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Viewfinders: documenting a culture in crisis

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Until the mid-70s, the Onge were nomadic hunter-gatherers who moved among the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal searching for food. But by 1976 starvation had seriously thinned their ranks, and when the Indian government proposed to settle them on the island of Little Andaman, the Onge reluctantly agreed.

The Onge's changing culture is documented by photojournalist Mukul Roy in the exhibit "In Transition," which opens this Friday at the University of Chicago. A native of India and a Columbia College graduate, Roy heard about the Onge's new habitat during a visit to India in 1983. She ventured out to Little Andaman, where she took only two photographs before she was stopped by social workers employed by the Indian government to monitor the tribe's progress and outsiders' contact with them. Roy then spent the next four years petitioning the government for access to the area. Indian officials were extremely sensitive to what they considered exploitation of the Onge, but Roy finally won permission to return in 1987. She spent two weeks on the island and spotted Onge hunters swimming in the bay, but when she finally got access to the tribe's jungle settlement she was allowed to photograph them for only half an hour.

By the time a more permissive climate enabled her to visit again in 1995, the Onge's lifestyle had changed radically, and she was grateful to have captured even the few images she had in 1987. Back then they had lived communally in open, thatched huts; children were raised by the entire community. Men and women alike wore no clothes, and the tribe's diet consisted of wild boar, sea turtles, and dugong, an herbivorous sea cow related to the manatee. Eight years later Onge males still spent long days hunting for these staples, but their kill was supplemented by government rations of rice, flour, and shortening. Now the Onge wore the cheap clothing provided for them and lived in single-family log houses constructed by the government. This time Roy studied and photographed the Onge for two days. She learned that the tribe understood four languages--Hindi, Bengali, Andamanese, and the language of a neighboring tribe--that their sense of monogamy was so strict that males refused to touch other females during a tribal dance, and that they declined to have their children educated in public schools. Having bartered away so many of their traditions to survive, the Onge were none too eager to sacrifice any more.

Most of the 30 color photos from "In Transition" are from 1995, but Roy says her study of the tribe remains a work-in-progress. "It will never be over," she says, "because I have to go back again in another 10, 15 years. What happened? How are they doing? How are they assimilating to the mainstream? The interesting thing about photography is it's forever. The person is not there, but the pictures are there."

"In Transition" opens this Friday with a reception from 3 to 5 PM at the University of Chicago's Foster Hall, 1130 E. 59th Street. It runs through June 6 from 9 AM to 5 PM, weekdays only. For information call 773-702-8635. --J.R. Jones

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Mukul Roy.

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