Memory of Colors
Article by Peter van den Hamer
Memory of Colors is the name of an ambitious photography project by the French/Colombian photographer Jaime Ocampo-Rangel. Jaime's wife Lia also contributes to the project as a videographer. The project currently has a website in English and French (Spanish is planned).
The project involves photographing portraits of people from distinctive indigenous cultures in remote parts of the world. The photographs show individuals or small groups against a monochromatic background. The color of the backdrop plays an important role in the project because Jaime associates different cultures with different dominant "natural" colors. This can be based on the color of their skin, a color used in their clothing or ornaments, or even something abstract about the people.
Girl from Ethiopia's Mursi tribe
2008, Hasselblad with a Phase One P30+ digital back, 100 mm lens
The resulting photographs were on display in 2010 as larger-than-life prints at the UNESCO headquarters and the Polka art gallery, both in Paris. A collection of over 1300 pictures has recently been released as an iPhone/iPad app in collaboration with Fotopedia. There are also plans for a traveling Memory of Colors exhibition on a sailboat that will tour six continents starting (hopefully) in late 2011.
A man with a mission
The indigenous people covered by the project are gradually disappearing: they are losing their cultural identity by merging with other cultures and due to sustained exposure to global cultural influences such as media, products and tourism.
An extreme example is the impact of the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula. In the span of less than 50 years, this changed relatively isolated sheikdoms struggling to get by, into an affluent and influential nation with bustling financial centers such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. On the other hand, parts of the Arabian Peninsula without oil and with minimal tourism (e.g. Yemen) have changed much less.
A more sweeping historical example is the colonization of large parts of the world by various seafaring European superpowers (Spain, Portugal, France, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands) between the 16th and 19th centuries. This led to the introduction of new cultures, new languages, new religions, new trade and above all new rulers for entire continents and subcontinents.
Sadhu holy man from India
2007, Hasselblad with P30+, 100 mm lens
Jaime Ocampo-Rangel's goal with the Memory of Colors project is to record this disappearing world heritage from the perspective of a photographer. He also hopes the project will increase the awareness of the value of these cultures among the general public, the indigenous peoples themselves and their respective governments.
This quest is quite similar to that of the Canadian ethnographer Wade Davis who stresses the disappearance of cultural diversity in what he calls the ethnosphere. Anthropologists claim that this disappearance of cultural diversity in this ethnosphere is taking place much more rapidly than the disappearance of biological diversity in the biosphere. Wade Davis held an mind-boggling 22-minute lecture on this at the 2003 TED conference.
Jaime Ocampo-Rangel was born in Colombia (yes, in South America), and subsequently got his training in Miami, Spain, New York and now works in Paris. He is an accomplished fashion and advertising photographer. His commercial work is no longer featured on his web sites because he now devotes almost all his time and energy to Memory of Colors.
Jaime Ocampo-Rangel with a Kuna girl in Panama
photo by Lia Ocampo-Rangel, 2009
His shift in focus from Vogue-style fashion photography to almost National Geographic-style photography started in 1999 when he visited the Kogui people of Colombia. The Koguis were hardly influenced by the Spanish conquistadors because they withdrew to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains and consistently chose to avoid contact with “modern” society. Ocampo-Rangel now describes his encounter with the Kogui as “a spiritual and artistic revelation” that led him to seek out and document such cultures around the world. The project has been ongoing over the past 12 years, originally in parallel to his fashion and advertising photography.
For his Memory of Colors, Ocampo-Rangel uses striking images to convey his heart-felt message about the dignity, humanity and fragility of the peoples he photographs. His focus on a single huge project sets him apart from documentary photographers who do smaller assignments for magazines and newspapers like the award-winning Ilvy Njiokiktjien (she also photographed the Mursi tribe during a road trip from Cape Town to her native Holland). Another difference with say a National Geographic article is that Ocampo-Rangel essentially still creates posed portraits. Context information about the landscape, homes and way of life are invisible in the images, but are captured separately on video by Lia's video work.
Ocampo-Rangel is obviously also not a trained anthropologist or ethnographer like Wade Davis (who also does photography). Although the two think along similar lines, Ocampo-Rangel doesn’t worry about scientific subtleties like whether the holy Sadhu’s of India or folkloristic French villagers belong in the same category as the Kogui or the Tuaregs.
You can find more information about what drives Jaime in various short videos made by Jaime and Lia. Jaime’s narrative, with a confiding whispering tone (reminiscent of naturalist Sir David Attenborough) and the strong accent (reminiscent of Jacques Cousteau), give a good impression about his goals and dreams.
Fotopedia’s App for iPhone & iPad
The Fotopedia Memory of Colors app, released on Feb 23rd 2011, runs on the iPhone and the iPad. It costs only 3$ (initially even less). The interactive app covers 40 cultures in over 1300 images. These are significantly more images than what can be shown at an exhibition or in a book.
Fotopedia Memory of Colors on the iPhone
2009, Hasselblad with P30+ digital back, 100 mm
As all Fotopedia products, Memory of Colors allows you to browse the photographs while pulling in related encyclopedia text from Wikipedia articles and maps from Google. The markers used in Google Maps only show a general area where the people live rather than specific villages or valleys where the images were taken.
Fotopedia’s software is easy to use and allows you to browse the images in different ways, the most important being per culture or per country (see controls in the above screenshot). To my taste the images could have been more rigorously selected. Sometimes you find similar images, or even alternative crops of the same photo. This is obviously not a big deal because the browsing is fast and you are free to browse any way you like. But it would have been nicer to distinguish between photos that are worth exhibiting and have been processed with great care versus "bonus" pictures that are useful to study a particular culture in a bit more detail.
