A brave look into Masai culture

Elizabeth Gilbert spent four years documenting a vanishing way of life

"If a warrior has a broken spear, it means that he must have been very brave...."

Elizabeth Gilbert's photos in this remarkable collection prove that she must have gotten no little inspiration from this Masai saying regarding courage.

Refreshingly, Gilbert has put together a book of black- and-white photos that is all about the subject and not the photographer.

It was a shoot that lasted over a period of four years in which she followed several groups of Masai in Kenya and Tanzania to document a vanishing way of life in the same tradition and skill that Edward S. Curtis did with the American Indians over a century ago.

Like Curtis, Gilbert even carried a portable studio especially for making revealing portraits that show the individual character of the Masai.

But most striking are the intimate images of daily life. Indeed, intimate enough to inspire death threats from a group of Masai warriors while photographing circumcision ceremonies, including a woman's circumcision.

While not for the squeamish, these events are tastefully shot. Along with pictures of a retiring warrior's ceremony and a dramatic lion hunt, they provide a rich depiction of Masai culture.

A perusal of this book will place most readers in a culture quite different from the one in which they live. It provides a unique glimpse into the ceremonies, family life, and traditions that hold together this ancient way of life.

Also included are text and 19th- and mid-20th-century photos that help a reader with historical context of the tribe and its relation to the British colonizers, including the court case to regain their ancestral territory. A few older images of Britons with Masai show people who look remarkably similar today.

Robert Harbison is a staff photographer.

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