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“Memory of Colors” by Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

A version of this article has also been published on the photography site The Luminous Landscape.

Memory of Colors is the name of large-scale ongoing photography project by the Colombian/French photographer Jaime Ocampo-Rangel. His wife Lia Ocampo-Rangel, a videographer, also contributes to the project.

The project involves recording portraits of individuals from distinctive cultures in remote parts of the world. The photographs show individuals or small groups of people against a monochromatic background. The color of the studio-like backdrop plays a major role in the project because Ocampo-Rangel associates different cultures with different dominant “natural” colors. This can be based on the color of their skin, their clothing, their ornaments or something more abstract.

Girl from Ethiopia's Mursi tribe against a dark brown background (c) Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

The resulting photographs have been displayed as larger-than-life prints at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and at a Paris art gallery, Polka. A collection of 1300 pictures has just been released in collaboration with Fotopedia in the form of an iPhone/iPad app. There are plans for a traveling exhibition on a Memory of Colors sailing boat that will tour six continents starting in late 2010.

A man with a mission

The indigenous people covered by the project are gradually disappearing: they are losing their cultural identity by merging with other cultures and due to their constant exposure to global cultural influences.

An extreme example is the impact of the discovery of oil in the Arabian peninsula. In the span of less than 50 years, this changed relatively isolated sheikdoms struggling to get by, into an affluent nation with bustling financial centers (Dubai, Abu Dhabi).

A more sweeping historical example is the colonization of much of the world by a series of seafaring European superpowers (Spain, Portugal, France, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands) between the 16th and 19th centuries. This  lead to the introduction of new cultures, new languages, new religions, new industries and above all new rulers for many continents and subcontinents.

The goal of the Memory of Colors project is to record the disappearing world heritage from the perspective of a former fashion photographer, Jaime Ocampo-Rangel. Jaime also hopes the project will increase the world’s awareness of the value of these cultures among the general public, the indigenous peoples themselves and their respective governments.

This quest is quite similar to that of the Canadian ethnographer Wade Davis (a National Geographic staff member) who stresses that the disappearance of cultural diversity in what he calls the ethnosphere is much more dramatic than the ongoing disappearance of biological diversity in the biosphere. Wade Davis held an impressive 20 minute lecture on endangered cultures at the 2003 TED conference that can be viewed online.

The Photographer

Jaime Ocampo-Rangel was born in Colombia (yes, in South America), and subsequently lived in Miami, Spain, New York and now Paris. In his earlier period he became an accomplished fashion and advertising photographer. As his work from this period is becoming increasingly tricky to find (because he has switched to a very different type of work), I have included one example here.

Example of commercial photography by Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

His transition from Vogue-style fashion photography to almost National Geographic-style photography started in 1999 when he met and photographed the Kogui people of Colombia. The Koguis stayed relatively uninfluenced by the Spanish rulers and by modern society because they withdrew to the mountainous Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region and avoided contact with “modern” society. Ocampo-Rangel now describes his encounter as “a spiritual and artistic revelation” that lead him to seek out and document such cultures around the world. The project has been ongoing over the past 12 years, initially in parallel to his glamor photography.

It is worth noting that Ocampo-Rangel is not a typical documentary photographer: he has a specific message he wants to convey and he uses his photographic stills to convey an emotional message to the viewer. The still images are thus not intended to tell a story together with a writer’s text and thus differ from the journalistic approach used by say National Geographic or an award-winning Dutch documentary photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien (who also photographed African tribes like the Mursi depicted above).

Ocampo-Rangel is also not a trained anthropologist or ethnographer like Wade Davis (who also does photography). Although the two think along surprisingly similar lines, Ocampo-Rangel doesn’t worry about scientific niceties like whether the holy Sadhu’s of India or folkloristic French villagers belong to the same category as indigenous tribes such as the Kogui or the Tuaregs of the Sahara. Jaime Ocampo-Rangel is more a portrait photographer with an eye for striking images who wants to convey the message of the disappearing human diversity to a global audience.

To better understand what drives him, you may want to watch one of the video clips made by Jaime and his wife. Jaime’s narrative, with a voice reminiscent of both Sir David Attenborough (the confiding whispering tone) and Jacques Cousteau (the enthusiasm and the accent), give you some impression about his goals and hopes.

Fotopedia’s iOS App

The Fotopedia Memory of Colors app, released on Feb 23, runs on the iPhone and the larger iPad. It costs only 3$ (initially even less). The interactive app covers over 1300 images of 40 cultures throughout the world – obviously significantly more than what can be shown at expositions or even in a book.

The Fotopedia Memory of Colors app on the iPhone

As all Fotopedia products, Memory of Colors allows you to browse the photographs while accessing corresponding Wikipedia articles and Google maps markers. The Google Maps markers are not intended for zooming in and finding exactly where the images were taken: the “pins” just show a general area rather than a specific village or valley. This may be intentional. Many of the tribes are small, and tourism would further impact their way of life.

