Yakuza Mistress, Tokyo, Japan

Yakuza Mistress, Tokyo, Japan © Chris Rainier

Their soft, black bodies covered our arms, legs and feet, and a little way into the valley, the pain of the wounds forced us to stop to pull them off our entire bodies. These stops soon began to feel like a matter of survival. Every 20 minutes I peeled some 50 leeches off me, a mixture of blood and sweat covering my arms and legs. We could not burn them off — hard to do in a tropical downpour — so I carefully sliced them off with a machete, which sometimes left their tiny heads buried in my flesh. By the time I could clear the leeches, 10 more would have crawled onto my unprotected skin.” Chris Rainier did not escape his ordeal in the Irian Jaya jungle without serious infection (as told in his book, Where Masks Still Dance: New Guinea). But he insists that braving hordes of leeches, hiking waist-deep in mud, eating insect larvae, sleeping in trees and watching thousands of dollars of camera gear drown in a river are all worth it.

Since childhood, Rainier, who now makes his home in Telluride, Colorado, has trekked through numerous countries on all seven continents. He has visited some of the most remote places in the world, many not marked on any map, to photograph indigenous cultures on the edge of eradication and rebirth. His first book, Keepers of the Spirit (Beyond Words Publishing, 1995), with photos of indigenous peoples in Tibet, northern British Columbia, Rapa Nui and Southeast Asia, set him on a course beyond his work as a war photographer for TIME and LIFE magazines. Two more books followed: Where Masks Still Dance: New Guinea (Bulfinch Press, 1996); and Ancient Marks: The Sacred Origins of Tattoos and Body Marking (Earth Aware Editions, 2004). His color photographs in Grand Canyon: River at Risk (Earth Aware Editions, 2008) accompany an eloquent text by renowned ethnobotanist Wade Davis.

Rainier’s black and white images dodge the clichés and stereotypes of the “noble savage.” They fend off anthropologists and photojournalists who complain that they fail to accurately document. Instead, they venture into an aesthetic all their own.

More of this article can be read in the Winter 2010 issue.