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  • Uncommon Journeys

Photographing Indigenous Cultures

When I photograph indigenous people, I approach with one simple principle: finding a common denominator – something that unites us as human beings that’s more important than what separates us as members of different ethnic groups.

At first the common denominator seems elusive, because of the unique and exotic appearance of each tribe or cultural group.

But it is this very paradox – the ethnic diversity and the common humanity of the world’s cultures – that makes portrait photography so gratifying.

The response has always been resounding acceptance.

A Burmese weaver admired my Guatemalan handbag and eagerly demonstrated the similarity of her weaving technique and pattern.

A farmer from Irian Jaya proudly showed me around her sweet potato garden and wanted to know all about the crops that grow in my “village” of Chicago.

A Bolivian mourner at a La Paz cemetery was fascinated by mourning rituals in my country. She imparted the following wisdom. “It’s good to travel while you’re alive, because it’s much harder after you die.” Ponder that logic!

These encounters affirm what the artist Joyce Birkenstock says of the people that she meets in her travels. “I become a part of them and they become a part of me. We are always connected, although we may never meet again."

The images and memories are poignant reminders of just how interconnected we all are.

As you meet and photograph people in your travels, celebrate both the uniqueness and your sameness. It’s more important now than ever.

All photos copyrighted by Debbie Jefkin-Elnekave.

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