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article imageDigital Journal Mavericks: The Photographer Saving Lost Worlds

By David Silverberg     May 27, 2008 in Entertainment
A Seattle photographer is focusing on bringing indigenous tribes and their lost lifestyles back into the public eye. Phil Borges' work exposes overlooked regions and he also provides kids with a chance to meet with those wildly different cultures.
Digital Journal's Mavericks of 2008 series will profile 10 trailblazers in various industries, allowing readers to learn more about the innovators and risk-takers who are making an impact in 2008.
Digital Journal — Phil Borges made a sharp U-turn when he was 45. An orthodontist living in San Francisco, he changed careers to become a full-time photographer, moving to Seattle. He didn’t want to be any regular photographer, though; he dedicated his life to profiling indigenous tribes and forgotten natives, giving viewers immediate glimpses into countries that rarely grace front-page headlines. Borges is making a name for himself as an activist photographer.
He aims to capture people upholding cultural traditions, offering a testament to a lost way of life. Borges’ work became such a sensation the publisher Rizzoli amassed his photos in four photo collections, the latest titled Women Empowered: Inspiring Change in the Emerging World. His photography hands in galleries across the U.S. and in 2006 the renowned conference TED invited Borges to speak about his overseas experiences.
Through his photo sessions, he learns volumes of information about endangered cultures only hands-on journeys could provide. For instance, in Ethiopia he found out that Mursi warriors don’t look directly into cameras because they believe photography causes blindness. In Kenya, he talked to a seven-year-old girl who just walked 12 miles with her camels to retrieve water at one of the few wells in her region. Njasunyers makes the trip three times a week to carry water back to her family in several one-gallon gourds.
Borges isn’t just impacting the artistic field with his photography of tribespeople in places like Tibet, Kenya and Mongolia. In 2001, he founded a nonprofit dedicated to connecting youth worldwide in order to build cross-cultural connections through photo-based storytelling. Bridges to Understanding provides cameras and training to students in the U.S. and other countries to help them tell their stories. This group has given dozens of classrooms in Washington, Alaska, New Mexico and Arizona a chance to interact with students in South America, Africa and Asia. Kids can “talk” to each other through online videos about a societal issue, such as groundwater pollution.
When students engaged directly with real peers from real places, they can learn more effectively about overseas cultures, Borges has discovered. And it’s a truth that hit home when he scoured the globe to chronicle the lives of oft-overlooked cultures. He might venture to Tibet to learn about secluded monasteries or hike into the Malau region to learn about the success of their microcredit programs. Some photo missions are political, some simply save a segment of history through his lens. spoke to Borges, 65, about his tireless work to photograph subjects he wants to preserve. He discussed his main motivation, the fulfillment of connecting with an African tribesman and the long-lasting impact of bringing kids into cultural conversations. What attracted you to photographing unique overseas cultures?
Phil Borges: I’ve always been attracted to third-world and remote countries. Once I got to those remote areas and I started interacting with the people, I loved the beauty that comes with those people living close to land. They wear the same clothes day in and day out, and the skin takes a certain hue that is purely natural. Once I became attracted to their lifestyle, I saw the challenges they faced and I became more of an advocate and activist.
A woman from the Kenyan tribe Samburu
Sukulen, 37, is known as a mystic in her village near Mt. Nyiru, Kenya. Two months before Borges arrived to photograph her, she predicted his arrival.
Courtesy Phil Borges Do you feel a certain duty to document these tribes, as a way to keep their presence in our collective consciousness?
Borges: Their footprint is already disappearing as we speak. Languages are dying, which means cultures are dying, whether in Africa or Latin America. It’s a tragedy these extinctions are going on, and I want to document their stories. There’s so much to gain by learning about diversity, which teaches us about the creativity and resiliency when the going gets tough.
The benefits I get as someone travelling to a vastly different place is very enriching. It shows me some of the foibles and limits of our own culture that we’ve come to accept. For example, look at how the U.S. is loaded with guns, a statement at odds with other overseas cultures.
: Enjoying this new perspective may have made you rethink about materialism in North American society.
Borges: You’re right, and I rethought about what it takes to me us happy. Everyone asks me "How I can be around these poor people, doesn’t it break your heart?" Sure, these tribespeople don’t have the stuff that makes our life easier, like medicines and conveniences, but are they less happy? Sometimes I think they are happier. They are close to their extended families and time to be with each other. We tend to equate economic prosperity with happiness in the West. Did you experience a connection with someone in your travels that made you feel united with someone coming from a very different background?
Borges: I met a native guy from Indonesia’s Irian Jaya who was part of the Dani tribe. With my guide, I walked over a little hill and saw all these naked men with penis gourds and bones in their noses. They started throwing spears at each other. I was worried, and asked my guide, “Should we get out of here?” He said, “No, it’s just a game down there, don’t worry.” We went down to look closer and a guy walked up to me and looked me up and down. He had bones stuck through his nose, and was covered in pig grease, but he broke out laughing like I was the strangest person he’s ever seen. And that made me laugh! We caught each other’s eye as we laughed, realizing how strange this situation was. The way we looked at each other was like meeting someone at a Halloween party you haven’t seen in years but was dressed up in a weird costume and then you finally recognized him. This bond occurred without us even needing to speak the same language. I’ve heard you call the Bridges to Understanding projects, where kids meet up with other kids from different cultures, a very “broadening experience.” What do you mean by that?
Borges: The programs wants to let kids know that if there’s an earthquake overseas it’s not just another news item where thousands of people die. It’s a disaster that impacts children like them.
When people travel, they broaden their perspective on other cultures. When American kids travel to Africa to meet up with African children, they learn how youth help out with the family coffer by working at a young age. Americans don’t do that. And this experience is about face time, no instant-messaging or texting each other. In Africa, boys walk arm in arm and girls kiss each other on the cheek when they greet, and that just amazed American kids when they saw that affection. It might allow our kids here to open up emotionally to each other down the road.
An 80-year-old woman in Bowku  Ghana
Azuma, 80, told Borges about women's groups being formed in her village in Ghana. She said, "Everything has changed in the last few years. Now women have a say in our village."
Courtesy Phil Borges Do you have any examples of how youth have used digital storytelling to make an impact in their community?
Borges: We like going into cities and asking kids, “What issue in your community would you like to solve?” When we went to Peru, we met kids in a small village who told us about a polluted river filled with garbage. The kids there began to document the devastation, climbing up into the Andes to shoot photos of tourists throwing bottles in the river and villagers throwing animal guts in the water. They showed their photos to the mayor and he was so impressed he passed a law forbidding further pollution of the river. The kids became empowered as more engaged citizens.
As new communication tools become easier for kids to access, it’s not only empowering but necessary for the next generation to find their voice. Kids do it naturally on sites like MySpace so it’s not a far leap for them to tell their stories to the world at large with other storytelling media like photography.
To view more photos from Phil Borges' collections, click here.

