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‘Camel: A Journey Through Fragile Landscapes’ at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Kababish tribesman, Sudan. Roger Chapman

For thousands of years, camels have been crucial to the survival of desert communities the world over, allowing humanity to thrive in some of the harshest climates on earth. They lie at the heart of a way of life that has remained unchanged for millennia, but which is now under threat. In a remarkable international photography project, now on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, photographer and cinematographer Roger Chapman presents sixty-five monochrome prints from four corners of the world, following in the footsteps of these nomadic creatures and the communities who depend upon them.

It all began in France, with a newspaper article. ‘I came across an article at the back of Le Monde Diplomatique,’ Chapman explains, ‘which was about the whole culture of camels, and how they were under threat.’ Various factors have led to declining numbers of camels across the world, endangered by the loss of habitat, hunting, and competition with other livestock for food. ‘What really interested me about the animals was where they live, because wherever you find camels, life is quite hard.’ At first glance, the rippling sand dunes and sterile rock formations of the desert can appear to be bereft of life. But they are, of course, home to extraordinarily complex ecosystems, and to a way of life that is infinitely more sustainable than our own.

Image Credit: Camel herdsman, Rajasthan, India. Roger Chapman

Chapman was to embark upon a journey that would take him from the Thar Desert in India to the edges of the Sudanese Sahara, across the freezing Mongolian steppes to the camel races of the United Arab Emirates. The resulting images, exhibited in Camel: A Journey Through Fragile Landscapes, are windows onto rarely seen nomadic cultures and landscapes that are in danger of disappearing, thanks to the fallout of modernization and climate change. As Chapman’s project progressed, ‘it became much clearer that the landscapes that these animals and people lived in were very fragile.’ The communities depend upon their livestock and the land, and with the seasons thrown off-kilter and capitalism slowly encroaching upon the desert, the delicate fabric of nomadic life is starting to unravel.

Image Credit: Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India.
 Roger Chapman

The camel is an intrinsically sustainable animal. When a sheep grazes, it tears up the plant’s roots laying waste to the land, whereas a camel will leave the roots intact so the plant can grow again. Each country Chapman visited accords the camel a different symbolic status. In the Sahara, 'the camel is crucial to survival’: the locals still need it to travel long distances and care for their livestock. Whereas in Rajasthan, north-west India, modernization is increasingly making camels redundant, with roads, trucks and water pumps transforming ancient farming methods. Mongolia – a large country with a small population – has been hit hard by climate change, resulting in overgrazing and unpredictable seasons which are driving economic migration to the cities – leaving the camel unwanted. Meanwhile, in the Emirates, camel racing has become a multi-million-dollar industry; the prize race camels are valued at around six million dollars each. As Chapman says, ‘they’re extremely valuable animals, but they’re just for show.’

Image Credit: Camel’s milk, Outer Mongolia. Roger Chapman

The photographs themselves combine beautiful portraits with the epic landscapes of the desert; the medium and subject matter together lending them an undeniably timeless quality. A cluster of camels in the Thar Desert kneel around a bag of feed, turned inquiringly toward the lens. In outer Mongolia, a man sips from a wide bowl of camel milk. In the Sudan, a Kababish tribesman sits atop a loaded camel, the desert stretching out into the hazy horizon beyond, in a shot that could have come from the early days of photography. Chapman says that what he wanted to bring across was ‘the fact that these traditions have been going on for hundreds, probably thousands, of years.’ Using a medium format camera, with only twelve shots to a roll of film, he had to concentrate on capturing that ‘decisive moment’ of a culture outside of time.

Image Credit: Kababish tribesman, Sudan. Roger Chapman

Having spent many days on the back of a camel, Chapman still has a fondness for them, ‘I think they’re beautiful animals, actually.’ But perhaps camels and the communities that depend on them also have something important to teach us about life in a warming world, living as they do in harsh environments where food is scarce, and sustainability must be practised as an imperative for survival. One of Chapman’s photographs shows a trail of camel tracks scaling a dune in the Mongolian snow, where you can see that the tracks run in a straight line, causing minimal disturbance to the land. If only we were all so circumspect in our treatment of the world in which we live.

Camel: A Journey Through Fragile Landscapes is on display at the Long Gallery in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford until 29 October.