Perhaps my interest in foreign travel is inherited. My fathers cousin Jayta Humphreys and her husband, Baron Hansheinrich von Wolf, built Duwisib, a unique castle in the Namibian desert, in 1908. My Aunt Bea and Uncle David Humphreys spent many years in their 15th-century French cottage in the Massif Central painting landscapes, and my sister Pamela (Mrs. Thomas D. Cunningham III) built a traditional sugarcane plantation home in the Caribbean. Visiting these places has allowed me to absorb the artistic talents of my extended family.
But it was not until my two daughters left for school that I enrolled in photography classes at New Yorks International Center of Photography, The Maine Photo Workshop and The Henry Shull Cibachrome Workshop. Ive supplemented my art education by studying other photographers and artists and by experimenting in other arts such as theater, pastels and piano. As Voltaire said, All the arts are brothers, each illuminates the others.
It was only after I visited Africa with my family in the 1980s that I began to seriously hone my photographic skills. There I was confronted by the power of nature and by the social issues facing tribal cultures, and became aware of balances lacking in our environment. Africa has been my gateway to environmental awareness, and that continent is now for me a representation of some of the planets most important issues.
Realizing that much is to be learned from ancient and indigenous cultures, and out of a desire to help record disappearing lifestyles, I became a visual anthropologist. In the process of becoming a conservationist, I learned that when flora or fauna are threatened, the solution has to involve human communities. My focus on documenting such communities, as well as wildlife and endangered ecosystems, has led me to undertake twenty tours of Africa and many assignments in Latin America. It has meant living in France, England, Portugal, California and New England; driving solo across the United States; and sailing along the New England and Caribbean coasts. As a mirror reflects a candle, I strive to project the beauty of our natural world; to show how human nature is linked to animal nature; and to explore the universality of all cultures while documenting each ones unique value, illustrating the different ways the human need to belong is expressed. My assignments are often for nonprofits, and my self-assigned investigations are on themes Ive developed as a conservationist and visual anthropologist.
The immensity of problems on our planet, especially in the developing world, can seem overwhelming. Yet my photographic assignments with effective non-profits reveal that solutions do exist. From visiting TechnoServes projects in third-world villages, to helping establish The Mara Conservancy in Kenya, to aerial documentation of environmental issues for LightHawk, Ive concluded that all solutions for conservation of flora, fauna or culture must be community-based. Training villagers how to grow cashew nuts or raise a heifer is much more effective and sustainable that providing one-time donations of money or food.
The need for local participation has been made clear to me as Ive worked and grown with Kenyas Mara Conservancy, a new paradigm in wildlife management that works with local Maasai to implement revenue-sharing development projects. The Conservancys domain crosses international borders, covering the end point of the wildebeest migration, a biomass that cyclically lives, breathes, throbs, bleats, ebbs and flows like the tides. Now four years old, this private management group has arrested hundreds of poachers and seized thousands of snares. Its new infrastructure of roads, game-viewing tracks, and tourist facilities was made possible only by building a consensus among the Maasai on the value of biodiversity and ecosstems at meetings under acacia trees and in Nairobi boardrooms.
In my travels Ive met outstanding Africans entering the wildlife guiding business. This is the security needed for preservation of African wildlife, for those nations must recognize the value of their natural world. Jackson Looseyia is a Maasai guide, a friend who climbed Kilimanjaro with me, a son of a tracer who worked for the first Game Warden of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, and the father of Damaris, a beguiling and passionate 13-year-old determined to follow Jackson in his very busy office on the plains. Jackson helped create Koiyaki Wilderness Guiding School, which opened July 2005. Its 23 resident African students will graduate with guiding certificates and a career that will support them, their families and African flora and fauna.
The mingling of Africas ancient past, a troubled present, and an uncertain but possibly rich future has mesmerized me. In 2003 I climbed Kilimanjaro, the snow-capped rooftop of Africa, clambering over volcanic scree instead of icy glaciers the last of which are doomed to disappear by 2020 due to global warming. Two weeks later I found a black-bellied bustards egg still damp freshly laid on our dusty tracks only 20 feet away from the excavations at Koobi Fora on the shores of Lake Turkana of two-million-year-old elephants, tortoises and saber-toothed tigers. That egg embodied for me the fragile future of wildlife we hold in our hands.
Today, for me, the story Africa has to tell is in its waters. Ancient cultural roots and wildlife are anchored to some of the worlds largest lakes and longest rivers. Waterways are vital corridors of movement, freedom, diversity and communication. In their chaotic passage, they spill out the message, No water no life. There is no longer enough clean, fresh water available in Africa to quench its thirst. Africas water sources mountains, lakes and rivers are endangered. Global warming melts glaciers, deforestation erodes topsoil, and silt deposited by rivers kills lakes.
