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Ormsby #80: The sanity of diversity

"My goal was not to document the exotic other," says Wade Davis, recently returned to B.C. to teach anthropology.

February 04th, 2017

Among 140 remarkable photos in Wade Davis: Photographs is this Mongol boy in wrestling garb.

To say that Wade Davis has had an extraordinary, brilliant, and in the end very lucky career, says reviewer David Mattison, would be a great understatement.

REVIEW: Wade Davis: Photographs

by Wade Davis

Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2016.

$39.95  / 978-1-77162-124-3

Reviewed by David Mattison


This new book from acclaimed British Columbian explorer, ethnographer, botanist, writer, documentary photographer/cinematographer — and now UBC professor of anthropology — Wade Davis ( provides a tiny yet diverse glimpse into the thousands of images he created while undertaking work on behalf of the National Geographic Society (NGS) as their Explorer-in-Residence from 2000 to 2013. Davis selected 140 photos from the thousands he created.

To say that Wade Davis has had an extraordinary, brilliant, and in the end very lucky career would be a great understatement.

Originally from West Vancouver, he returned to his British Columbian roots in 2013, according to a UBC media release, when he “joined the University of British Columbia to advance global awareness of cultures and ecosystems at risk:” (

His studies and travels started at the age of fourteen when, as a student at Brentwood College on Vancouver Island, he went on an exchange to Colombia. Since then, he has been to some of the remotest locations in which humanity has taken root. “Many anthropologists of my generation entered the field with a similar hunger for raw and authentic experience,” he notes (p. 10).

His photographs attest to the wide variety of cultural experiences to which he opened himself, and he writes with passion and authority about the places, peoples, and cultural practices he’s encountered. (Some of his descriptions of initiation rites, especially in New Guinea, are not for the faint of heart.)

He provides some haunting and poignant images. The two that struck me the most were the title page of a Dogon man casting his eyes over the land of a religious enemy, and the cover portrait of a Colombian Amazon boy.

Franz Boas, circa 1895, imitating a Kwakiutl ceremony to expel cannibals.

In his introduction, Davis provides a mini-history of anthropology, highlighting the work of the brilliant German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942), who worked among coastal B.C. First Nations communities and directed the Jesup North Pacific Expedition of 1897 (for its photographic records see the American Museum of Natural History at

I found it unusual that someone as knowledgeable as Davis does not, at least in this book, mention the close connection and utility of photography to these pioneering anthropologists. Boas was himself a photographer and hired commercial photographers to assist him. One of his most important Kwakwaka’wakw informants, the half-English and half-Tlingit George Hunt, was also an amateur photographer.

George Hunt

Davis’s intent during his time as NGS Explorer-in-Residence, as he shares in his introduction, was to “take the global audience of the NGS … to points in the ethnosphere where the beliefs, practices and intuitions are so dazzling that one cannot help but come away with a new appreciation for the wonder of the human imagination made manifest in culture.”

To this end, he shares with us religious ceremonies from West Africa and Nepal, and festivals of life, food and the spirit from places, many of them sacred in nature, as disparate as the Peruvian Andes, the Tobriand Islands, and Australia.

Wade Davis: Photographs also serves as a useful primer on the significance of cultural anthropology and Davis provides an evocative summary (p. 20) of his primary mission during his Explorer-in-Residence years:

My goal was not to document the exotic other, but rather to identify stories that had deep metaphorical resonance, something universal to tell us about the nature of being alive…. Our mandate fundamentally was to provide a platform for indigenous voices, even as our lens revealed inner horizons of thought, spirit and adaption that might inspire, in the words of Father Thomas Berry, entirely new dreams of the earth.

A Dogon elder from the cliffs of the Bandiagara escarpment in Mali peers towards the lands of the Fulami, one of the many Muslim tribes that have threatened the cultural survival of his people for a thousand years. All large colour photos by Wade Davis.

For example, he discusses the crucial link between language and culture and assesses linguist Noam Chomsky’s influence. Chomsky was – unfairly — blamed for language loss by suggesting that there is a deep universal grammar for all human languages; that babies and toddlers possess an innate software for language acquisition; and that therefore there is no need to record the mere superstructure and variety of languages that face extinction.

As Canada’s Indigenous communities will attest, this twisted logic helped erase what Davis — reporting his conversation with MIT linguist Ken Hale — calls the “flash of the human spirit, the means by which the soul of a culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of social and spiritual possibilities” (p. 14).

Oddly, Davis makes no reference to any efforts to stave off language loss such as the Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Project ( and British Columbia-based FirstVoices ( for the preservation and revitalization of Canada’s First Nations languages.

Indeed, Davis’s only reference to any organization other than the NGS involved in advocacy for Indigenous peoples is Cultural Survival (, founded in 1972 by Harvard University professor David Maybury-Lewis (1929-2007) and his wife Pia.

I must speak now as a historian of the techniques and artistry of photography. While Davis writes eloquently about those who influenced him directly as a photographer, or who informed his work through their theoretical or philosophical insights into photography, he is a little shy on some technical aspects of his photographic work.

One of the issues around publishing photographs is how much detail to provide. Very few photographs are self-documenting. They require, indeed demand, an explanation or answers to the usual questions of who, what, where, why and how. I feel that Davis has let his readers down by not providing answers to some of those questions. I was mildly curious about his photographic technique (camera model, lens, shutter speed, etc.). None of that information is available here.

Young women at sunset on Marsabit Mountain in Kenya await warriors who will sing and dance for them, long into the night.

He states in his introduction (p. 24) that “Many of the photographs … were taken as we made these films [he made seventeen films while NGS Explorer-in-Residence]; others came out of other expeditions or the journeys I went on as a lecturer for the travel office at the NGS….”

While all the photographs are in colour, most are not dated. All we know is that they were taken between 2000 and 2013. The photographs are grouped together by continent, region, or country, and Davis provides location-specific information for all the images in their respective chapter.

After the Naadam festival in Mongolia, Namjin gives his grandson a ride.

His goal as a photographer, Davis writes movingly, “is always to try to find in the chaos of visual perception and experience that perfect moment when subject, luminosity and perspective come together to affirm the eternal dignity of the human spirit.”

Given the difficult, if almost non-existent lighting conditions under which some of the photographs were taken, he has for the most part succeeded. I say this because not all the photographs are of people. A few are landscape views devoid of human life, possibly meant to illustrate the sometimes extreme and difficult environmental conditions to which cultures have adapted.

Wade Davis has honed his speaking skills after scores of presentations. Lecture photo courtesy of D&M.

While Davis calls the language loss and subsequent disappearance of knowledge “among the central challenges of our time,” he also admits, somewhat too starkly for my taste, that, “As an anthropologist fully aware of the dynamic, ever-changing nature of culture, I had no interest in preserving anything” (p. 27).

Davis leaves us to decide for ourselves how we will interact with societies and cultures so different from each other, and from our own; and Wade Davis: Photographs will stand as testament to his remarkable career and to his gifts as a writer, communicator, and teacher.


David Mattison

David Mattison of Victoria is a semi-retired librarian-archivist known for his pioneering work on British Columbia’s photographic history. His website Camera Workers: The British Columbia, Alaska and Yukon Photographic Directory, 1858-1950, created in 1999, is one of the oldest and largest of its kind (


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