Fotopedia’s software is easy to use and allows you to browse the images in different ways, the most important here being per culture or per country (see screenshot). To my taste the images could have been more rigorously selected. Sometimes you find very similar images, or even alternative crops of the same photo. This is obviously not a big deal because the browsing is fast and you are free to browse any way you like. But it would have been nicer to distinguish between photos that are worth exhibiting or including in a photo book and those which are useful if you want to actually study the people.

The overall app can be seen as an iPad-based equivalent of  a coffee table book or National Geographic (which is to some degree a coffee table magazine). The information about some tribes is very limited (because of limited Wikipedia content). There is no information from the photographer about individual photographs or photo shoots – unlike what you would expect in a real documentary. To my surprisingly you can save/post/e-mail medium-resolution copies of the images. Photography buffs may be pleased that the EXIF information about lenses and ISO and shutters speeds is still intact.

Photographic Equipment

Although the impact of fancy photographic equipment is overrated by most amateur photographers, it is worth describing the setup that Jaime uses – if only because he lugged this equipment to various remote deserts, the Andes mountains and Siberia. And to highlight the similarity with the equipment used in fashion photography.

The camera is a medium-format Hasselblad camera with, for example, a 100 mm lens (70 mm in full-frame terms). The digital back on the Hasselblad is one of various generations of Phase One digital backs. The backdrop and reflector panels are standard studio stuff. The lighting is normally a single strip-shaped Elinchrome softbox (obviously battery-powered). As in the blue image below, you can see traces of a reflector on the left side of the face. Jaime mentioned that he used to lug 100 kilograms of equipment around, but that he now travels lighter.

The Colors

Colombian (Guambianos) girl (c) Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

The colors are an important part of the project. Although it sounds like something that  emerged at some point during the project, it is surprising that Ocampo-Rangel’s term

Rainbow of human existence

is echoed in (the much less artsy) Wade Davis’ phrase

Polychromatic world of diversity [of people]

I am unqualified to judge whether a color indeed matches the “spirituality” of a particular people, but the strong reliance on background colors does make a difference.

Note that in many cases the background color is consistent – even if the color doesn’t occur in one of the individuals clothing. But sometimes multiple colors are used for a single people. I suppose that a true artist should be allowed break rules, including his own.

It some of the less important images the background cloth is a distractingly wrinkled. As the cloth presumably can’t be ironed during a trip to the desert, it might help to either wrinkle it more (so that it becomes uniform) or to stretch the cloth to minimize the problem.

World Tour and Sponsorship

As you may have concluded by now, Jaime Ocampo-Rangel thinks big. His next major step in the Memory of Colors project is to travel around the world in a sailing boat. The trip is a combination of visiting more indigenous cultures and docking at major cities to display his work. Stills and video will be projected after dark onto the white sails of his boat. The purpose is to spread the word that these valuable cultures are vanishing.

The trip is supported by the UNESCO and other sponsors. The trip is currently planned to start at the Eiffel Tower (situated along the Seine River) due to its proximity to UNESCO’s Paris-based headquarters and to sail to South America (Brazil, Venezuela and his native Colombia), via Panama and the Panama Canal, to visit Australia, Asia, Africa, and to finally cross the Atlantic a second time to hold an exhibition at the United Nations building (situated along the East River in New York City).

In early March 2011 Jaime told me he had already received substantial sponsorship commitments from the UNESCO and other sources. This reassures me that Jaime has the skills to actually get such a dream off the ground. But the project is still searching for additional sponsorship from both individuals (“minimum contribution 5€”) and especially from organizations. This is not just money needed to finance the costs of the voyage, but also to pay for the facilities and time to convert the resulting raw photographic and video material into a book and especially a film for broadcast on various television networks.

The most obvious types of sponsors that come to my mind include (note that I don’t know the list of current sponsors):

  • magazines and museums related to travel and the peoples of the earth,
  • government agencies committed to the welfare of cultural minorities,
  • companies that are strongly associated to color and its emotional impact (paint, fashion, lighting…),
  • the photography industry,
  • the broadcasting, publishing and movie industries (the movie and book side), and
  • travel agencies that specialize in responsible forms of tourism (a tricky one?).

Last but not least, donations can also be done by providing what Jaime called “professional skills”. That is how I got into fixing some of the more glaring bugs in his English (these kind of details don’t have priority for the master). So, for example, support from a professional copywriter or advertising agency would really help get things rolling. The web page on sponsoring indicates how you can contact Jaime. It is OK to contact me about this topic if you have questions, but keep in mind that I do not represent him. I am merely occasionally in touch with Jaime to help out a bit.

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