The overall app can be seen as an iPad-based equivalent of a coffee table book or National Geographic (which is to some degree a coffee table magazine). The information about some tribes is very limited because of limited content about them in Wikipedia. There is no information from the photographer about individual photographs or photo shoots – unlike what you would expect in a real documentary. Jaime and I are currently starting to incorporate his (sometimes dramatic but generally emotional) stories about the various photography expeditions into the Memory of Colors web site.
To my surprise, the iOS app allows you to post and e-mail medium-resolution copies of the images. The smaller images ("send as E-mail") are not watermarked. Photography buffs may be pleased to learn that the EXIF information in these JPG files are still intact. This is how I got the technical details for the captions here.
Although the impact of fancy equipment is typically overrated by amateur photographers, it is worth describing the setup that Jaime uses – if only because he lugs it to remote locations. It also highlights the similarity to the equipment used in standard studio photography.
Jaime posing with the Ovambo tribe of Angola in front of a makeshift mobile studio
2006, Hasselblad with P30 digital back, 35 mm, cropped, click to enlarge
The camera is a medium-format Hasselblad with usually a 100 mm lens ("70 mm equivalent"). The digital backs on the Hasselblad were successively a 21 MPixel Phase One H2, a 30 MPixel Phase One P30+ and now a 60 MPixel Phase One P65+. Backdrops, stands and reflectors are standard studio stuff. The main light is usually a strip-shaped Elinchrome softbox (not shown) running on a generator (shown). The images often have a secondary light source (in background above) or reflector to fill the shadows left by the softbox.
The colors are a central element in the Memory of Colors project. As Jaime wrote:
On previous voyages I noticed that different ethnic groups favor different colors. It’s as if they had lined up and picked a color from the rainbow one-by-one. Some associate the colors with their spiritual quest or with images from their subconsciousness. Others choose the color because of its beauty. Then there are those who, like the Himba in Namibia, link colors with healing and protective powers.
This seemingly exotic and artistic association between cultures and colors can also be found in Wade Davis' TED lecture where he rhetorically asks:
In the end, then, it really comes to a choice: do we want to live in a monochromatic world of monotony or do we want to embrace a polychromatic world of diversity?
Examples of associations between cultures and colors
Enawene Nawe (Brasil), Himba (Namibia), Hindu (India), Tuareg (Algeria)
Karo (Ethiopia), Geisha (Japan), Embera (Panama), Secoya (Peru)
I certainly can't judge whether a colored backdrop indeed matches the “spirituality” of a particular people, but the strong background colors do make a difference - despite hiding the environment in which the photographs were made. Note that in some cases multiple colors are used for a single people. I suppose that a true artist is allowed to break rules, especially his own.
In some of the less important images the background cloth is a distractingly wrinkled. I understand that cloth can’t be ironed in the jungle or in the desert, but it might help to either wrinkle it more (so that it becomes uniform) or to stretch the cloth to minimize the problem.
World Tour and Sponsorship
As you may have concluded by now, Jaime Ocampo-Rangel likes to think big. His next major step in the Memory of Colors project is to travel around the world with his wife and two other associates in a sailboat. This will take two years. The trip is a hybrid between visiting more indigenous cultures and docking at major cities to display his work. Stills and video can be projected after dark on the large white sails of the boat. The purpose is to spread the message that these valuable cultures are vanishing.
The trip is currently planned to start at the Eiffel Tower (situated along the Seine River) due to its proximity to UNESCO’s Paris-based headquarters and to sail to South America (Brazil, Venezuela and his native Colombia), via the Panama Canal, to visit Australia, Asia, Africa, and to finally cross the Atlantic a second time to end at the United Nations building (on the East River in New York City).
The trip is financially supported by sponsors. When I met Jaime in his Paris studio in mid-March 2011, Jaime mentioned that he had already received substantial sponsorship commitments. So apparently Jaime has the skills to get his dreams off the ground. But the project is still searching for additional sponsorship from individuals (contributions of 5€ or more) and especially from organizations. This is because the overall project is quite ambitious: money is needed to purchase the boat, cover the costs of the trip, but also to pay for the facilities and time to convert the resulting photographic and video material into a book and especially a film for airing on various television networks.
The most obvious types of institutional sponsors that come to my mind include:
- magazines and museums related to far away cultures,
- government agencies committed to the welfare of cultural minorities,
- companies that make products associated to colors and their emotional impact (paint, fashion, fabrics, lighting, design…),
- the photography industry,
- the broadcasting, publishing and movie industries (the movie and book side), and
- travel agencies that specialize in responsible forms of tourism (a tricky one?).
Last but not least, donations can also be done by providing what Jaime called “professional skills”. That is how I got into fixing some of the English texts (such details don’t have priority for the Master). So, for example, support from a professional copywriter or advertising agency would really help get things rolling. The web page on sponsoring indicates how you can contact Jaime.
Jaime's travel diary [added 30-Mar-11]
Jaime is currently setting up a travel blog (in English, French and later in Spanish versions) where Jaime tells about the various Memory of Colors expeditions. It all started in a 1999 encounter with the Kogui of Colombia. Next is a 2004 trip to the Wayana (a.k.a. the Maroni of French Guiana) and a 2005 trip trip to the Tuaregs of the Sahara. And there is more to come.