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The Way We Are Now,

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An investigation into the continued traditions of body and face-painting throughout Colombia's indigenous tribes.
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  • "The Way We Are Now," began with a photo I saw in an exhibition taken in 1908 by British anthropologist Thomas Whiffen. It shows a group of Okaina girls in the Colombian Amazon standing in a line with their bodies painted (below).  
  • The photo even though it was over a hundred years old appeared to be the last visual evidence of an art that had disappeared completely over the course of the following century.

    It struck me as so sad that nobody else had managed to take another picture of this beautiful tradition, despite cameras having existed since the 1840's, that I set out to document to what extent body and face-painting does or doesn't still go on throughout Colombia's indigenous tribes, so that a hundred years from today we do have a record.

    I travelled solo, with 45 kilos of equipment, and all photos are shot on location with natural light.



  • Cubean lady with here face painted ready to go out to the 'chagra' or crops of yucca in the jungle where they cultivate their main food source. The paint, 'carayuru', is made from the boiling down of a certain type of leaf until it forms a dry red paste.  In order for this paste to stick, chilren are made to inhale chilli powder through their noses when young, until their skin starts to produce natural grease. Vaupés, Colombia.



  • Yucuna tribesmen dressed for the 'Baile del Muñeco' or 'Puppet Dance'. Amazon, Colombia.



  • A Nukak girl. In 1988 the Nukak began to have contact with the outside world for the first time. Numerous diseases resulting from this contact and the arrival of the conflict in their territory has reduced their number to only 500 today. They are a nomadic people, constantly on the move through the jungle, and the strong lines of their face painting serve as armour that helps them to press on through the dense forest, without cease. Guaviare, Colombia.



  • Nukak girl.  The Nukak are a nomadic jungle people who first made contact with the outside world in 1985.  Since then their numbers have been ravaged by contact with western dieseases, and combined with persecution from the guerrilla who now occupy their land, they number less than 500 and are in danger of extinction.



  • Nukak mother and baby, Guaviare, Colombia. The Nukak are a nomadic jungle people who first made contact with the outside world in 1985. Since then their culture has changed fast, facing pressures from all sides.



  • A young Wayuu girl in La Guajira, Colombia.  The female Wayuu traditionally paint spirals and other figures on their faces when young to represent the way they are feeling and the stage of life they are in.  The spirals, a commonly chosen theme, represent the circle of life and the menstrual cycle as the woman passes through puberty into womanhood.  As they get older and marry, the woman change to wearing inelegant blotches of the same paint on their faces in order to make them less attractive to other men.



  • Nukak girl, Guaviare, Colombia. The Nukak are a nomadic jungle people who first made contact with the outside world in 1985. Since then their numbers have been ravaged by contact with western dieseases, and combined with persecution from the guerrilla who now occupy their land, they number less than 500 and are in danger of extinction.



  • An Embera lady with her entire body painted black with 'jagua'. Sometimes the Embera women cover their whole body with the same paint they use to paint symbols and figures, in order to alleviate mosquito bites or help cure skin irritations. Chocó, Colombia.



  • Tattoed Embera Man, Chocó, Colombia.  The Embera traditionally paint their faces and bodies with 'jagua', the juice squeezed from the rind of a jungle fruit.  However outside culture has already made deep inroads into their own, and many of the young generation are now abandoning their own traditions in favour of western ones, even this man, who is the son of the 'jaibaná', the village's spiritual leader.



  • An Embera lady with her entire body painted black with 'jagua'.  Sometimes the Embera women cover their whole body with this same paint that they use to paint symbols and figures, in order to alleviate mosquito bites or help cure skin irritations. Normally it takes about 24 hours after applying for it to achieve it's full dark colour. Chocó, Colombia.



  • A Wounaan mother from the Chocó, Colombia, paints her daughter with 'jagua' and a form of wooden fork with three prongs which helps to draw these parallel lines.



  • Two Embera friends giggle on a hammock. Although in many areas it has ceased to be a daily custom, Embera children still regularly like to be painted for fun. The girl on the left has the figure of the boa snake, which is usually worn for fiestas and celebrations, and the girl on the right has a more abstract geometric pattern, which is a curative figure usually used for healing. Chocó, Colombia.



  • A Wounaan boy from the Chocó, Colombia, painted with the figure of the bear, which endows strength and courage to those that wear it. The paint, extracted from the zest of the jagua fruit, is applied using a form of wooden fork, which allows the drawing of three parallel lines at a time.



  • A Yucuna man dressed for the Baile del Muñeco (Puppet Dance), which is a custom still practised strongly deep in the Colombian Amazon. Every february, for this celebration of the abundance of the chontaduro fruit, the men dress up in these costumes and masks and dance for 36 hours non-stop. All the materials used are 100% natural, including the paints and colours of the masks, and the exposed hands and feet they also paint black, to evoke a kind of 'death' through which they can contact the spirit world.



  • A young Cubean painted with 'carayurú'. On her forehead she has a sunrise and rainbow which represent the change from childhood through puberty into womanhood.  The paint, 'carayuru', is made from the boiling down of a certain type of leaf until it forms a dry red paste. In order for this paste to stick, chilren are made to inhale chilli powder through their noses when young, until their skin starts to produce natural grease.   Vaupés, Colombia.



  • In the arid deserts in the north, Wayuu women use a natural form of sun protection. First they apply a base layer of 'cebo' to their face, a form of boiled goat fat, and then they apply a layer of black powder which are the spores of a fungus found in the desert.  La Guajira, Colombia.



  • An Embera girl painted with 'jagua' in the figure of the Boa snake. Chocó, Colombia.



  • Two Yucuna men dressed up in suits with Orejones (Big Ears) masks for the Baile del Muñeco (Puppet Dance) which they celebrate every february to give thanks for the abundance of the chotaduro fruit.  All exposed skin, hands and feet, is painted black as well to invoke a death so that they can get in touch with their ancestors in the spirit world.


  • A displaced Wounaan girl who along with her family had to leave the Pacific jungles of Choco to live in a poor neighbourhood in the south of Bogotá. Armed groups wanted her village to grow coca instead of traditional crops, but her father, the governor of the village refused, and so they all had to leave. She now has little occasion to dress up in traditional style (left).



  •  A Yucuna tribesman shows off his suit and Tori mask for the 'Baile del Muñeco' or Puppet Dance, a celebration every february of the abundance of the chontaduro fruit.  Amazon, Colombia.



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