NWNL Press


NWNL Press


During fiesta, a young girl from Zunil, in the highlands of Guatemala, happily wears her village’s traditional huipile (woven blouse), as she is surrounded by older women’s skirts of colorful ikat-dyed fabric.

A Visual Anthropology With Alison Jones
By Nella Principe-Nelson

(Reprinted from Photographer’s Forum, Summer 2001)

MANY would consider lying near a lion and mingling with the Maasai as out of this world, but not California photographer Alison Jones. This is her world, and it is a diverse world — an adventure in awareness she shares by means of her camera. From New Orleans jazz musicians to Peruvian panpipe players, Alison focuses on the common people and community themes for which she calls herself a “visual anthropologist.”

Born in rural Hunterdon County, New Jersey, this travel photographer, while still a child, developed an understanding of community, closeness and everyday life which she now captures in her photos worldwide. “Home is not just a hearth, it’s a state of mind,” she explains. “I focus on its themes: the glory of women’s work, the land’s patterns, street markets, folk music, children’s games, crafts, dress, and the way people come together on the common ground of a town square.”

Alison grew up seeing her environment through the eyes of her architect father. “He would point out the visual details of my daily life or whatever captured his whimsical eye, framing them for me with his large hands,” she recalls. Her mother worked as a bookbinder, sharing her love of the printed piece, its design and message. In the first grade, Alison wrote her own neighborhood newspaper, which she distributed by bicycle. Ever since, she has found joy in creating visual products. She remembers her first camera, a “Brownie,” and the days of avidly photographing family trips to historic destinations. In the fifth grade, Alison received second place in a photography contest. “I was so disappointed that I didn’t win first place. I guess that was the first evidence of my passion for photography.”

After graduating from college with a history major, working at Antiques magazine and raising two daughters, Alison entered a new dimension with her photography. “My education and first job taught me the importance of social environment, and motherhood brought out my awareness of the legacy we leave our children,” she reveals. “These experiences reinforced my interest in both environmental and documentary photography.”

She notes, “Today, women are having a broader impact than ever before, often carrying traditional cultural values and village legacies into leadership positions. I infuse this female code into my images of threatened cultures and environments. I honor the beauty of people cultivating the land, sustaining their families and maintaining their communities’ financial viability. I search for images that resound with our sameness and connection.”

Alison traveled extensively with her daughters, domestically and internationally, as she had done with her own parents and sister. Comfortable in travel as a way of life, she then struck out on her own. With many frontiers opening ahead of her, she enrolled in classes at the International Center of Photography and Maine Photographic Workshop. Harvey Stein, photographer and teacher, and Henry Shull, developer of Cibachrome processing in the U.S., were two important mentors for Alison. She studied the photographs of Atget, Strand, Weston, Bourke-White, Lange and Hine. Gaining confidence from artistic peers, she connected herself with galleries, photographic organizations and opportunities for travel photography.

In December 2000, the renowned Brooks Institute of Photography awarded Alison an Honorary Master of Science degree in the field of professional photography. In addition, she became chair of the NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) Awards Committee and has become further involved in slide shows, radio and TV appearances, teaching workshops and aiding students on yearbook committees. In these, she shared her recent experiences in Ghana, St. Croix, Guatemala and Kenya where she captured Maasai weddings and circumcision ceremonies. Gaining the trust of the Maasai, Alison has gradually worked her camera into their communities and photographed often-closed customs.

Alison’s first photographic identity came from her wildlife photographs taken in East Africa. Unexpectedly enchanted by flocks of flamingos, mating cheetahs and comical warthog families, she found her “spirit home” in the Rift Valley. Lions roaring outside her tent especially fascinated her. “I remember leaving my vehicle to lie in the Serengeti grasses at sunrise with a 35–135 mm lens on my Nikon F-3 for a backlit photo of an approaching, large-maned lion. Despite shaking hands, I focused and released the shutter. As he saw me and stopped just a few feet away, I wondered suddenly whether it would be my last image. Then I recalled the loud grrumphing all night outside camp — the sound of lions feasting. I saw his stomach was full, and I was safe.”

