Photographer and anthropologist Alegra Ally has travelled across the globe in search of women’s stories, from Papua New Guinea to the Philippines, Namibia to India. In 2011, she founded the Wild Born Project, an ongoing initiative that explores the many phases of motherhood – from pregnancy to postpartum – in indigenous communities, young girls' rites of passage, and the ways in which these women experience cultural and climate changes in a rapidly developing world.
The Wild Born Project was conceived out of Ally’s early passion for travel, and she’s since dedicated her life to this work, immersing herself in the places she visits for months at a time. "Motherhood, pregnancy and birth were always subjects that were of interest to me and I wanted to see how women in remote communities prepared for birth and were supported by traditional midwives," she says. Taking pictures offers her the most emotive and intimate way to show glimpses of the lived experiences of the women she meets along the way.
Ally grew up in Jerusalem, in a house overlooking a mountainous area full of caves and ancient archaeological sites. She spent a lot of her early years outdoors, hiking and camping with her father. Both sets of her grandparents had migrated to Israel – on her father’s side from Turkey, and on her mother’s side from Kurdistan. Living in this city full of historical significance, hearing the native languages of her family and listening to their stories of home all played into the rich fabric of her childhood. "Looking back, I see how being exposed to such a rich multi-ethnicity at a young age nourished and shaped who I am today, and helped develop my sense of compassion and curiosity for others. Being a nomad really runs in my blood."
Her first solo trip was to Papua New Guinea at the age of 17. Later, in 2011, she decided to return there to conduct her first fieldwork for the Wild Born Project. She had been contacted by a friend who was working as a fixer in the region at the time and was about to embark on a trip with a group of cave explorers deep into the Bosavi region in the country's Southern Highlands. They were due to make a base camp in a village inhabited by the Kosua tribe, and invited Ally along. "The Kosua live in one of the most rich biodiverse jungles on the planet, and in isolation from the outside world," she explains. "The expedition involved hiring a plane to take us into the jungle, and trekking through rough terrain to reach the villages. Knowing of me and the project I had been conceiving, he offered me the opportunity to join so that I could live with the Kosua and hopefully be invited along on a pregnant woman’s journey if there was one living among them who would be willing to collaborate."
That first expedition lasted 30 days and Ally stayed with the tribe for the duration, in a village called Fogomoaiyu. "After I had met with several women and leaders of the community and explained my intentions, I met with several women, one of them being Sibilato – who was nine months' pregnant at the time of my arrival and keen to participate in the project. I stayed close to her during my time there, following her daily rhythms and rituals, and we built an amazing bond." In the weeks following the birth, Ally stayed to document the intricacies of new motherhood among the tribe. Her pictures of that time detail the rainforest ecosystem they live among and how the land, its minerals, plants and animals are used during childbearing for ceremonies, pain management and nutrition.
One of Ally’s favourite pictures is of a small group of Himba women, taken during a trip to Namibia. In it, two traditional midwives gently hold up a pregnant woman. The photo was taken just moments before she gave birth. "It details such a beautiful moment – soft light fills the hut and I remember how powerful and emotive and empowering that moment was, not just for the person giving birth but for all us women there," Ally remembers warmly. "It was such a supportive process – in stark contrast to the clinical hospital births so many women in Western societies experience. It’s a picture full of intimate, nurturing love."
In Namibia, Ally saw the brutal effects of climate change on women’s lives as she watched them walk greater and greater distances each day in search of water. "The Himba women live in a semi-arid desert area and rely on water sources that are created and fed by the rainy season. However, in the last few years, the rainy season has started increasingly later into the year, and doesn’t last as long anymore. It is the difference of several hours each day, which makes life more physically challenging for them, makes them more vulnerable to drought, [putting] their health, and the health of their families, at risk."
The latest chapter of the Wild Born Project is a documentary series and book called New Path – A Window on Nenets Life, based on Ally’s expedition to Siberia and following an indigenous woman of the Nenets tribe and her family in the Siberian Arctic. Here, too, Ally saw how daily life and livelihood is under ever greater threat. For thousands of years, the Nenets have lived nomadically, herding reindeer across the Russian Yamal Peninsula in one of the harshest climates on the planet. There’s no doubt, Ally says, that resource extraction developments, globalisation and the climate crisis are drastically changing things in this part of the world. A couple of years ago, thousands of reindeer died of starvation when rain in February turned the tundra into a sheet of impenetrable ice and the herd couldn’t access the lichen they eat. "Without this food source the reindeer won’t survive, and without the reindeer the Nenets cannot continue their existence on the tundra, since they rely on the reindeer for everything; it’s their clothing, shelter, food, and only source of income."
When Ally travelled there, she followed eight months' pregnant Lena Khudi and her family as they strapped children and belongings to sledges and continued on their annual winter migration across thousands of kilometres. Life doesn’t stop because pregnancy happens – whatever the circumstances, women must adapt and continue onwards to ensure the future of their 800-strong herd. "In this way," says Ally, "the birth saga thus becomes emblematic to the struggle for survival of their culture." The resulting images are stark and crisp, of Lena and her family moving against the elements, through frozen landscapes warmed by late afternoon sun. They set up a teepee each night and sustain themselves with fires and furs. Both men and women work to herd the animals – the men lasso them and the women keep them together – but men are prohibited from doing any of the women’s 'extra' work of daily chores.
Ally says there are advantages and disadvantages to working as a woman in her field but that ultimately, the images wouldn’t exist if a man were to approach the same work. "In the societies I have visited there are taboos around women’s experiences, rituals, practices and daily life that you have to respect – and a man would not have been able to observe or participate in the way that I have. As a woman, I feel very strongly that it's my purpose to share women’s stories and the challenges they might face." Ally uses the example of her time spent with the Maasai community in Kenya, which practises female genital mutilation. Every individual story is important – crucial, in fact – and when the women and girls shared theirs, she says, they were acts of resilience that help to create awareness and facilitate change.
Of course there are dangers when travelling to some of these places solo as a woman, but Ally was unwilling to compromise her independence or her ability to set off alone. "With time, these experiences and challenges have led me to develop a thicker skin, and to analyse situations and react or respond better. Early on in my travels I learned to suppress my femininity, in how I appeared but also in how I behaved, in order to develop a kind of shield and stay safe in some very risky situations." It’s been a difficult and upsetting process at times but if it allows her to work safely, it’s worth it. Also she can never be certain she’ll find a pregnant woman to shadow, or attain the permission and acceptance she needs to accompany a mum-to-be on her journey. "Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t," she says, "but regardless, I’m there to learn from the women and document their knowledge, traditions and stories."
Since the early years of the Wild Born Project, Ally has become a mother herself and that’s changed her way of working once again, bringing a whole new set of challenges, especially in terms of how she balances family life with work and travel. True to form, she sees it all as part of the journey. "As I grow and my life changes, the adventure continues – it never ends."