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People In Color
In the last decade, with the nation enthralled in two wars, combat photojournalism and photojournalists have woven their way into the day-to-day fabric of all of our lives. Today, the most common images from around the world come from photographers whose lenses are focused on cultures at war.
Godaba Tribe performing the Dhemsa Dance, Kangrapada Village, Chattisgarh, India.
Nevada Wier, too, has worked her away around the globe, but in pursuit of another kind of image. “I’m addicted to travel.” She pauses and retells how, as she picked up a camera, she had to make a choice, “I considered being a current-events photographer, but I wanted to seek broader themes. I’m more drawn to what’s beautiful in the world.”
Wier is a self-taught photographer, an Outward Bound instructor and the product of a liberal (very liberal) arts education.
Mix these elements with a name like Nevada, and she was almost destined to be an acclaimed travel photographer. She’s spent some three decades establishing a unique eye and a gift for taking us, as viewers, all over the world. Today, she’s acclaimed for her images from India, which go against popular perception and are rich with artistry and vision. But an artist isn’t an engineer, working from a plan to strict specifications.
The adventure began with Wier’s first international trip, an ambitious journey to Bolivia in 1978. Being an experienced outdoor guide, earning the cred in the pristine western wilderness of Arizona and New Mexico, she ventured to Lake Titicaca where she circumnavigated the lake in a reed boat for three-and-a-half months. Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific in his Kon-Tiki in the time it took Nevada and a friend to wrap around the lake—albeit, a large lake—in a similar craft.
The epic boating adventure came after her planned climbing trip was stymied by aggressive customs officers who seized the group’s crampons after a golpe led to political instability and weary security forces.
Says Wier, “I like having Plan A and going through with Plan Q. I think that’s very helpful to photography.” Clearly, she wasn’t going to settle for the well-beaten path and resort hotels many of us use as the base camp for our own adventures.
But the career started with that Outward Bound program and a makeshift darkroom setup in the office. “If I could go back to any time in my life, that would be it,” Wier reminisces.
Equipped with a Mamiya 645 and a Nikon, she’d trek out during the day—with tours or alone—and begin capturing Nepal on film. “I realized very quickly what was at the bottom of the mountains was more interesting than at the top,” she says. “There’s nothing at the top except a good view. At the bottom there were all these people and all these trails.”
Wier makes use of any and all technology that will enable her to convey a story of the people she encounters. In Gujurat, India, she works in infrared to create a unique effect that isolates the women as they carry water to their homes.
Perhaps it’s because her home amid the beautiful landscapes of the American Southwest has saturated her psyche with images of rocks and trees and streams, but Wier isn’t into setting up her tripod to catch a slope of green as it descends into valleys below or puffy clouds dotting an azure sky. You’ll see very few landscapes—perhaps one or two from Nepal—among her selected images because Wier captures people instead. Faces, smirks and that little reflection off a cornea—these are her dramatic vistas.
Explains Wier, “I photograph people. I really like people—occasionally a tree or two—but mostly people. I realized, forget trying to go to places where there are no people—and there are people everywhere. And I fell in love with indigenous cultures.”
So Wier traveled to see people almost everywhere, from South America to Africa, but she has spent most of her time in Asia.
Asia And India
It’s in Asia that Nevada Wier has left her biggest mark or, rather, had the big-gest mark left on her. She started with that single camera in Nepal and ventured across the region. Her first trip to Myanmar in 1986, when it was still known popularly as Burma, has resulted in a nearly annual journey for 25 years. Working on a long-term project, she hopes to bring the story of what the Burmese have endured as pressure on the ruling junta and international attention escalate.
Even though Wier lives in the United States , in her travels, Asia operates as her home base. She keeps a home in New Mexico, but half-packed suitcases and camera bags are like furniture in her house. Her time in recent years is spent traveling to the subcontinent, venturing through less-traveled parts of Pakistan and India, jumping through Thailand, Myanmar and China. The stories are intense and humbling; the images are surreal, vivid and, at times, haunting.
Recently, Wier has focused on India and, specifically, on “Outer India.” That was the name of a recent exhibition in which she presents us with a part of India with which most people aren’t familiar. The bright red saris, adorned with gold, and waving to beats created by Bollywood-inspired music are missing from Wier’s photographs of India, and her striking photos tell a story of a people that hardly seem to be of one single nation. She manipulates and spins color to present an India that you don’t see on television or coming from Bollywood. Wier explains, “Photography is purely interpretive, utilizing imperfections as well as the perfect. I’m trying to photograph what I feel as much as what I see.”
Exploring Light, Color And Outer India
Wier interprets what she sees into an image—sometimes with light, sometimes with technique, more often, with equipment.
“When you talk about color,” she says, “I understand what happens with contrasting light. I know how to render things so they’re going to work as an image.” Wier is definitely not your average casual observer.
Mon Prince Tolei Konyak of the Konyak Naga Tribe, Nagaland, India.
In Outer India, she ventures into new lands with new methods. She has used infrared photography with stunning results. In Nagaland, a part of India as distant from Mumbai as it is distinct, her desaturated photos emphasize the unique culture. Wier celebrates an India that’s more tribal and diverse than most Westerners would expect. Mumbai may be the second-most populous city in the world, but many of the one billion Indians don’t venture far from their village homes or fall within any singular definition of what is “Indian.”
For the Outer India project, Wier captured images and themes you’d never expect. She embraces the juxtaposition of the tribal culture in the modern world— ancient weapons in the hands of tribal children wearing the clothes you’d see at any middle school in the U.S. Her images remind us that it’s not an omnipresent Western culture invading these remote areas; it’s the global youth culture permeating everything at once.
Says Wier, “It doesn’t strike me as odd; those juxtapositions seem very normal to me. But I’m not trying to mythologize cultures. Exotic and remote mean so much to so many people. Someone who has never left Los Angeles will find Santa Fe exotic. I don’t think there are many untouched places left.”
So she’s documenting what she does see. The Naga people, who were once headhunters, have embraced Christianity—but have old skulls hidden among family. There are tribal children who listen to stories from the tattooed and scarred elders—but tune into Naga Idol on television. Says Wier, “Of course I want to document that culture—the elders who are the last tattooed—but I’m more interested in how the youth are going to retain their cultural traditions and still make their own way in this world.”
To punctuate this point, Wier took a photograph of a young man in khaki pants as part of the Outer India project. This boy, a member of the tribe’s royal family, is adorned with beads and the trophies of a great ancient hunter. They were probably passed down through generations, from his tattooed father and other elder tribesmen. And his underwear rises above his pants, like an adolescent boy in Any City, USA.
Nevada Wier sees in color—in her favorite blues, which she seeks to bring out in tribal cultures dominated by reds and earthy browns. She sees in desaturated grays and subtle hues manipulated by light. She even sees color that’s unseen to the human eye through infrared photography. She travels and photographs and then she packs up her bags again and comes home. And then we can see in color, too.
You can see images from Nevada Wier‘s Outer India project, learn about photo tours and workshops, and see her incredible collection of global images on her website at www.nevadawier.com.