Alison’s advice to wildlife photographers, besides remembering to photograph predators when their stomachs are full, is to study animals’ behavioral habits in order to not disturb nature’s rhythms and to get the best possible photos. The most important tip on photographing wildlife is to get eye-level or lower, as images looking down on animals do not convey the same involvement. Her equipment list for an African safari includes:

• 24–120 mm lens for environment
• 70–300 mm lens for portraits
• fixed 300 mm lens with F 2.8 for low light
• Teleconverter (for birds especially)
• Fill–flash for people

The majority of Alison’s memorable photographic experiences occurred on assignments in Kenya, Tanzania, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Peru for the nonprofit organization TechnoServe. Photographing their projects of fostering rural development in Third World countries firmly established her interest in documenting cultures and her sense of social responsibility as a photographer. After a TechnoServe assignment in Nicaragua photographing soldiers returning to farming, she wrote to a friend, “I successfully managed to avoid the 90,000 remaining land mines in northern Nicaragua. I rode off on a farmer-cowboy’s horse and visited former Contra headquarters! On a berm in Quilali at sunrise, I photographed boys digging out Sandinista mortar shells for the fun of it. I saw new villages being created by bands of rebels who had traded guns for plows, but had no families left. The only cultural identity I witnessed in that intensely humid and hot landscape was that of poverty. However, as I edit my slides now on my light box, I see sparkling eyes, determination and gratitude for successful harvests.”

Alison believes that TechnoServe and other nonprofits can offer a choice for the rural poor. She feels that if we all become involved, a middle class can develop in Third World nations. A good photograph, she insists, is more than just a sharp image with smiling faces and beautiful scenery; it has to carry a message. In an era of movies and of hundreds of TV channels available at the press of a remote, the still image has an important place. Alison’s favorite African proverb states, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.”

The silhouettes of two girls on a cobblestone street lit by the sunset of Estramoz, Portugal take shape in this golden scene.

Alison’s photographic ventures have also taken her to mostly rural regions of Portugal, France, Italy, Austria, England and Scotland. While traveling, she often creates images with oil pastels when the light is “off” for photography. She agrees with Voltaire that “All the arts are brothers — each one is a light to the other.” Like photography the visual arts are based on a scaffolding of color, form, scale and composition. She also plays the piano, likening music to photography as both use math to establish harmony, rhythm and timing.

In Central America, Alison has visited Guatemala often, intrigued by the Mayan culture and women’s weaving traditions. She has crisscrossed the United States many times with her cameras. She will never forget her experiences in Saint Genevieve, Missouri during the Mississippi River flood of 1993, when she recorded a community in crisis. These expeditions have yielded images for exhibits, slide shows, greeting cards and now a busy stock business marketed by Danita Delimont Associates in the U.S., Granata in Italy and Uniphoto in Japan. Alison’s images appear in magazines worldwide, on electronic screen savers and as book covers.

With her Nikon F5, Alison utilizes lenses from 17 mm to 300 mm; a 100 mm macro lens; and polarizing, warming and split neutral density filters. She carries extra amounts of everything (batteries, lens caps, etc.), a flashlight, a knife, baggies, labels, props for color and entertainment, and good brakes so she can catch that photo opportunity she just passed.

Alison’s future plans include creating photo essays on topics ranging from “People Reading” to “Sailing Dhows of East Africa.” She is also developing book proposals. As she enjoys conducting photo workshops, seminars and slide shows while continuing her service to nonprofits, she continues to further her business in stock photography. She tells beginning photographers with similar goals to stay in good physical shape. “You could find yourself sandbagging during a flood or climbing Aztec temples.” She also suggests continually taking classes to hone, as well as stretch, your photographic skills and to study photography books and magazines as well as exhibits and museums.

