Documentary Journalism, Re-imagined
In this era of rapid change, indigenous communities with rich cultural heritages urgently need the world’s attention. Anthropologists estimate that every two weeks a tribal elder dies with the last remaining knowledge of his or her people’s language, and along with them dies many other living expressions—the crafts, skills, beliefs, lore—of a unique heritage.
Case studies have shown time and again that the skills and knowledge of traditional cultures contribute not only to global diversity, but also to the well-being of both developed and developing worlds. “All these peoples’ cultures teach us of other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of orienting yourself in the earth,” says National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis. Yet, according to the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP), indigenous communities form the largest minority in the world and are among the most underserved and impoverished groups in nearly every country. Thus, while indigenous communities often face massive and imminent cultural change, many also lack the agency to decide the fate of their heritage or the outcome of their future.
The Vanishing Cultures Project partners with indigenous groups worldwide to safeguard cultural values and practices, collaborating to document lifestyles and traditions, compile an open digital archive, educate the public about global diversity, and fund indigenous cultural initiatives.
How We Work
Documentation. Each year we spend 4–6 months with an indigenous community facing great change, photographing, interviewing, and recording people, places, and stories. All source materials are put on public online archives, including audio, video, interview transcripts, photos, and other research material, providing enduring records of how indigenous or traditional communities currently live.
Education. We raise awareness about the struggles, issues, and customs of indigenous peoples by publishing articles, photo essays, radio pieces, and videos in the mainstream media. We also engage with classrooms and universities to increase geographic literacy and cultural awareness. In the future, we plan to build downloadable lesson plans based on our research.
Advocacy. We advocate for global diversity and the rights of indigenous peoples through a variety of media including photo exhibitions, opinion pieces, blog posts, speaking engagements, and daily content on social media platforms. We also keep a column on indigenous issues on the Huffington Post.
Fundraising. Every project culminates in the publication of limited-edition prints and a visual, comprehensive book about the documented community’s lifestyle and traditions. The funds raised through book and print sales are used to empower local leaders to preserve their cultural values and practices. Profits are donated directly back to the indigenous community to help fund grassroots cultural initiatives.
Who We Help
We work alongside traditional cultures with rich heritages who struggle with displacement, modernization, environmental change, war and conflict, and other external forces that result in rapid, massive cultural change. We define a traditional or indigenous culture as one that continues a way of life that has existed for centuries, holding its own unique customs, skills, infrastructure, beliefs, arts, and crafts. The culture usually has its own language or dialect, which may be threatened, and has lived in the same region for many generations.
In a rapidly modernizing world, there are many more cultures we would like to help than we currently have the resources to assist. Because of this, we focus on the neediest communities who we are best suited to help. The cultures we work with exhibit the following criteria: (1) imminent and rapid change, (2) tangible benefit from documentation and research, and (3) prioritization of cultural preservation during a transformative time, demonstrated by established, locally run traditional culture initiatives.