Chris Rainier: Documenting the Spirit

16 February 2009 Written by  Hermon Joyner
Three natives of the island of New Britain display traditional masks in Chris Rainier's 1996 book, "New Guinea: Where Masks Still Dance." Three natives of the island of New Britain display traditional masks in Chris Rainier's 1996 book, "New Guinea: Where Masks Still Dance."
© Chris Rainier

Chris Rainier's black-and-white imagery captures the rapidly shrinking number of indigenous non-Western cultures across the globe.

Chris Rainier was born to travel. With a father who worked in the oil industry, Chris was in constant motion as a child, living, at various times, on four different continents. Growing up in so many different parts of the world has given him the ability to feel at home no matter where he finds himself.

"I feel very comfortable getting on a plane. I have a very high tolerance for travel," Rainier says. "I spend a significant amount of time each year on the road, because there's so much to see and there's so little time to understand this dynamic, changing world."

But it is more than mere globe-trotting that has made Rainier one of the premier travel shooters in the business. His work is rarely about discovering beautiful scenery in exotic locations; he's far more interested in capturing the spirit of these places through images of the ordinary inhabitants, mostly in rich, black-and-white portraits and landscapes.

From early in his career, Rainier felt the photojournalist's overwhelming urge to go to places that take him out of his comfort zone. "When everyone else is running away, you've got to run towards the danger," he says. "That is where you will find the images."

This work ethic has brought him to some of the most troubled spots in the world – Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda – where he has photographed everything from famines to wars. He spent a full year in Sarajevo documenting the Bosnian civil war for Time magazine. Rainier has also photographed for organizations such as the International Red Cross, the United Nations and Amnesty International.

In the course of his work, he has traveled to all seven continents and has focused his attention on Africa, Antarctica and New Guinea. He worked for some of the best magazines in the world, including Life and Time, and this eventually led to some of his most famous work for National Geographic.

Beyond all the misery and horrors that he has seen through his lens, Rainier feels his life mission is to document indigenous people in their environment and within their own cultures."The work that I'm doing is a very personal interpretation of a culture," he says. "Before they all potentially disappear, I want to have an accurate documentation of their traditions and their cultures. I hope this work stands as one attempt at trying to document some of this before it's all gone."

Drawn to the lens

Appropriately enough, Rainier comes from a multicultural background. His father hailed from South Africa but later immigrated to Canada, where Chris was born. At the age of 2, his family moved to Australia and, some years later, to Africa and Europe before settling in the United States.

When Rainier was about 8 years old, his dad bought him a Kodak Instamatic. Rainier formed an instant attachment to the camera and photography. Since the age of 14, he has always had a home darkroom. It wasn't long before he began to consider ways to combine his growing loves of travel and photography. One of his first solutions – his dream job, actually – was to work for the National Geographic Society, which to him had always embodied the essence of travel photography.

Rainier attended Brooks School of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif., earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in photojournalism. In the late 1970s, while still at Brooks, he took a workshop from the legendary Ansel Adams in Yosemite, Calif. He made a strong connection with the master photographer and became Adams' assistant in 1980, after graduating.

As fate would have it, Rainier would be Adams' last assistant. He worked closely with the famous artist until Adams' death in 1984, and continued for another year working on Adams' autobiography. Adams proved to be an influential figure in the young Rainier's life and work, showing him that photography can have a social conscience. Under Adams' tutelage, Rainier learned that photographs can be beautiful and still change the world.

Adventures with ‘Nat Geo'

After his tenure with Adams, Rainier dived into the world of travel photography and photojournalism and almost immediately began chasing his dream of working for National Geographic.

Beginning in 1984 and continuing through 1989, Rainier made several trips to Ladakh and Tibet in the plateaus north of the Himalayas, even spending several months living in a Buddhist monastery and photographing the monks in their daily life.

Subsequent trips included India, New Guinea and Thailand. In each place he photographed the people in relation to the land, but over time his emphasis shifted from the landscape to the people themselves.

Eventually, the editors at National Geographic decided that Rainier's personal mission could work for the National Geographic Society, which wanted to become more involved in the preservation of cultures around the world.

In 2000, Rainier was hired by the National Geographic Society to help advocate a better awareness of culture and "to address the issues of dealing with culture in an outdated model – an old world ideology," he says. "I think there's an important place for photographers and photojournalists from the West to go out and tell us about the world, but to exclude the voices of that world doesn't really work anymore.

"I think there are many seats at the table," he adds. "There will always be a place for talented photographers from the West, but now there must be a place for talented photographers from other parts of the world."

Today, Chris is still a Canadian citizen but now calls Telluride, Colo., his home. He works full time as a National Geographic Society Fellow, acting as a special consultant for specific projects and for cultural and public policy. Much of his time these days is spent co-directing the Enduring Voices Language Preservation Project and directing the All Roads Photography Project (see sidebar). As a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine and a contributing photographer for National Geographic Adventure magazine, he usually goes on four to five major expeditions a year, spending several months of the year on the road.

Open to interpretation

When Rainier hits the road, he is careful to sprinkle in a healthy dose of spontaneity during his preparations. Research is important, he concedes, but having too much background information on a location can set up too many presumptions in a photographer's mind.

"I do enough research to get me there and know enough about [local events] so that I'm not bumbling around scratching my head," he says. "But on the other hand, I open myself up to discovery with no preconceived notions, so I can become a part of the moment. My responsibility is to tell a visual story, so it needs to reflect what's really going on, but it also needs to go past the superficial surface. What I'm trying to do with my images is get beyond the feathers and the bells and the exoticism of the primitive, and really get into the 'deeply spiritual why' of what is happening."

