New York Times

Nov 24, 2009

By James Estrin

It would seem to be a long way from Hollywood and Washington to the home of the Hadza tribe in northern Tanzania. But for the portrait photographer Martin Schoeller, they are closer than you might think.

“We were all hunter-gatherers, basically, 15,000 years ago,” Mr. Schoeller said, “and the Hadza are among the very few, last cultures that still live a life that all of us used to share. It is worth documenting from a photographer’s view. They’ve always been written about and photographed by anthropologists. I feel that, with a different approach, I can offer something new.”

His close-up style, influenced by Bernd and Hilla Becher, puts all of his subjects — no matter their status — on equal footing, revealing similarities as well as differences. Though well known for photographing the famous, Mr. Schoeller has always been attracted to a broader range of subjects.

The current issue of National Geographic features Mr Schoeller’s close-up portraits of the Hadza as well as his documentary photographs of them.

It was on an assignment for Travel and Leisure magazine that Mr. Schoeller first encountered the Hadza. They were not re-enacting a lifestyle for tourists, but living in a way that had basically not changed for millennia. “You can go away for 10 years, come back and people will be sleeping under the same tree,” Mr. Schoeller said.

“You think its such a simple life,” Mr. Schoeller said. “Men get up in the morning, grab their bows and arrows and go look for wild animals. And the women gather nuts and fruit and berries. But the closer you look, it’s a very hard life — to survive by what the land provides.”

Mr. Schoeller, 41, came to New York from Germany in 1992 to work for Annie Leibovitz as an assistant. After three years, he went out on his own and has worked for The New Yorker under contract since 1999 and also for Rolling Stone and GQ. He also makes time for personal projects.

On his third trip to photograph the Hadza, he spent 26 days photographing, mainly with medium-format cameras. In order to light the close-up portraits, he and his assistants built white tents and used two generators. He used intermediaries to gain the tribe’s trust.