Alison considers herself a documentarian, witness and visual anthropologist. “At a time when photographs are increasingly constructs of the computer, I appreciate seeing the what-is, even if it includes garbage. Like Minor White, when I photograph I don’t look for what I will ‘take,’ but instead, what I will be ‘given.’ And I’ve been given so much!

“In a library of photography, my images would be filed under ‘photo reality,’ not ‘photo fiction.’ I want my images to be a stop sign. Although a photograph is still, framed and frozen in time, its viewer should move react, reflect and then take appropriate action— the ultimate purpose for stop signs.” Alison is motivated by her belief that a photograph can save a life, open a viewer’s heart and explain one human being to another.

On the East Coast, at the Stamford Palace Theater in Connecticut, Alison displayed her photographs of incarcerated men being reunited with their children for the first time since sentencing. The edited expressions of the inmates and their children were brilliant. “The actual experience was rather different than I had expected. I saw no distance, disapproval, scorn or discomfort. Physical touch was easy for them, cuddling was natural and smiles won the day. What showed on my film’s emulsion was curiosity, joy, pride, humor and respect.”

Concentrating on social issues, Alison photographs individuals and communities with the hope of counteracting the depersonalizing, dehumanizing trends of globalization. “I’ve learned much about our similarities in today’s ethnically fluid world and have studied the lessons of many ancestral cultures worldwide. At times I feel like a Renaissance student, studying geology, history, political science, horticulture, zoology and the arts. These subjects interest me because other cultures can be a mirror if we look closely. A Swahili proverb says, ‘When a tree falls, it lands on its neighbor.’ As civilizations disappear so does our sustenance, our connection to each other and to Mother Earth.”

After much travel outside the U.S., Alison Jones yearns to portray the “rooted” elements of American lives. Until now, she has had little interest in contributing to the super-saturated image markets of contemporary U.S. society. She says life is better than ever at age 50, and she believes that her world today is at her own doorstep. Her credo is: “Photographs can portray the humanity of a culture. Photography can create a foundation for new concepts, contradict long-held perceptions and hopefully force the future to make up its mind.”

Alison Jones’ Tried and Tested Travel Photography Tips:

Prior to Departure

• Research festivals, sunset times and available maps; try to allot one month per destination.

• Study the destination: its history, economy, patterns of play, food and it sources, means of transportation and how people support themselves.

• Learn some of the language to show respect. Translate model releases into language needed to more appropriately ask permission for photos.

• Toss out preconceptions and make room for new thoughts, like Homer’s Odysseus 2,800 years ago, and keep your itinerary loose.

• First photograph what your subject is proud of (e.g., an important monument before a picturesque alley).

• Use locals as assistants.

• Bring laser photos as examples of style or take a Polaroid camera for feedback and greater cooperation.

How to Connect with your Destination Once There

• Believe in the job at hand and your subjects will, too. Never sneak a photo.

• People cannot be separated from their environment so use a threefold approach:

a. Shoot the overall: landscapes, cityscapes, relationship of ecology and community, and community design.

b. Shoot general scenes — portraits, wildlife, street scenes — using different points of view (i.e. climb stairs, go up in a balloon, lie in the grass). Go behind the scenes or pick a busy square.

c. Shoot details (a door, leaf, hand, crafts) using a macro lens.

• Join in and get messy! When you’re involved in an activity, the camera is less visible, and images are less posed.

How to Establish a Creative Mindset

• Stylistically use color as a statement, diagonals for energy and side-lighting for texture. Look for humor, silhouettes for universal effect and contrasts of grand and simple.

• Set self-assignments, such as “Van Gogh yellows,” “a bad hair day,” “an open window.”

• Select, abstract, reduce, enlarge, but don’t transform. Honesty is the key. Widen viewers’ horizons, surprise them with particulars, enchant their imagination!


Nella Principe-Nelson is a freelance writer, poet and novelist residing in Ventura, California.

This article is reprinted from Photographer’s Forum, Summer 2001.