Celebrating cultures: Whole Terrain interviews photographer and author Jan Reynolds

By Hanna Wheeler

Jan on National Geographic coverJan Reynolds’ photographs and stories whisk you around the world in 80 seconds, but they always bring home a message of sustainability and cultural appreciation.

Her adventures include the first circumnavigation of Mount Everest, a solo crossing of the Himalaya, and a camel crossing of the Sahara desert. Her photographs and articles have been highlighted in National Geographic, The New York Times and Outside magazine. She is also the author of Celebrate! Connections Among Cultures, Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life: A Story of Sustainable Farming and the Vanishing Cultures series.

Her books are geared towards children, but older audiences will also appreciate the beautiful photos and information on indigenous cultures. In all of her books, she stresses the similarities between cultures rather than differences.

“If children spend time dividing us into categories of us and them, that division means there are differences that create a gap. When you see us as the same family, the tendency is to treat everyone better. We’re one human family,” said Reynolds.

In the teaching materials that accompany her Vanishing Culture series, Reynolds asks, “What do we lose if we lose a vanishing culture?”. When asked to answer that question, Reynolds said, “It’s like losing some of the fingers and toes of the human family. We lose wonderful traditions and languages, and ways of cooking food, and points of view. We lose a part of human history, part of who we are.”

Reynolds’ new series of work will focus on how climate change is impacting indigenous peoples’ lives and traditions. One example is the Maasai in the semi-arid regions of Kenya and Tanzania. Reynolds explained that though traditionally nomadic, the Maasai are facing environmental changes that cause them to become more sedentary—a lifestyle that could actually further devastate the desert environment.

When Reynolds writes for or speaks to children, she encourages them to care for their own environment. “I try to show the connection humans have to the natural world. I show that we can’t function without our natural world. I keep it light and easy, but I try to draw those connections,” she said. Indigenous people live more closely with that connection, she explained.

She introduces children to sustainable agriculture through Cycle of Rife, Cycle of Life. “Sustainability is a big word for little kids,” said Reynolds. So instead of speaking abstractly about sustainability, she demonstrates the concept by describing rice farming in Bali. “The key element is the ducks,” she said. Bali farmers free their duck flocks into their rice fields. The ducks eat the pests and fertilize the soil. “It helps [children] understand that everything grows in cycles,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds endeavors to live with indigenous people rather than merely photograph them. “I’m there long enough so that I’m part of the program,” she said. She doesn’t bring her camera out at the beginning. “We become friends and buddies first,” she explained.

She also tries not to be too much of an influence herself. “I try to be a fly on the wall. I don’t bring them things like an electronic watch. I don’t bring any trash. I research what would be OK gifts,” said Reynolds.

Reynolds brings her books alive through speaking engagements at schools, businesses, conventions, and festivals across the country. She excitedly tells stories and plays music as her beautiful and powerful photographs stream past. There are photos from her high-altitude hot-air balloon trip, photos of the almost-vanished Tuareg camel drivers in their indigo-dyed veils, photos of the yak she drove through a Himalayan mountain pass, and more.

However, her books and presentations aren’t just photo galleries or curiosities. They carry a larger message. In her introduction to Celebrate!, Reynolds says, “Experiencing these connections among celebrations showed me it doesn’t matter which language we sing in or what color our skin is underneath our costumes or clothing. We are much more alike than we are different.”

And in a presentation as part of last month’s Brattleboro Literary Festival in Vermont, Reynolds displayed a series of images of smiling and peaceful-looking mountain people. Afterward, she told children in the audience that they had just been viewing a tribe in Afghanistan. “It’s good not to dislike a whole region because of what you hear on the news,” she told them.

Jan Reynolds is a writer, photographer and adventurer who lives in Stowe, Vermont when she’s not traveling. Her Vanishing Cultures photo-essay series was recognized as Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People and selected for the Kids’ Pick of the List by the American Bookseller’s Association. She holds the world record for women’s high-altitude skiing.

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