Mavericks Series

This is the fourth profile in a 10-part series on Mavericks of 2008, focusing on trailblazers in various fields, from Internet to photography to music. Every day, read about a new industry maverick. Tomorrow, we look at a blogger's mission to the be the ultimate consumer advocate.
Other Mavericks:
- Ron Deibert, creator of Psiphon software: Psiphon is a censorship-fighting tool, allowing those in oppressive regimes to access any website.
- Jayant Agarwalla, the inventor of the Scrabulous game: Scrabulous riffs off the classic Scrabble board game, and it's become the center of a controversial lawsuit launched by Hasbro and Mattel.
- Nikki Yanofsky, a 14-year-old jazz singer: Yanofsky is a teenage jazz prodigy who's already played Carnegie Hall and jazz festivals, giving audiences a taste of the talent brewing in her golden voice.
- Phil Borges, a photographer capturing the forgotten cultures of indigenous tribes: Passionate about foreign ways of life, Seattle-based Phil Borges wants to let the West know about endangered tribes and villages through his impacting photographs.
- Ben Popken, editor of blog The Consumerist: Few blogs fight for consumer rights as well as The Consumerist, which criticizes corporate scams big and small.
- Ausma Khan, editor of Muslim Girl magazine: Targeting an oft-misaligned demographic, Muslim Girl gives Islamic teens role models and advice on modern Muslim-American living.
- Patrice Desilets, creative director of gaming company Ubisoft: Game publisher Ubisoft is experimenting with new technologies and stretching its lineup past its Tom Clancy series.
- Pattie Maes, the woman creating human-tech relationships: As founder of MIT's Ambient Intelligence Group, Maes is bringing wildly inventive gadgets to our digital future.
- Jakob Trollback, a daring digital designer: Founder of Trollback + Company, Jakob has worked on stylish rebranding campaigns for HBO and CBS, while also dipping his feet into movie opening titles and music videos.
- Garrett Camp, founder of recommendation-friendly StumbleUpon: Through a top-secret algorithm, Garret Camp's StumbleUpon finds the websites that interest with you with one button click, acting as a blend of Google, Digg and word-of-mouth.
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