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Behind the Masks of Photographers Iris Brooks and Jon Davis

Photographers and filmmakers Iris Brooks and Jon H. Davis travel far and wide, telling stories of traditional cultures through their photographs. Their work has taken Brooks and Davis to five continents to shoot their documentary Languages Lost and Found: Speaking & Whistling the Mamma Tongue, and to Borneo for their upcoming documentary Borneo & Beyond: The Rainforest World Music Festival. For MIX in the November/December issue of AFAR they focused on a meaningful object found in almost all cultures: masks. Brooks and Davis shot some masks from their personal collection in their Nyack, New York Northern Lights Studio, others they culled from photographs taken on myriad travels. We caught up with Iris to talk about where their search for culture has taken them and what masks can tell us. 

Why do you think masks are so widely used culturally?
Masks function as transformative tools. They’re sometimes used as a link to the spirit world or as an aid in telling legendary tales and dance dramas. Sometimes they are a means for honoring ancestors, calling upon nature, or healing the sick. They may incorporate anthropomorphic associations, taking on the characteristics of animals, like the trickster Raven among Northwest Coast Indians or the sacred crocodile in West Africa. The wearer of the mask conveys a social rank, like the King mask in Bali, where masks are treated with great respect and offerings are made to them. Sometimes they indicate age, such as with the Japanese Noh masks. But beyond ceremonial, protective, medicinal usage, and links to secret societies, masks are also called upon for entertainment in many lands.

Where does your interest in masks stem from?
We are interested in masks as a window into traditional culture. They are often used for transmitting wisdom and in ceremonies embodying celebration and worship as well as a means for sharing jokes and entertainment.

What did you notice was different from mask to mask?
Masks differ in the materials they are made of; wood, steel, clay, paper mache, fiber, feathers, cloth. Sizes also vary; some with or without ears and hair, and upon occasion masks may be so large, you actually step into them. Colors of masks range from A to Z but the symbolism of each hue differs among cultures. In Chinese masks, red is thought to be positive, prosperous, loyal, and courageous while white is considered to represent an evil character. This is totally different in other parts of the world. In many African societies red is associated with warfare and blood while white may indicate an ancestor from the spirit world.

But with all the differences, there is also a commonality in the masks and we think it is interesting to look at them side by side.

Do certain masks project certain emotions?
Most definitely. Some have an inherent calm demeanor while others border on the demonic. The gold Inca mask from Ecuador radiates power.

What are your favorite masks?
Ultimately it is an aesthetic and visceral choice, when choosing favorites. They shift, and it is just as difficult as being asked to pinpoint a favorite country. However, we did select several favorites [for the MIX spread]—including the fragile, red, Living Goddess mask from Nepal.

What are your favorite objects to photograph and why?
The list of things greatly varies but the root is to give insight or a window into a different place, culture, or way of life. Many cultural artifacts tell stories. Whether photographing textiles from Borneo (sometimes depicting dreams of the weavers), wooden carved storyboards with legends of the land from the Micronesian archipelago of Palau (where the prisoners learn this craft and sell it in their gift shop) or the Amazigh rugs from Morocco embedded with symbolic meaning and references to their natural environment, crafts often inform with new cultural perspectives.

What was the best part about this particular assignment?
Reviewing our personal collection and inventory of mask images from around the world was rewarding. It brought back many memories and was an opportunity to reflect on our adventures in distant lands. In particular, it reminded us of our trip to Bhutan. At a festival, we got up close with masked dancers, clowns, and an enormous sacred art scroll (the size of a building) said to wash away all evils.

What are your most memorable travel destinations?
Variety is the spice of life. That said, we love: the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Borneo, the pristine glaciers at the white bottom of the earth in Antarctica, the architectural mix in Sintra, Portugal, the appreciation of aesthetics throughout Japan, especially in their gardens, the historic Kasbahs of Morocco, the vibrancy of Barcelona, and the mountain landscapes in Bhutan.

For more information on Iris Brooks and Jon H. Davis, see their website