I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world

Mirrors in which we see our true selves – reflections on Otherness


In a previous post, I shared a TED Talk given by photographer Jimmy Nelson, creator of the Before They Pass Away project. This stunning photo collection documents 29 of the world’s last indigenous tribes. The photos themselves are amazingly beautiful and highly artistic, capturing iconic images of indigenous peoples and the landscapes where they live throughout the world.

These cultures are under threat from the encroaching modern world, and this ambitious project is one man’s attempt to not only document their existence, but to spark conversation about the diversity of human culture and the preservation of these last tribal cultures.

Samburu tribe in northern Kenya. Image by Jimmy Nelson, beforethey.com.

Samburu tribe in northern Kenya. Photo by Jimmy Nelson at http://www.beforethey.com

As I looked through the photos and read the captions about each tribe I found myself wondering what it is that interests us about these Others. What do we find so enticing about these images of distant and exotic foreigners? Is it simple curiosity? A desire to learn? Is it a craving for something new, a search for novelty?

It seems that interest in such exotic Others often leads us in one of two different directions.

In the first, we can be fascinated by difference because we see it as something strange, freakish, frightening and yet at the same time tantalizing. There is something dangerous about these Others, something taboo about the way they live. Perhaps by looking at their images and reading descriptions about their customs, religion or beliefs, we can vicariously experience an alternative to our own culture, albeit in a safe, controlled and distant way.

When we approach the Other in this way – as an oddity, as one who defies our sense of what is normal and acceptable – perhaps our response is one of self-affirmation. We see the strangeness of this Other, the backwardness of his (or her) ways, the perversions of his culture, his ignorance of proper morality, and it makes us feel more secure in the fortress of our own worldview and way of life. We can feel smug and self-satisfied because our way is superior, and we can thank our lucky stars that, at the end of the day, no matter our personal or cultural flaws, at least we don’t live like those Other people. Our ego and sense of self is re-affirmed and we can happily go on with our lives.

Alternately, we can approach the Other in a more positive way. We can admire the Other’s beauty, their interesting clothing and appearance. We can see valuable aspects of their spirituality; their simpler, less materialistic way of life; their close community ties; their deeper connection to nature. We may view the Other’s culture as more authentic, more innocent, less corrupted by the negative influences of modernity. We may see them through the lens of nostalgia, as remnants of the past, historical relics from the proverbial garden of Eden. By learning about these Others and their way of life, we express our longing to escape the complications and restraints of modern life, our desire to return to a state of childlike innocence and simplicity.

Unfortunately, neither of these views does the Other justice. Both are too narrow and simplistic. Any single culture is so complex that to truly understand it could take an outsider a lifetime of study, and would require living within the culture itself, among the people being studied. Even then, we would still see the Other through the filter of our own culture, our own biases and way of life.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to learn about those who are different from us. It just means we must be realistic in our expectations, realize the limitations of our own understanding and remain constantly vigilant against our tendency to oversimplify, to make hasty judgements, to create false comparisons. The path toward truly understanding the Other is fraught with intellectual, moral and philosophical pitfalls, and we must be careful how we tread.

So, if we cannot hope to get a very accurate understanding of these distant Others from photos and books – from our gazing at a distance – what is it we hope to gain from the experience of looking and reading? What is our goal?

Perhaps it is an opportunity to be shocked out of our complacency. By seeing images so starkly different, we are shaken out of our usual dullness. We are forced to look deeply, to pay attention. It is hard for us to look away. We begin to see ourselves and the world around us in a new light. Things are turned upside-down. The ground feels different beneath our feet and the air tastes different when we imagine the roads that the Other walks on and the bright empty sky that hangs above the his head.

And then…

We begin to ask questions.

First, if we are brave, we may ask what makes this Other tick. How does he feel? What does he truly believe? What does he love? What does he fear? What are his desires? How does he interpret the world and his place in it? How does he create meaning in the experiences of this life?

While we can ponder these questions, we cannot really answer those questions about or for the Other. That is something only he can do.

And so, if we are even braver, we then begin to ask those questions of ourselves. We realise that we too are an Other in someone else’s eyes. Our culture, way of life, beliefs – none of these are to be taken for granted. There are countless ways to be human, and our way is just one of many. 

Perhaps that is why we feel such an irresistible pull towards the Other, why we seek these encounters with those who are distant and different. They offer us something immensely valuable – a mirror in which we can more clearly see our true selves.

*  *  *

To learn more about the Before They Pass Away project and to view the amazing photos of indigenous societies around the world, click here.

To visit the Before They Pass Away Facebook page, click here.

To read the first part of my ongoing series on Meeting the Other, click here.

To watch Jimmy Nelson’s TED Talk, click here.

5 thoughts on “Mirrors in which we see our true selves – reflections on Otherness

  1. We are made to want to know more. We are fascinated by knowledge. As a baby enters into the world, they are constantly looking around, eyeing everything, eventually touching everything. If they don’t… as a parent, you would assume something is wrong with them. This is how they form themselves. We are geared as human beings to want to know more about the world around us, to be fascinated by it, engrossed in the potential knowledge of the mysteries. And yes, by learning more about the world, we see ourselves inside of it more clearly… through the mirror…. where we fit in, how we operate, why we operate the way we do… it’s a constant affirmation of our own egos to make us feel more secure in ourselves within this huge mass of constant mystery known as life. But, as with every learning experience, there comes a time when we take what we’ve learned about ourselves and apply it outwardly.

    We eventually see things through others’ eyes and it adds flair to what we’ve always known to be “right”. It shakes our ego that we’ve molded and caressed for our whole lives, and if we are open to it, we realize that nobody is “right”, and that the Other is actually in us too. We have so much to learn from each other. You’re right, it would take a lifetime to know even one other culture completely, and even then we still see it through our own filter. But the yearning for that knowledge of the Other is what brings us all closer into connection with each other, and what breaks down the ego that we’ve so carefully put together over the years. Seeking to know the Other (its beauty, flaws, joys, sadness) is what allows us to see the same in ourselves, and puts us in a place that is inside of humanity instead of as a part of a culture that is above humanity. The vast differences between some cultures can be intimidating for some who fear the breakdown of their ego. For others, it is seen as a space where more knowledge and understanding can take place. This is the space where compassion grows…if we’ve truly taken to heart what it means to be a part of this world, and not superior to it.

    • Jen, thanks for sharing this. It’s awesome. I might just have to quote the whole thing and make it a ‘guest post’, if you don’t mind! I’m loving the conversation on this topic! I am swamped with moving stuff for the next few days, but can’t wait to think and write more about all of this! 🙂 Hugs!

  2. Pingback: Meeting the Other: musings of a world traveler | Adventures of an International Advocate

  3. Pingback: Authentic culture? | I wonder while I wander

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s