Charting The World’s Fading Tribal Cultures with Portraits

For a recent set of images, Polish photographer Adam Koziol travelled to Myanmar to document the Chin people. The set of images is one among many in which the photographer has been travelling around the world documenting different tribal cultures with his camera.

Chin Tribe

Adam’s love of photography developed out of a love for tropical insects, which he would photograph and share images of online. Adam began to document tribal cultures in 2013 following interests he gained travelling the world. He has so far visited 18 tribes in Asian and Africa.


“I am presenting an authentic story of people and leaving it for individual consideration. I do not have any message to convey with the project. Every person has a different story, and for me, this is the most important thing.”


We pulled up a chair next to Adam to ask some questions.

THE PLUS: How did the idea for this project come about? 
Adam Koziol:
I’d been travelling to Borneo frequently to photograph insects. Whilst in Sarawak, I heard about the culture of Iban headhunters. I heard that there are still elderly people with authentic tribal tattoos on shoulders, Bunga Terung. This inspired my imagination, as such tattoos were received by people who were characterised by exceptional courage, participated in battles with other tribes or brought an enemy’s head to their tribe. This was the culture of head hunters. I was fascinated by meeting those people.

TP: Talk us through the tribal cultures project as a whole. 
The point is, I would like to show the beauty of the cultures, the variety of origins of the people all over the world. I am fascinated in particular by tattoos, scarification and other individual features identifying a given tribe. I am also interested in characteristic phenotypes of all societies and external attributes such as clothing, jewellery, arms. I try to develop relationships with people before taking their photo.


TP: How were you able to take these incredible shots – can you tell me your method? 
I love portraiture and I am trying to master the light. What helps me is the studio lighting I take for every trip. It is really a big logistic undertaking, since usually the luggage is up to 65kg, but it means I can control the light. I used to travel alone, since then I felt that I was making more meaningful relationships with local people, but for some time, I have been travelling with my wife who helps me in many aspects and I am able to do much more. 

TP: What were your subjects from the Chin Tribe like?
Chin people are friendly and really hospitable. In the villages I spent some time talking with the people and also it was really relaxing for me because time there goes much more slowly than in Europe. Some Chin women don’t know why their parents made them tattoo. It was something that every woman does so it was natural for everyone. Now I feel that they are a little bit proud of this culture and they were really happy that someone like me are interested in their culture.


TP: What do you enjoy about social documentary photography?
Working with people and learning their life stories in the context of culture. The adventure of reaching the tribe and being there. Equally fascinating is planning photoshoots. In Poland, I am trying to learn about the culture, I am planning how to present it, I am sketching the shots. I mostly manage to do more than planned, but I probably end every of the trip with no full satisfaction. There is always something I did not do, which I might have done, or I have a certain idea and regret I did not do it with another culture. I am recording all of my thoughts in a simple application and I recall them during the next trips.


TP: What are your thoughts on the possibility that tribes could well become a thing of history? 
This is my strongest motivation. I know I will not be able to do certain things in 5 or 10 years. For example, during my last visit in Taiwan I managed to meet the two last Atayal women, who have face tattoos. One of them was 103 years old and the other one 108. The younger woman has died this year. It was a big experience for me when the family asked me to send them her photo so that they have Iwanu’s picture at the funeral. I felt that the huge centuries-old Atayal tradition, one of the biggest indigenous tribes in Taiwan, was dying during a small funeral ceremony being forgotten in today’s civilisation. In November she was still a cheerful woman with a sharp mind. She was talking about the story of her life and culture. If I had visited Taiwan next year, it would have been too late.


TP: Would you live outside of civilisation if you could? 
Definitely not. Although I am planning to build a house in the woods, with no other buildings within the range of 4km. I think my life and work wouldn’t be good if I lived outside of civilisation. However, I have always dreamed of landing on a desert island and having to survive there for half a year. It would be a challenge!

TP: Where are you going for the next tribe series? 
I am trying to get an entry permit to the territory of Zo’e tribe in Brazil. It requires a lot of permits that my friend from Rio de Janeiro is helping me to get. He got fascinated with the project and is willing to participate in it. I hope we can make it. What’s more, I am planning to visit Dulong women in China and above all, to open a chapter of Papua New Guinea where there are over 100 tribes living and cultivating their traditions.