Wednesday, 2 December 2009

We Are One - A Celebration of Tribal Peoples

Even before you get past the front cover, you know that this is going to be the ultimate coffee-table book. And the contents do live up to your expectations, with photographs that are both stunning and fascinating. Even if, after watching in-depth documentaries like Tribe or Amazon, you think you've seen it all before, you'll still be mesmerised and surprised in equal measures. Whereas television can give you sound and movement, the advantage of still photography is that you can pause and focus on each tiny little detail. You mum always drummed into you that it was rude to stare at people but this book gives you the opportunity to do just that and really scrutinise each fascinating picture. Just one example of this is the aerial view of the caribou migration, something I'd seen and been impressed by on the Planet Earth DVD. On the photo, however close you look, they really do look just like ants, even more so than on the TV version.

The book is divided into several themed chapters : Land - Survival - Belonging - Celebration - Shaman - Wisdom - Exile - Resistance. We really see the highs and lows of tribal life and come away with our eyes opened to the persecution and injustice that many tribespeople have to face. Some of the images and phrases will haunt you and continue to make you think long after you have closed the book. One quotation that seemed particularly poignant just after Thanksgiving was : "The phrase 'the discovery of America' is obviously inaccurate. What they discovered was an America that had been discovered thousands of years before by its inhabitants. Thus what took place was the invasion of America - an invasion by a very alien culture." One particularly powerful photo that took my breath away was a lone tribesman in tribal costume, fist raised in rebellion, facing a whole line of soldiers in full riot gear.

As well as containing a few long texts, the book offers a huge variety of phrases, proverbs and quotations from various tribal leaders. The editor explains that "the text that accompanies the photographs used in We Are One does not always reflect the tribal people shown in the image. The juxtaposition is intentional in order to illustrate the universal nature of some tribal beliefs and values." While this does indeed prove the universality of tribal wisdom, I would have liked to have known which tribe or at least which area of the globe was being represented in each photograph. The final pages do offer a recap of the photos with this information but it is awkward to keep flipping to the back of the book each time you want to know.

All royalties go to Survival International for their 40th anniversary and to fund their ongoing campaigning for the rights of tribal people worldwide. "Survival International has long sought to give tribal people a voice, a platform that they would not otherwise have. We Are One is such a platform. It portrays, in the words of tribespeople from every continent, their lives, homelands, cultures and problems, and is both a celebration and a collective call to arms. In a unique act of solidarity, their united voice is supported by beautiful and thought-provoking contributions from international supporters, writers and photographers. They entreat the world to listen to tribal peoples' wisdom and advice, and join them in the fight for their rights." Although it is hard not to be moved by the heartfelt tales of their plight, you don't have to be a militant eco-warrior to enjoy the book.

In the foreword, a tribal leader explains : "Mori Kami Yamaki - We Are All One. This is the essence of this book. We all share a common humanity, and we are unified by our mother, the Earth. We have different cultures and languages, yet in a much older and deeper way, we are all from one. The same spirit of life lives in us all. Without our shared ancestors, none of us would be here. We are all connected : this will never change." But despite this oneness, there is also such a diversity of cultures presented. "Different people, different ideas and different beliefs make life so much more interesting", as one Mohawk tribesperson rightly says.

It is a huge theme, which could never be covered in its entirety, however extensive the research and however rich the book. As Bruce Parry, star of the aforementioned Amazon and Tribe series of documentaries says : "Our programmes were snapshots, but valid nonetheless".

It is a book that is both beautiful and poignant. One that will stun you as much for the artistic detail of the photographs - the shaft of light slanting through the trees or the vivid red of the tribal child's oversized flipflops standing out against the greenery of the surrounding forest - as for the eternal wisdom reflected in the tribespeoples' words. As one Gana Bushman from Botswana declares : "We are educated in the things we know. We can pass on our knowledge to the rest of the world. I can be a lecturer, even though I have not been to school." The tribespeoples' message comes through loud and clear and reading this book is as much an education as a moment of entertainment. You can't help but be moved and fascinated.

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £30

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Quadrille Publishing Ltd (16 Oct 2009)
ISBN-10: 1844007294
ISBN-13: 978-1844007295

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