Let's go to the human zoo!

About ten years ago went on a safari in Tsavo National Park in Kenya. Luckily one of those many opportunities I get to mix business with pleasure. We spent two nights in the park, one in a camp with luxury tents, no fences so the animals would walk freely during the night, one night in a stone lodge overlooking a watering hole.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by a Masai village, offering us the chance to see how the Masai live. We'd pay a small entrance fee to the village chief, which bought us not just access but also the right to take photos as much as we liked.

Even at the time I was wondering wether an operation like this was ethical or socially desirable, but I knew that I wouldn't get another chance to photograph Masai anytime soon (and 10 years or so later, I still haven't), so I put those thoughts away and went along.

When we were all gathered in the central space, we were given a small show from the villagers jumping, in typical Masai style. This staged performance made me feel like we were in a human zoo even more.

I took three portrait photos during that visit, but asked each person I wanted to take a photo of if it was okay with them. One time our tour leader heard me asking and said that of course it was okay because we paid them a fee. That didn't make me feel more comfortable, I think the opposite was true.

Click images to enlarge.

So now I wonder, do visits of tourist paying a small fee and sometimes buying some handicraft item, help minority groups around the world with their local economies or does it do the opposite. Does it help them to maintain some sort of link with their traditional lifestyles or will only the photogenic pieces survive and over time the local tribe or community solely be actors in a decentralized theme park?

Check out Jimmy Nelson's book: Before they pass away. Not simply photographing, but documenting the last members of disappearing people's around the world, done the proper way. 

jwamsterdam