The Photo Story: Tribal Quest

As I photographed this young Asháninka girl, the villagers around her all laughed but she remained enigmatic and fixed the camera with her eyes
Photographer: Johnathan Gregson

PHOTOGRAPHS & WORDS: JOHNATHAN GREGSON

After a 12-hour bus ride from Lima, through the dramatic mountain passes of the Andes, I arrived in a busy market town called San Martín de Pangoa. Situated in the Central Amazon, just east of the Andes, Pangoa is described as ‘the pantry of Peru’. With its nutrient-rich soil, humidity and rainfall, it has the perfect conditions for growing crops. Cacao, potatoes, pineapples and yucca are all grown here, but it was their most prolific crop, coffee, for which I had made the journey. I was commissioned by Taylors of Harrogate to document the captivating story, and the equally captivating people, behind their Peruvian coffee. Our trip culminated 1,500m above San Martín de Pangoa, in the remote village of the Asháninka people. The Asháninka live a secluded life, rarely receiving visitors, and so it was an honour to be welcomed into their community.

Clothed in their traditional orange gowns, called kushma, the villagers congregated to greet us as we arrived. In the centre of the crowd stood a young girl dressed in white, her shoulders adorned with the iridescent feathers of tropical birds. We were told that she is a ‘princess’ – the daughter of a chief. The adults surrounding her had painted their faces with a rich-red pigment derived from the seeds of achiote fruits. The designs are painted on as daily practice and reflect their individual moods on that particular day.

After Brazil and New Guinea, it is thought Peru has the highest number of uncontacted tribes in the world. For a photographer, it is increasingly rare to be able to document remote communities of any sort who maintain a traditional lifestyle, untouched by the modern world. Experiencing life with the Asháninka is something I’ll never forget.

Jonathan Gregson is a regular contributor to Lonely Planet Traveller (UK). See www.jonathangregson.co.uk and www.jonathangregsonphotography for more of his work.

On arrival at the village, we were greeted with traditional dance and music. The band included the community president (left) and the village chief (right) in their ceremonial headgear
Photographer: Johnathan Gregson
To get to the Asháninka village, we left before dawn. As we drove through the landscape, the sun and humidity rose; clouds hung low in the trees, providing evocative images of the surrounding jungle
Photographer: Johnathan Gregson