responsibility to do good – to save the planet and insure the world again becomes a remarkable place. Bhutan has embedded in its Constitution – into the future that 60% of its wilderness will forever be wild and untouched. It has a zero carbon footprint – in fact it has a negative carbon footprint! In Bhutan it is against the law to cut down a tree – one must get special permission to do so. But even more amazing are the people – they live the true Buddhist way of life. My travels there for over a decade have been documenting their ancient Buddhist mask rituals. With the help of the Royal Family – our Cultural Foundation has created a sanctuary for Indigenous culture. I am on my way back to Bhutan in a few weeks- I am excited – it is always a deep honor to be able to travel to and work with the Bhutanese.
JR: You have spoken all around the world, and I know that you have seemingly dedicated your life to the preservation and illumination of an aspect of human culture and expression. Where has this all led you personally and internally now?
CR: The great honor of living and working closely with traditional cultures around the planet for the past forty years – has been to truly begin to understand what it means to be human – to try and be truly alive and present in the moment. Whether it is living with a group of Monks at a Monastery in Ladakh, or spending ten years traveling deep into the stone age tribes of New Guinea photographing the ways of ancient cultures. I have now begun to understand within our profound diversity that makes all humans deeply important to the survival of the planet – I have realized in our diversity – we are all very similar as humans. We love our children, we celebrate community – and we are basically trying to survive and live good lives. It is that simple. Margret Mead , the great social Anthropologist – once stated her greatest fear having been born into a polychromatic world that her children, indeed all of our children and grandchildren would one day wake up in a monochromatic world – and never know there was a difference. Diversity is the greatest gift we have – we must not reduce our planet to one giant shopping mall without language, diversity, culture, wilderness, or the elephants that roam the plains of Africa.
JR: You have shown us images of war. How do you make sense of your role as a photographer when encountering human suffering such as you have seen?
CR: The camera is and always will be the tool that helps bring down evil regimes, that starts the catalyst that ends war, famine, poverty and the reign of evil leaders. I was a war photographer for over twenty years covering the wars of Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, and the famines of Africa. I saw the power of the camera to shed light on injustice- I witnessed this first hand. It does take a toll on the human soul- but in the end my studies in Buddhism and following that way of being – and the philosophy of Karma – understanding the balance of evil and good in all – has allowed me to maintain my faith in humanity.
JR: Your role as Ansel Adam’s last assistant is well preserved. How much do you attribute this experience to your confidence or ability? Tell us about him from your experience if you would, even an aspect.
CR: My role as the last photographic assistant to Ansel Adams allowed me to understand I needed to dedicate my life to using photography as a social tool of change – and preservation of traditional culture. There is no question I learned a discipline of my craft from the master. But much more than that I learned to be a teacher – his philosophy of passing all information onto the next generation was a gift. Always pass it along! Also his generous and gracious soul – taught me to take the higher road when given the choice.
I also learned about a certain kind of journey – the journey of using your craft for doing only good – it becomes a life time commitment. We have arguably the next ten to fifteen years to save the planet. I am doing everything in my power between my photography and the Foundation we run on preserving Cultural Knowledge and Biodiversity ( Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation www.culturalsanctuaries.org ) to try and save the planet before it is too late so it will allow my son and his generation that they have a planet worth living on.
JR: The First Nations of North America – at least in Canada – are finally receiving some reconciliation and revitalization. I have friends in the community who have re-learned their language and began the slow process of reclaiming their identity and working with past collective trauma. I have done sweat-lodges here in the traditional style for about a decade. There is so much to learn from The First Nations People but it’s a very delicate discussion about boundaries and how to share after so much mistreatment by settlers. How did you gain access to ceremonial settings or for elders to show you traditional ritual garb etc? Please tell us about your experience.
CR: In one word it is trust. Treat people the way you wish to be treated. I have spent many years with traditional cultures. Nothing happens fast. There is a lot of deserved suspicion of motives. It takes me literally years and years before I am allowed “in” and given the trust to be able to experience and photograph – the dances, the mask rituals, and the ways of traditional being. I am by no means allowed fully in – nor should I be. What is shared is what they want to share with the outside world. I am deeply honored and blessed to be able experience what I do see – and I am honored to be allowed to photograph what I have. I see my role as trying to help preserve what is alive today from ancient cultures that are still here today – for future generations.
….Maybe one day in the future a young boy from New Guinea will look at my images of his great grandfather dancing the sacred Initiation dance – and he will ask himself “why can I not do that dance again?” I believe photography plays a crucial role in cultural revitalization.
JR: We are so grateful to have you share your wisdom and beautiful work with the LULA community. I hope we can do a follow-up. Any parting words you would offer the photographer who is setting sail on their journey, or for those who might revitalize there mission? What is of vital importance in this era of art and documentation, where do the two blur?
CR: Ansel Adams once said to me, put off short term gains for long term goals. The photographic journey is a long one. Find your mission, find your bliss – and indeed set sail. There will be windy storms, gales and journeys where you have become lost. Always return to that internal compass of what is right for you – truly right for you. Art and documentation can live together – in fact they are inseparable if you are honest to your work. There are assignments from the outside- the ones that pay the bills. Then there are assignments from within. The ones from within are the ones that will nurture you – feed your soul. Never lose those – those are the ones that will allow you to truly be alive and stay alive! …… Thank-you it as been a great honor to talk and share with you – and your audience!
For more of Chris Rainier’s work