A photographer's spiritual journey
Portland-area photographer Janis Miglavs was unfulfilled by corporate gigs like taking photos for luxurious hotel chains when he decided it was time to try something else.
That internal drive would put him on the path to seek out some of Africa's most obscure tribes in an effort to learn about the origins of humanity.
It was 1999, when he was driving to Portland on I-84 from an assignment. He saw a photo he took plastered in all of its glory on a billboard. He recalls, although he isn't positive, that it may have been for a beer advertisement.
"I should've been really excited, but instead I was really disappointed," Miglavs says. "I kept asking myself, is that all there is? It just kind of left me empty inside."
Like many of us in life, he was searching for more meaning in his work.
He sought "purpose more than money," he says.
It was at about that same time that he learned about the "Out of Africa" theory, which is widely accepted fact by the scientific community — proving through DNA evidence that all modern humans originate from a population of people in Africa between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago. They began to populate the rest of the world when they migrated elsewhere on foot.
"I learned that DNA and anthropologists tell us that we, all of us, all modern humans — we're distant relatives, or distant descendants of people who walked out of Africa," he says. He explains that he doesn't remember the image itself because he was overcome with so much emotion.
"I just remember driving past there, and going along the Marquam Bridge and feeling totally empty inside — thinking, I gotta do more in life than commercials," he says. So he sought out meaning at the most literal level he could surmise venturing to the continent in a personal photo journey.
"I started wondering what kind of stories did these ancient ancestors in Africa, what kind of stories did they tell around the cooking fires that answered like the big questions in life, like what happens after you die? Or where did the first man come from? Or is there some kind of supreme deity running this whole show?," he says.
He wondered if his own beliefs could simply be evolutions of these African stories.
The Tribune caught up with Miglavs, 69, who lives with his wife in Sherwood, while his sons live in Portland. He is presenting a photo show of the body of work that spans over 17 years called "We All Have Five Fingers" at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 6 at the Sherwood Public Library, 22560 S.W. Pine St., Sherwood.
He says the show is open to any human being, "including Nazis," Miglavs joked.
Tribune: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background?
Janis Miglavs: I'm from Latvia. Our family came in 1950. We came from New Orleans and worked the fruit farms and stuff in central California. And then lived in Napa for a long time, graduated from high school there and went to University of California, Berkley. Then I took a media job in Portland in 1982. At that time the hot thing was doing these multi-projector slide shows, and I was hired to produce those shows. Then the recession hit and I was the highest paid employee so I was laid off. My second client after that was National Geographic, and I thought this isn't too bad.
But then I quit doing that work cause I had kids. One time I was on an assignment on a bicycle ride through Yosemite in California. My oldest son started crying and says "My dad's never coming home," and I said this isn't worth it. So I started doing commercial photography and advertising photography, which paid a lot better, but it wasn't as fun.
Tribune: You say you have experienced hatred "seeping from today's religions" — can you tell me what that means and how religion pertains to this project?
JG: That's the whole crux of the whole thing. I was looking the roots of my own beliefs and my own religion and the birthplace of modern humans. And like on my early trips in Senegal, my interpreters were Muslim. That's no big deal for me, but I had 2 issues. One is, the tribe I was looking for, it was a small little tribe, they were afraid of Muslims because Muslims had attacked them one time. So my interpreter was Muslim and I had to be really careful about interpretation because the guys I was interviewing were afraid of my interpreter.
Then on my second trip the interpreter he had incredible respect for the work I was doing because iw as showing him parts of his own country that he didn't know about. And we were talking about Jihad and what all that meant … one of the things he said is that he would have to kill me if I said anything even accidentally that was disparaging about the Koran or Muhammad. That just floored me that this guy we had developed an incredible relationship and respect for each other that he'd kill me just for a belief. That stayed with me for a long time. Fortunately, I got to a tiny little village and in the morning these kids came out to take a look at the stranger. At that time there weren't really tourists going out so a white guy was a real novelty. Then one of the kids just held my hand. And somehow we ended up holding hands and walking like in this V shape. I was moved by how accepting these kids were; it was like they were looking through their first eyes, their child's eyes. When they're doing that it's like anyone is a potential friend and like the world is just a big place to explore. It was such a relief to experience that after a guy says he would kill me if I said something disparaging about something in a book or some religious guy. So that contrast really struck me and how important it is for all of us to go back and look back through our first eyes, our child's eyes because that's much more accepting of other people.
Tribune: Where does the name We All Have Five Fingers come from?
JG: I think it was the second trip I went to Ethiopia to some remote tribes there and I was interviewing some Konso elders. Most Americans would probably call them primitive. I'm interviewing over a period of days. I'd ask them, "What advice would you give to world leaders?" For them, them the world is more like their tribe. They knew about Europe because Europeans had gone through there. They had heard about the United States but didn't know exactly where it was. So I asked and there was this long silence. Finally one guy says "We're all made by god and we're all the same. It doesn't matter what your religion, your beliefs are and tribes. We all have same color blood." Then he raised his hands with his fingers outstretched and said "We all have five fingers."
Tribune: Do you feel that this project helped you find purpose in life? How so?
JG: The thing I found was the concepts are kind of the same for example the Suri tribe in Ethiopia. They have a fall of man story where originally man had a direct connection to God. It's a lot like in the Bible where man lived in the Garden of Eden… except in Suri, man had a rope and men and women could climb the rope anytime they wanted and visit God. I was like wow that's so much easier to understand than the Garden of Eden story in the Bible. Interestingly enough the only rule was about climbing the rope is you couldn't' carry anything with you which I thought was a kind of symbolic about possessions. One day the woman decided to carry her grinding stone with her. The rope fell to the ground and humans lost their direct connection to God. I'm thinking what a great story to explain what a heavy-duty concept — the same kind of concept in the bible, except in the bible they do an apple. I expect that has to do with agriculture coming around 100,000 years ago.
What it did is it gave me a whole bunch of other windows to look through. Other religions and beliefs. I feel it gave me a broader perspective on life and life our little planet here. Take-aways are two: one, it increased my own size of my vision about life. And then also these experiences with the kids and experiencing the importance of looking through first eyes, child's eyes. And also we have the same color blood and we all have five fingers. That's such a simple concept that to me it really resonates. So I'm in the process of creating myth images, they're illustrations of the stories I heard from these tribes.