Language issues can be a tricky problem to solve. Learning languages is a time-consuming process, and hired translators can sometimes block the rapport between photographer and subject.

Rainier has his own approach. "I use translators. I'll get into an area and use the translators enough to find a place to stay and connect with the right people, but then I shoo the translators away," he says. "And even if there's not a common language, there's a common nonverbal language, and that's a set of tools that we in the modern West have lost. But in most indigenous cultures nonverbal communication is paramount to survival and integration within their society.The photographic image lies within the nonverbal communication relationships."

Using pantomime and broad gestures, Rainier can convey most of his intentions to his subjects, and many times can make them laugh. This goes a long way toward breaking down any barriers between them.

Beyond observation

How he approaches each location and shoot is equally important. According to Rainier, it's all too easy to resort to cliched images if you base your work on what has already been done.

A mistress to a yakuza organized crime boss in Tokyo displays an intricate tattoo in Rainier's 2004 book,"Ancient Marks." Copyright © Chris Rainier"Sometimes travel photography can become an interpretation of the last interpretation," he says. "How can I make an image that's better than a Steve McCurry, for example?" To avoid sliding into this trap, he'll often look at the work of indigenous photographers to get a better idea of the local context and their unique points of view.

Inevitably, it comes down to this: What is the role of the travel photographer? Is the photographer an observer or a participant? "You inevitably cannot be just an observer. You participate by being there," he says. "You try to participate in a very respectful and collaborative way that avoids any stereotypes. Why not participate? If you go halfway around the world, you want to dive in; you want to taste it and smell it. How can photography be objective? You're missing such great opportunities. If you participate, your photography and your storytelling will be even more powerful."

Rainier's travel images are a blend of anthropology, documentary and fine art. To achieve his striking images, he takes nontraditional and somewhat controversial approaches."Constructing an image is very much the way I approach things," Rainier explains. "Even when I do photojournalism, I tend to scout out areas even in a war zone that are a landscape, urban or natural, and then have events unfold in that area. And so what's going on with my posing, while it's not the photojournalist mode, where you're capturing things as they happen, it's very important for me in my documentation to capture all the acute micro-details."
Rainier then elaborates: "It's important that in an environmental portrait, the environment speaks of who that person is."

The results are visually arresting and powerful portraits that serve as documents of a people, a setting and a tradition, and yet function as art.
A good example is his image of two Burmese tribeswomen. At first glance, we are shocked at the exaggerated brass-bound lengths of their necks, longer than any human neck should be. (Actually, the shoulders are compressed downward, rather than the neck being stretched.)

In the hands of a less capable photographer-perhaps a less compassionate one-that's where the image would stop. In Rainier's hands, the image shows us much more. The older woman looks directly into the camera, serene, with just a trace of a smile in her expression, as if she is remembering an amusing joke and hasn't decided to share it yet. The younger woman turns slightly away, as if in the process of walking out of the picture, but her gaze is focused on the viewer as well. Instead of the confidence of the older woman, the younger one seems doubtful and tentative.

The fact that these women are mother and daughter adds another layer of meaning and complexity. The sheer beauty of the tones and lighting gives a sense of depth and weight to the image. This photograph is a portrait of family, a document of unfamiliar ideals of beauty and ornamentation, and is also a beautifully rendered black-and-white image.

The 'why' of it

There are many reasons why Rainier continues to devote his life to working with indigenous people. He loves the travel. He loves photography. He loves the people. And he feels that he is making a real difference in helping endangered cultures survive.

He tells this story: "The prime minister of New Guinea came up to me after I had an opening in New Guinea at the museum, and I was so nervous. I felt like the white guy coming to someone else's culture, but he said, 'Thank you. I hope one day a New Guinean will do what you do, but one day some young New Guinea boy will look at your photographs and say, "I can make those costumes again, I can do the dance again."‘ To me, that's the most important reason for doing what I do – to be a part of revitalizing a culture through the power of photography."

For Chris Rainier, the answer to whether a photographer should be an observer or a participant is clear.

IN THE LOUPE: Chris Rainier

Home and studio: Telluride, Colo., and upstate New York.

Books: "Keepers of the Spirit" (1993), "New Guinea: Where Masks Still Dance" (1996), "Ancient Marks" (2004)Recent Accolades: The Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography; five National Press Association Picture of the Year awards; a Communications Arts award; listed as one of American Photo's 100 Most Influential People Working in Photography.

Clients: National Geographic Publications, Time, Life, The New York Times, Smithsonian, The New Yorker, the International Red Cross, Amnesty International, the United Nations.

Preferred equipment: For black-and-white – Hasselblad, Fuji 617s and Diana cameras. "My love is black-and-white, and I will always shoot black-and-white," he says. For color work – Canon D-series cameras. Also, Norman 400B electronic flashes.

Personal Projects: He has two book projects in the works, one that deals with capturing the meaning of the word "sacred" and the other on ancient Asia. Visit for details.

Advice for aspiring travel photographers: "You have to be driven by passion. You have to be driven by a love of telling the story. And if that's not there, something's missing. If that's present, then it will take you through to the very end."

Hermon Joyner
Story Author: Hermon Joyner

Hermon Joyner is a writer and photographer based in Portland, Ore. To view his work and read his blog posts on various subjects, visit

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