Catch Them If You Can: The World’s Vanishing Cultures

The haunting beauty of the Annenberg’s new exhibition

Two men stand in thigh-deep water in a rippling lake, a heron perched on a reed hoop nearby as masks made from dead birds conceal their faces. They could be gods of an undiscovered pantheon. In fact, they’re fishermen near Mohenjo Daro in the Indus Valley. They lay in wait for heron using a method their ancestors invented 5,000 years ago. When a flock of birds approach, the men sink into the water up to their chins, hoping an unsuspecting heron will venture close enough for them to snag it with their bare hands.

The beauty of the scene belies its subjects’ fragile existences. According to Randy Olson, the National Geographic photographer who snapped a photo of the fishermen, it is “a desperate place.” The birds are a cheap and desperately needed source of protein. Fishermen failing to return their boats to shore before dark may get beaten by police. Armed bandits run rampant, threatening residents and kidnapping foreigners. (Olson hired a security guard for part of his trip.)

Olson’s arresting images is one of dozens in the Annenberg’s new exhibit, No Strangers: Ancient Wisdom in a Modern World, on display through February 24. Curated by writer, anthropologist, and explorer Wade Davis, the exhibition features the work of photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, Steve McCurry, Chris Rainier, and Chris Johns. Tonight, Olson will speak at a session titled “The Stories in Our Genes.”

The history of photography is tied in with a tendency to exoticize remote and indigenous cultures. This exhibition aims to subvert that, celebrating differences among cultures while underlining our essential commonalities. “The universality of someone who loves someone else running their hand across their face, those are just moments about being human,” says Olson. “I spend most of my time trying to prove how we’re similar, not how we’re different.”

Olson, who has visited more than 50 countries in his two decades working for National Geographic, works to earn his subjects’ trust. “You have to be every bit as open with them as you expect them to be with you.” Like a reporter working a beat, he shows up every day, explains what he’s about, and waits. Eventually, the people around him get on with their daily lives. “My most powerful skill is the ability to bore people to death,” Olson says, laughing. But, he warns, “You can’t expect these cultures to stay quaint for your amusement.”

No Strangers explores some of the major forces threatening indigenous cultures: urbanization, globalization, and environmental change. Of the 7,000 languages currently in existence, about half are expected to disappear within the next two generations. In Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, some of Africa’s last culturally distinct tribes are seeing their way of life erased by construction of a dam that will bring steady electrical power to Addis Ababa’s 11 million residents. When formerly isolated groups move to cities looking for better lives, they intermarry, taking their unique genetic heritage with them. For now, the Indus Valley fishermen are safe, but there’s no telling what could happen. “There are cultures I have photographed that are already basically gone,” Olson says. “It’s happening fast.”