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Preaching peace through the lens of a giant camera

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Originally Published: June 21, 2009

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, according to the Chinese adage. Some travellers take the path of riches, others that of righteousness.

But a French anthropologist and self-confessed lover of humanity took neither. Instead, he walked straight into the Kenyan unknown in search of what he believes is the country’s disappearing heritage.

Patrick Amory is a peace envoy of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), but he doesn’t broker ceasefires between warring factions. Instead, he carries out his campaign through the lens of a camera; a firm believer that each shot is a small step towards world peace and a small victory against injustice.

“I don’t doubt that, with your help, the United Nations will succeed in strengthening peace and in improving living conditions for peoples of the entire world,” former UN secretary-general and Kenyan peace mediator Kofi Annan said in a letter to the Frenchman.

Amory says he hopes to realise this goal in part through a series of photo exhibits showcasing the diversity the world has to offer. And it is not a coincidence that he chose Kenya as the starting point for an epic journey of a man and a giant Polaroid camera.

In 2007, together with his wife, son and camera assistants, Amory set out on an expedition by truck into some of Kenya’s most breathtakingly beautiful and remote places. But he was not looking for picture postcard landscapes or wildlife. He was searching for members of some of Kenya’s most endangered tribes whose lifestyles are under threat from climate change and modernity.

“The human cultural diversity is at risk. Entire civilisations are disappearing. With time all the traditional aspects of life will be replaced by modernity,” he said. “We need to record these people and their lives for future generations.”

The good thing, he said, is that these people and their cultures are like living libraries that provide insights into the roots of the history of mankind. But they are also disappearing.

“These rare treasures of humanity are vanishing, just like each time you are enchanted by tales from your grandmother. You like it that she is in front of you, but you also hate it because you know time is taking her away from you. You can feel her slipping through your fingers like grains of sand,” the photographer said.

But why Kenya? “Kenya is universally recognised as the cradle of mankind, and as an anthropologist charting humanity’s path, I felt obligated to start here — the beginning of the beginning,” Amory said in an interview with Lifestyle at the Nairobi National Museum ahead of the opening of ‘The Living Treasures of Kenya’ exhibition this week. The show runs through mid-August.

Gabra mother

Under the museum gallery lights, Amory carefully inspected each giant photograph before it was hung. His attention rested on a larger-than-life image of an Gabra mother cradling her infant child that is the centrepiece of the exhibition.

“Look at them,” he said. “See how they smile at the same time! See the light from their eyes! Not enough images of this kind of Africa are immortalised.”

Amory conceived and produced the Visions of the Third Millennium project with the support of the Visions for Humanity Foundation and developed it in collaboration with the United Nations in 1999. The project focused on famous people who wanted to spread a message of peace; it led him to unknown but equally special people.

“After working with all these famous people, tapping into their world and seeing their uniqueness, I realised there were a lot more unique people out there in the form of untouched indigenous tribes. I wanted to get their views on life, too,” he said.

Photographer Peter Beard introduced him to the Maasai. “I met Peter in Paris. He introduced me to the Maasai of Kenya and to Lamu. This added to my previous knowledge of the Kenya of the Great Rift Valley, the landscape and the wildlife. All these aspects combined in devastating effect to leave a lasting impression of the enchantment of Kenya,” Amory said.

He kept returning to Kenya and even got married in Lamu. His son Zachary not only speaks Kiswahili but a few words of Maa as well.

“Just like me, life with indigenous Kenyan tribes has left a mark on him,” the photographer said.

During the 2006 FIFA World Cup final between Italy and France, Amory said his son asked him an interesting question.

Lion killers

“He asked me who between the French, the Italians and Maasai were the strongest. I told him the Italians since they had just won the World Cup, but he put me off. Of the three, he said, only the Maasai are famed as lion killers, so they are the strongest,” Amory said.

His experiences in the Kenyan wild have not blinded the six-foot bespectacled Frenchman to the glamour of his other life on the streets of Paris, London or Moscow where he has photographed some of the world’s most famous faces. He marries the glamour of Hollywood with the simplicity of indigenous life.

“The effect is astonishing,” he said. “Before my camera, everyone is equal. No one looks greater or better than the rest.” To illustrate his point, he pulled out a 30 x 50-centimetre photo of a Turkana girl and another of a Russian model; then he held them side-by-side.

“Stunning, simply stunning,” he said. “In my world, one is not prettier than the other.”

He said that by bringing personalities from different worlds together he creates a dialogue between different civilisations.

“This not only introduces different cultures to each other but breaks down religious or ethnic barriers that might exist between them,” he said.

After completing his first series of photographs, he brought the images to the Rift Valley where he first exhibited them to the Maasai.

“I wanted to hold the first exhibition in the Rift Valley where Kenya and Tanzania meet, in the cradle of mankind, on an arid salt lake, where zebra, ostrich, and giraffe move before a backdrop of sacred volcanoes,” he said.

It might look as though Amory, with his ideas of world peace and equality in front of his giant Polaroid, may be living in his own secret world cut off from reality in his own artistic bubble to which no one but his wife, who is also his assistant, has access.

“I am a dreamer. I dream of world peace, and I hope it begins in Kenya,” he said.

In the wake of the post-election violence, Amory believes that now more than ever, Kenyans need to embrace their diversity and use it for good. For him, the proof of strength in diversity can’t be illustrated better than by what happens in the dressing rooms of the world’s great soccer clubs.

“Even the most successful football clubs in the world embrace their differences and find strength from it,” he said.

One of his assignments for UNESCO was to make team portraits of the members of Manchester United, the English soccer premier league champions, and use them for a world peace campaign. One photo from that assignment shows Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson cradling a white dove, an image not in keeping with the one most football fans have of him — that of a red-faced Scotsman known to give his players the ‘hair dryer treatment’, a tough talkdown in the dressing room.

Childlike innocence

“The camera connects with the inner you. You cannot pose for it. Whatever reflection of yourself it brings forth is you. That is why even Ferguson has childlike innocence,” he said.

Through the camera lens, he said, the peace within each individual is brought to life.

The 53-year-old artist is under no illusion of what he has set out to do will be without difficulty.

“It would be wonderful if the flash would magically bring worldwide peace, but it can’t. All I can hope for is that after people see these images they will realise that our differences should be cause for harmony instead of war,” he said.

The photographer has meditated with the Dalai Lama at his private monastery and has been entertained by the late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti. So have the people he has met in his line of work influenced who he has become?

“Each one of them has left a mark in my life. The Dalai Lama has shown me it is possible to live a peaceful life in a tumultuous world. The Turkana have taught me that it is the simple things in life that bring someone joy,” he said.

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