The eyes of a well-seasoned traveler appear as deep pools of wisdom to the keen observer.
Flashes of mystical Machu Picchu and pristine New Guinea permeate the retina of one such traveler. The rhythmic pulse of the American Southwest and ethereal chants from the Tibetan mountains are nearly palpable emissions.
These are the eyes of Chris Rainier, a "National Geographic" photographer leading the charge to document indigenous cultures before they disappear.
Sunday, Rainier delivered a presentation of his global work to a reverent audience in McClung Museum. Ranging from the mountains of Peru, across Africa to the islands of Polynesia, his work has appeared in "Time," "Life," "Outside," "Smithsonian" and "National Geographic," among others.
As the lights dimmed, Rainier stood relaxed behind the podium, humbly inviting his audience to join him "on a journey around the world." Of course, there were no objections.
Rainier cut his teeth working with the famous landscape imagery of Ansel Adams as his last photo assistant, and it shows. Images of tribal elders posed against backdrops of snow-capped mountains clearly demonstrate his knack for capturing the "essence" in which these disappearing groups reside.
Most notably, perhaps, is his poignant ability to transmit sacred aspects of indigenous culture through still images. His crisp black and white stills portray ancient ceremonial rituals, leaving the viewer paralyzed with a familiar sense of connectedness. These cultures, in his words, still have "one foot in the Garden of Eden."
Rainier's mantra is that of empowering ancient tradition through modern technology. His ongoing projects include the National Geographic Enduring Voices Project, which seeks to document and preserve endangered languages around the globe.
He also pioneered a support effort, aptly named All Roads Photography Program, that provides funding and guidance for traditional groups seeking to learn photography.
Ultimately, Rainier explained, the goal is enabling the groups to document themselves on their own terms.
"Part of that project is to provide and archive this information," Rainier explained. "First and foremost it's (for) them, and if they choose, they can share that information. And many of them do want to."
Rainier's observations allowed him to reflect on the importance of these efforts.
"Eighty percent of indigenous languages are oral, so that knowledge is going to pass away ... When an elder passes away – which, on average, is every two weeks around the world – it's like burning down a library," Rainier said. "So much like the biosphere, we're watching this massive transformation of intellectual knowledge going away."
Of course, arming un-westernized indigenous peoples with technology is often a controversial matter, but Rainier sees it as the most efficient strategy for preservation. Moreover, he emphasized that it can be fused with traditional practices to augment the culture's vitality.
Indeed, by the time this story is printed, Rainier will be in a remote village in Peru, meeting with a council of tribal elders to enable and guide their ventures into the technological realm.
"We aren't the deciders here, we're merely the facilitators when they've made their decision," Rainier said. "The embracing of both doesn't have to be a disharmonious evolution."
Many of the remaining Amazonian tribes, such as the Huaorani Indians of Ecuador's Yasuni National Park, are on the brink of extinction, as governments open up lands to developers hungry for crude oil. Consequently, Rainier believes there's little time to spare.
"If we sit there in the loading bay of the Titanic deciding which lifeboat to use, we're doomed," he explained, underlining the sense of urgency felt among his peers.
In short, these efforts provide tribal groups with crucial tools for which to protect their heritage.
Throughout his lecture, Rainier deftly wove personal anecdotes into the landscape of his photos, bringing them to life for the audience. With verbal illustration nearly as powerful as his images, he described a scene in which an Ethiopian shaman and a Navajo elder were exchanging email, effortlessly sharing knowledge and bouncing ideas through cyberspace.
Looking forward, he reflected on the importance of the next generation of young people.
"Put off short-term gains for long-term goals," Rainier said, referring to advice Ansel Adams once gave to him. "Don't look for immediate results."
Taking this advice literally, Rainier never lost sight of his vision of working for National Geographic. It took him 20 years after leaving Adams' studio, but he got there, soaking up the journey and all its lessons along the way.
Professor of photojournalism, Rob Heller, reflected on Rainier's visit.
"National Geographic photographers are among the elite of the world and Chris Rainier's presentation was evidence of that fact," Heller said. "His images were remarkable and the stories behind them were fascinating as well."
UT student and visual media intern for McClung Museum, Lance Pettiford, also commented on the significance of Rainier's visit.
"As an aspiring photographer, yet as a studying anthropologist, I loved Rainier's lecture," Pettiford said. "His understanding of cultures and the balance he has contributed to photography is inspirational."
This understanding is evident in his perspective on opportunities and following dreams.
"I've learned that nothing comes easy," Rainier said. "Be an optimist. ... If you're doing it for the right reasons, all the doors will continue to open. I think – in a Buddhist sense – that's a way to navigate the world. When there's resistance, pay attention to what's going on. ... If you believe in what you're doing, and it has virtue, things tend to karmically look after you, and you end up where you should be.
"Maybe not where you want to be, but where you should be."
His most recent book, "Cultures on the Edge," contains over 100 images taken from around the world. A limited number of copies are also available for purchase at the McClung Museum.