My response is now to focus my photography in Africa on the pollution, scarcity and commodification of water resources. I am investigating the essential sources of fresh water in the lakes and rivers of Africa and the glaciers of Argentina. Concomitantly, I am designing ongoing Waters of Africa and Waters of Argentina safaris with clients also interested in understanding the issues surrounding the scarcity and pollution of water. On these safaris, photographers, painters, anthropologists and conservationists explore sub-Saharan Africas great rivers, lakes, deltas, desert oases, coastal waters and the flora and fauna dependent on these waters. It is my hope that the beauty of Africas Rift Valley rivers and lakes and Argentinas Patagonian ice fields will help draw attention to the threats they face.
These investigative safaris are in line with my three-legged stool philosophy, exploring the interrelationship of human cultures, wildlife and the environment. While focusing on water ecosystems, they also include memorable experiences with wildlife and indigenous tribal communities. As Will Durant wrote, Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks.
Looking forward through my lenses, I see more themes and more photo essays to develop that I hope will open discussions and encourage appreciation of our planet. At the same time, I am placing greater emphasis on the artistry of my documentary work, in the belief that the beauty of the world is conservations greatest advocate.
Today I find myself increasingly open to serendipity and whats in my own back yard, such as Christos February 2005 Central Park Gates. The exuberance of his installation caught many of us New Yorkers off-guard, but I dropped everything and spent eight of the installations 14 days photographing this gift of fire, and produced a limited edition portfolio of images that are special, since all we will ever have is the memory of those gates.
Time and light are the ultimate subjects of photography, and I am thoroughly enjoying taking more time to honor my roots in Tewksbury Township. The quality of rural life is dissipating rapidly, but there are special pockets remaining. One of them is the village where I retreat to the 250-year-old stone cottage of my childhood days. Here I watch the light fall on old wells, vine-covered windows, wooden fences, grape arbors and balustrades. Here I have a handle on time. Much of this essay has been written in the old general store in the center of my hamlet of 90 people When I leave this afternoon for five weeks in Africa, there will only be 89.
Wherever my future trajectory takes me, I know the images that result will have the potential of serving as an emotional link to our history, our present and our future, imbuing each with the respect and integrity it deserves.
Alison Jones reports many memorable adventures and interesting experiences during her photographic peregrinations. In 1993, she helped fill sandbags for the levees in Ste. Genevieve, MO, inches above the flooding Mississippi. Interviewing the Mara Conservancys chief executive, she assumed the horror on his face was due to the impudence of her queries, when the cause was a puff adder two inches from her feet. She was tracked and received menacing phone calls in Accra, Ghana; and flew back from Macchu Pichu viewing the countryside below through rusted-out holes in a rickety old Russian Helicopter. But perhaps one of her strangest experiences was in being allowed to photograph a Maasai pre-circumcision feast, held traditionally for male elders only having to accept that since I wasnt a Maasai, I couldnt be counted as a woman!
Those interested in sharing her adventures are invited to accompany Alison Jones on her frequent photographic safaris or to seek her assistance in organizing an itinerary designed around their particular interests and travel style. In 2004, she copiloted six travelers over eight countries from Kenya to Sough Africa, following Africas great waterways in a Cessna 210 for a month, studying the flora, fauna and cultures of ten distinct ecosystems, and staying with local hosts in beautifully appointed accommodations. Her African photographic safari in 2005 involved slightly more rugged travel, beginning with the lakes of Ethiopias Great Rift Valley and Bale National Park, and continuing by boat down the Omo River through its delta into Kenyas Lake Turkana, whose indigenous cultures, including the remote Mursi, Hamar Koke, Nyangatom and Dassanech, have been relatively unaffected by modernization, as the Omo is isolated by inhospitable deserts. The rest of the trip included flying into a Chalbi Desert oasis filled with the gloriously silken-clad Gabbra people and camels, and then on to Lamu Island, whose Swahili culture still reflects the traditions of its dhow trade with Arabia and India.
These trips, devoted to studying the importance of each drop of water, have generated new insights into droughts and floods, desertification and water rights, and indigenous environmentalism. Accomplished by a variety of means of transport, including planes, boats, micro-light aircraft, rafts and mules, they have yielded a lifetime of memories wildlife behavior, bird songs, vibrant fabrics, captivating faces, rhythmic chanting. It is to be hoped that participants will also be inspired and enabled to contribute to the worlds debates on the crucial issue of water. A new expedition, Waters of Africa Part Three, is currently being planned for the summer of 2006.
Not all want to travel with such a determined focus. Ms. Jones has herself spent many weeks in Africa simply enjoying its glory, from gorillas, cheetahs and lions, to East Africas Maasai cultures, the Okananga Delta and Namibias Sossusvlei Dunes. She has equally enjoyed much rougher travel during her work with micro-enterprises and developing conservancies. The range of these experiences adds a unique depth to travel options she can offer those who share her penchant for travel. Having visited over 200 lodges and tented camps 120 in the last three years she has accumulated a body of knowledge and experience on the basis of which she is able to customize safaris suited to each individuals travel style and interests.
Alison Jones images, current projects, publications, travels, exhibits and speaking engagements can be viewed on her web site, alisonjones.com. Her African essays and photographic themes are being filed on time-in-africa.com.