The DNA of culture: Jeremy Hunter in conversation with Paddy O’Connell

By Natricia Duncan    

The Frontline Club was treated to an explosion of colour, culture, festivity and debate as photojournalist Jeremy Hunter explored the “DNA of countries” through pictures.

Hunter described how he began travelling as part of his job as a foreign correspondent for NIR-TV in Tehran.  Although not employed as a photographer he always carried his camera along.

Today his unique portfolio of photographs spans 35 years and 65 countries, and captures images of festivals and cultural ceremonies in some of the most remote regions of the planet.

As he introduced Hunter, moderator Paddy O’Connell of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House warned:

“What he’s captured is dying… what we are going to see is endangered.”

Hunter added:

“I’ve now got an archive of material which I think is…historic because so many of the celebrations I’ve been to…will probably not continue in the near future.”

Hunter’s passion led him to North Korea, one of the world’s most inaccessible and secretive societies.  He arrived just before the death of Kim Jong-il for the August Arirang festival.

The slide show unveiled the largest stadium in the world which, he says, has a seating capacity of 150,000.  It also revealed “truly extraordinary mosaics” of flags, flowers and even the Pyongyang skyline – created by 50,000 teenagers holding up flipcharts.

The stark images that followed of Ethiopian tribal rituals, ceremonies and festivities – including those of women being whipped and mutilated – sparked a debate on the ethical considerations of paying natives to pose for these pictures.

Hunter admitted:

“The Mursi (tribe) are now become almost a sort of freak show… because people like me have been there, have photographed them and have their put their images on the website and as a result of that, tourism has absolutely grown to such a degree.  When I first went there there were only about 2,000 tourists a year, there are now an estimated 30,000.”

Commenting on an image in Ethiopia showing the words “Jesus will never let you down” scrawled across a galvanised door, Hunter said:

“Jesus has definitely arrived….  The missionaries are there, baptisms are taking place… and I think that very soon they will no longer be animist and they will be brought into the church, and at that point I think that some of these practices -particularly the circumcision of the girls and indeed the scarification and the cutting of the lower lip – is all likely to change.”

This encouraged other questions about Hunter’s motives for documenting these remote practices.

O’Connell asked:

“Do you hate the fact that you spoil a culture by photographing it…?”

In Hunter’s conclusion he said:

“The whole… archive of work is called ‘Let’s Celebrate: exploring the DNA of the world’s cultures through their festivals, rituals and celebrations’….  My role has been, in fact, to record these over a period of 35 years and I’m recording … what continues to happen.  So actually it’s a…piece of historical and archival material that I think will have a place in the future.”