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Observing the World from Above

Observing the World from Above

What's up tribe, Rambling Shaman here, back from a long hiatus and more inspired than ever!

Amidst helping write the closing statement for the Ethnotek 2013 catalog, (which we just sent to the printer today, stay tuned) we happened upon a link to what photographer George Steinmetz has been up to and had to take some time to appreciate the truly unbelievable sites around the world that he's had the pleasure of documenting in vivid color. 

Best known f­or his exploration photography, George Steinmetz sets out to di­scover the­ ­few remaining secrets in our world today: remote deserts, obscure cultures, the mysteries of science and technology. A regular contributor to National Geographic and GEO Magazines, he has explored subjects ranging from the remotest str­etches of Arabia's Empty Quarter to the­ unknown tree people of Irian Jaya. All whilst navigating the world lightest aircraft, his paraglider. 

I fell in love with Africa as a twenty-one year old college drop-out, when I hitch-hiked across the continent for two and a half years. It was a life changing experience for me, and a place where I decided to take up photography to document the amazing areas I was exploring. On that trip I dreamt of how amazing it would be to fly over Africa's vast landscapes, and some twenty years later my dream came true when I talked National Geographic into financing a portfolio of aerial photos for the coming Millennium. As I buzzed around the Sahara in small planes I was frustrated by how fast they flew, and wanted a lower and slower perspective, with an aircraft that I could pilot to put myself into exactly the right position in the sky. I eventually settled on motorized paragliding, with the lightest and slowest powered aircraft in the world. And since learning how to fly I have returned to Africa repeatedly over the past ten years to create a large body of work that I put into my first book, African Air.

On the Atlantic coast of Brazil is one of the most unusual dunescapes in the world, known locally as Lençois Maranhenses (the bedsheets of Maranhão). During the rainy season the region gets some 60 inches of precipitation, which floods the dune field. During the dry season, intense sunlight and strong trade winds dry up the lakes and the dunes resume their advance into the tropical forest. This 400 square mile area is a national park, but families living in and around it are allowed to continue traditional subsistence activities of fishing, farming, and goat herding. At the end of the summer rains, when these pictures were taken, it's one of the most beautiful and unique landscapes on earth.

After four years and three attempts at the proper permission, George finally managed to get his aircraft into Fezzan, Southern Libya. Two thousand years ago this was a fertile region of savannas and lakes, that was home to an all-but-forgotten Garamantian civilization. But the climate of the North Africa changed dramatically some 1,500 years ago, and now Fezzan is one of the most barren and inhospitable places in the world. Every spring it is raked by strong winds that blow Libyan sand and dust all the way across Africa and the Atlantic to South America. What’s left behind is an austere landscape of dunes, sandstone pinnacles, and fields of black lava.

In 1995 I had the rare opportunity to document clans of tree-dwelling people in Indonesian New Guinea that had no prior contact with anyone outside their language group. I went there with Gerrit Van Enk, a Dutch missionary-anthropologist who at the time was the only outsider who spoke their language. Together with his missionary friend Johannes Veldhuizen, we crossed what Gerrit termed the "pacification line". These Korowai and Kombai speaking-people live in a remote part of the New Guinea lowland forest. They had been seeing overflying aircraft for several years, but agressively resisited contact with outsiders as they feared it would bring an end to their world. We went there to make as accurate a recording as possible of their way of life before they were innundated by the modern world, as had almost every other culture on the island.

The Korowai and Kombai live in tree houses that stand in clearings they have carved out of the forest. Beyond the pacification line we found people without clothing, metal, or any form of cooking vessel. This reality was made clear by the stumps of trees we saw there that had been felled (litteraly beatted to death) with stone axes, and resmbled giant shaving brushes. Although slowly dying out, there was still cannibalism in the area. Gerrit believed it to be part of their criminal justice system, as most of the tree-dwelers did not believe in natural death. The Korowai believed that most deaths were caused by sorcery, and they would try to find out who the sorcerer was to kill and eat them. It was a very difficult and dangerous environment in which we could only make first contact by first getting an invitation to cross the pacification line through relatives who had married into a neighboring clan. These were not easy inviations to get. We spent six weeks on the ground there, and the photos were published in both National Geographic and GEO Magazines. For the Korowai I think it was a bit like a team of Martians landing in their back yard and then telling them to act naturally, like the Martians weren't really there. Our experience was steeped in the awareness that we may have been documenting our effect on the Korowai rather than how it was before we arrived, and the pacification line was like a rainbow that was always just outside our grasp. But our goal was to make as accurate a documentation of a vanishing way of life as possible, for them and their future generations as much as for the outside world.

Meet the man, watch the video below and please, buy something from him. This kind of art doesn't just happen, surely this man has way more grit than most, and it's all in the name of increasing awareness about the world we live in via arial photo-journalism. Good on you George!


Ok, so this here post wouldn't be complete without giving you all a taste for the tease I mentioned above about the 2013 Ethnotek catalog. It is going to be a stunning editorial with in-depth stories from all five of our villages and eye candy galore. None of it would have been possible without the help of graphic designer Anthony Capetta and copywriter Ben Pfutzenreuter. It's a 50 page mind bender, goose bump inducer and tear jerker, and we couldn't be more proud with how it all turned out. 

Closing caption by yours truly. (This is draft form of course, you'll have to wait to see the final version after Ben waves his polishing wand over it and it launches next year). You can see why we were inspired to feature George Steinmetz after letting this little idea well up and burst out. Real travel is all about the people you meet, the food you eat, the perspectives and world appreciation that evolves from the experience, and of course, the grime that gathers to get there.

The dream tastes like dirt. The dirt from the dusty road we took to get here. Dirt from dusty roads, kicked up off the terra firma of each and every country we explore. It’s the dirt that fills our pours and inevitably enters our mouths due to the impossibility of holding back a smile while traveling. To feel the crunch from grains of adventure and the thirst for more that follows is what it’s all about. We at Ethnotek, from village artisan, to office administration, are thirsty for more. More connection, more inclusion, more cooperation and more action. All in the name of cultural preservation. From the bottom of our bags, we thank you for supporting our mission and encourage you to stay tuned for our next adventure. We promise, it’ll be a good one! Don’t be afraid to get dirty, always keep exploring and come join the tribe!

Happy weekend everyone.
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