"As shafts of sunlight broke across a huge rock some fifty by twenty feet, I rounded an outcropping to find four monks carving and hacking apart the body of a brother monk who had died two days before," writes Chris Rainier in his book Keepers of the Spirit: Stories of Nature and Humankind (Beyond Words Publishing). "They seemed incredibly nonchalant, chatting as if they were breaking up firewood." Watching a traditional sky burial on a Tibetan mountain, Rainier "stood silently immobilized" as a piece of the dismembered corpse was hurled skyward for circling vultures. He was "attracted by this eerie procedure yet deeply terrified by the finality of the act. Celebrating the self becomes an absolutely useless exercise."
Rainier photographed the grisly scene, but now reflects, "The images really didn't carry the weight of the moment, or at least the equivalent amount of energy of the moment."
For the past ten years, the 36-year-old photojournalist has documented spiritual landmarks in such disparate locales as Banaras, New Guinea, Angkor Wat, Sri Lanka, and Easter Island. He started out working in the darkroom of landscape master Ansel Adams, where he picked up exquisite printing skills but little in the way of spiritual enrichment. "Ansel had a more pragmatic approach, even though he made ethereal images," Rainier says. "He had a hard time with religion. He definitely thought it was the opium of the masses."
Rainier laments, "My own culture lacks any significant sense of the spiritual quest," yet "I have no illusions about returning to the Garden of Eden, for I have been among the natives of New Guinea enough to see that they also share with us the dark side of human nature." He focuses on preserving their primordial appearances. "Right now you really can find untouched tribes there. That's such a treat in the latter half of the 20th century. I think they have some things to offer us in terms of messages. I'm investigating what those may be."
Rainier will give a free slide lecture about his travels as a photojournalist, titled "The Global Village: From Indigenous Cultures to Ethnic Strife," at 5:30 PM Monday, April 3, in the theater of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. An exhibit of his black-and-white photos is on display through May 7. Call 346-3278 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Chris Rainier.