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Through a different lens

Sherwood photographer Janis Miglavs spent the past 14 years documenting remote African tribes


Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY OF JANIS MIGLAVS - Mursi huts keep their occupants safe from the oncoming storm in Ethiopia, Africa.It started with a billboard. He was driving into Portland on Interstate 84 when he saw it — one of his photographs was the focal point. It wasn’t striking, necessarily, but it wasn’t bad, either. And that was exactly the problem. Next month, someone else’s photograph would occupy the slot. And then someone else’s. And then an infinite number of someones would follow.

“I looked at it and I was so disappointed,” said Sherwood-based photographer Janis Miglavs “I thought, ‘What lasting effect am I creating here?’ I was a real successful commercial photographer and doing all that stuff, but there was nothing lasting.”

For a year, he meditated and prayed, searching for an answer. Almost out of nowhere, he found himself on a plane to the Republic of Senegal in West Africa, where he would document a tribe so remote, most Senegalese had never heard of it. With only a rough idea of where to find the Bedik tribe, Miglavs and a guide resorted to asking random people where to go. Finally, a man pointed up upon hearing the question. In a country of completely flat plains, the Bedik were on a high plateau.Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY OF JANIS MIGLAVS - Since 2000, Sherwood-based photographer Janis Miglavs has documented remote African tribes through photographs and by recording their ancient stories.

That was 14 years ago. At the time, nowhere nearby had cellphone or Internet connections, so there was no way to get information to and from locals ahead of time. Today, things are different. In the several times Miglavs has visited the Bedik since, he emails a man in town who runs up to let the tribe know when he’ll be coming. But, a smaller technology gap isn’t the only thing that’s changed.

“I guess I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked in Africa over a period of 14 years. And it’s changed so much, these remote tribes. Now, money is extremely important,” Miglavs said. “The first time I went to the Omo (Region), I asked my guide, ‘What kind of gifts do I bring?’ Fish hooks, pants, things like that. Money? What do they do with money? It’s just paper. What do you do with paper?”

Today, enough cars travel through that tribespeople can hitch rides to town where they can buy alcohol and other items to bring back. On Miglavs’ most recent trip to Africa in January, this problem became more prevalent than ever before. He was documenting the Mursi tribe, known for being the fiercest tribe in the Omo Region.

“They’d just as soon shoot you as say hello,” Miglavs said.

For the Mursi, a common accessory is an AK-47, but Miglavs wasn’t concerned. He’d photographed enough tribes that he knew he just needed to be observant and keep an eye on his surroundings to stay out of trouble. But a few days into his week-long visit, the Mursi started getting drunk on alcohol they bought in town, and quickly began asking for three times more money than Miglavs had agreed to pay for his stay. Eventually, he and his guide convinced the chief to meet them away from the rest of the tribe to receive the original payment.

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY OF JANIS MIGLAVS - While this is the first time she's seen a photo of herself, this Himba tribesgirl's reaction is not unlike that of an American girl looking at a selfie.“I paid what we had agreed,” said Miglavs. “He was down the road, he was drunk, he couldn’t count. I was honest, but I gave him all my dirtiest torn bills.”

This was the only time Miglavs had such an issue with a tribe. Usually, they’re extremely honorable people, he said, but everything gets more complicated once money enters the picture. Over the years, however, whether Miglavs has paid in gifts of fish hooks, paper bills or photos from his last visit, the return has been worth it; for his payment, Miglavs receives stories.

After finding a tribe and speaking with the chief, the photographer’s next priority is always to find a shaman or an elder, because they’re also the storytellers. Through his research, Miglavs estimates that many of the stories and myths he’s recorded are thousands of years old. After years of collecting these stories, Miglavs has continuously noticed parallels between the themes of the tribes’ ancient myths and themes seen throughout major religions.

One such story comes out of Ethiopia and is about the fall of man. As the story goes, a rope used to exist that led all the way from the Earth to God. Man and woman could climb the rope and visit with God as much as they wanted — the only catch was they couldn’t bring anything with them. And then one day, the woman decided to bring along a grinding stone. The second she touched the rope with the stone, it fell from the sky and the direct connection with God was lost forever. For those familiar with the Bible’s Adam and Eve, the similarities would be hard to miss.Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY OF JANIS MIGLAVS - In the 14 years he's been documenting remote African tribes, photographer Janis Miglavs has taken thousands of photographs and recorded countless ancient myths and archetypal dreams.

“The concepts are similar to stories that are in our religions. The theme is the same. Where does this stuff come from? I kind of conjecture that these stories are really, really ancient. They came with the first man, and when first man started communicating and drawing petroglyphs and doing those kinds of things,” said Miglavs. “At least 60,000 years ago, man came out of Africa. In the end, my conjecture is, OK, if all the religions come from the same source, why the hell are we fighting? Why are Christians killing Muslims? Why are Jews killing Muslims? Why are Muslims killing all different kinds of people? I mean, they’re the same stories.”

With 14 years of photographing the tribes and recording their ancient stories, Miglavs is planning one more trip in January 2015 to tie up his project. He feels he has enough material, but has struggled with how to present it. A book will most definitely result, but he wants to do some kind of grand theater-style presentation, as well.

However Miglavs ultimately decides to present the years of work, he’s grateful for having the opportunity to travel so extensively and meet such a variety of the world’s people.

“Being able to honestly interact with people, that’s a huge blessing. It’s pretty cool,” he said, before bestowing one last piece of advice. “Have fun and have a good heart.”

Wine: The alternative

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY OF JANIS MIGLAVS - Photographer Janis Miglavs traveled to China at least five times to document the vast and varied wine culture within the country. He compiled his work into a book, 'China: The New Wine Frontier.'

Living among the vineyard-filled hills of Sherwood, photographer Janis Miglavs was struck one day by their astounding beauty. He’d never given it much thought before, but as he rode his bicycle past winery after winery, a project idea started brewing.

After photographing for National Geographic and various travel magazines, Miglavs has some pretty good connections. So he called up Chronicle Books and told the publisher he wanted to do a book about Oregon wineries. They loved the idea, but said that instead of Oregon, he should include Washington and Canada, too. With just over a month to shoot, Miglavs set to work. In 2007, “Pacific Northwest: The Ultimate Winery Guide” was complete, and just one year later, Miglavs decided to pursue the Oregon wineries idea again.

“Oh gosh, there was only one year difference? Holy cow, man, I was

hustling. That’s pretty good!” he said, laughing.

In 2008, “Oregon: The Taste of Wine” was released, fulfilling Miglavs’ Oregon-only dream. After a few years of traveling around China, Miglavs released a third wine book, “China: The New Wine Frontier” in 2014. For his efforts, he received an international award for Best New World Wine Book in May.

“I just kind of went there on a whim because I’m just intrigued with China,” Miglavs said.

In the five or six times that he’s been to China since starting the project, Miglavs never stopped being amazed by the people he encountered on his travels. Highly personable himself, Miglavs has never worried about getting along with people on his trips and knows that even if you can’t speak the same language, a smile and a wave is all you need to start a friendship.



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