We are living in an era of unprecedented cultural extinction. Indigenous and tribal cultures that have survived for hundreds—sometimes thousands –of years may soon be gone. A recent study made by the linguist Ken Hale of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that 3,000 of the 6,000 languages that exist in the world today are fated to die because they are no longer spoken by the children. The implications of this fact are startling. In one generation our cultural diversity will be halved. This diversity of knowledge, imagination, and belief that has helped to provide the creativity, resiliency and strength of our species is being dismantled. The fragile oral traditions that have held an encyclopedic body of knowledge about the natural world are being lost.
Indigenous peoples have been threatened for centuries as economic interests and nation states have encroached on their lands. Although colonial and imperial pressures are still present, a more insidious problem lies with the children of these cultures. Entranced by images of the wealth and power of the First World, the young are turning away from their traditions. Most of these young people migrate to the cities and end up as marginalized beings never truly benefiting from the illusion they chase. As people they do not disappear; they live on, but the very essence of their culture is extinguished, leaving them shadows of their former selves and shadows of those they want to imitate in the developed world.
BRIDGES is an online classroom program connecting children from indigenous and tribal cultures with their urban contemporaries for the purpose of honoring and exploring cultural diversity. Using storytelling through photography and audio arts, the students learn from and with each other and from their elders. With BRIDGES unique approach, students are mentored in becoming online content providers by portraying themselves and their way of life from their own point of view.
The Tibetan Portrait exhibit and book were created to bring attention to the oppression of a deeply spiritual culture by a more powerful nation state. I saw the Tibetan conflict as another example in a repeating pattern of cultural genocide against indigenous people–a pattern that unfortunately continues to this day.
The Enduring Spirit exhibit and book were created in conjunction with Amnesty International’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR is a revolutionary document governing human rights that cut across all geographic, political and religious lines. Arguably the most important document created by mankind, it was adopted by all the nations of the world. It was a great honor to take part in Amnesty’s recommitment effort to this epic document.
The book The Gift was created for Interplast, a non-profit organization that sends medical teams to perform cleft palate surgeries on children in remote communities around the world. Interplast volunteers make every effort to share medical ideas and work with the healers in the indigenous communities served. Their ‘incubator’ program trains local doctors to perform the surgeries so the work can continue in Interplast’s absence.
Blue Earth Alliance is a non-profit organization that provides support for individuals producing photographic projects that educate the public about endangered environments and threatened cultures.