Vintage photos from the NatGeo archive show the lives of nomadic people around the world

As a movie about modern-day wandering souls wins big at the Oscars, a look back into the NatGeo photo archive at those for whom moving has always been part of life.

By Simon Ingram
Published 29 Apr 2021, 09:15 BST
Thomas J. Abercrombie's iconic image of bedouins in Saudi Arabia, 1965. The term for bedouin comes from ...

Thomas J. Abercrombie's iconic image of bedouins in Saudi Arabia, 1965. The term for bedouin comes from the Arabic badawī, meaning 'desert dweller.' These nomadic people live in tribes across north Africa and Arabia.

Photograph by Thomas J. Abercrombie, National Geographic Image Collection

“HOME: is it just a word, or is it something you carry within you?” So sang former Smiths frontman Morrissey in his 2017 song Home is a Question Mark – a lyric that surfaces in the first minutes of Chloé Zhao's Oscar-winning Nomadland. 

It's an idea that pervades a film populated by those who live by a similar notion. The eclectic cast of Nomadland – which comes to Disney+ on 30 April – largely comprises those who have stepped out from beneath the 'tyranny of the dollar' for real to live a placid existence on the fringes of society, with nimble habitation and an ever-changing backdrop a happy consequence. And while most might be conditioned to see this as going against the grain of normality, the idea they are going back to the roots of the human species is likely closer to the truth. 

The nomadic path

Probably the original way of life for human beings, the etymology of the word 'nomad' is itself is fairly ancient, derived it is thought from the Latin nomas, or 'wandering'. Since the very earliest people, humans have been itinerant and migratory, finding subsistence 'lifeways' amidst the landscape be these following animals, moving home to favour the seasonal shift or simply wandering for spiritual nourishment. Life boiled down to the simplicities: finding food and water, and staying warm and sheltered. 

Nomadland follows the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman in her sixties who, finding herself facing poverty, takes to the road in a campervan. The film is based on a book by Jessica Bruder and the cast features many real-life exponents of the lifestyle.

Photograph by Searchlight, 20th Century Pictures

While expanding urban centres and industrialisation make nomadic peoples rarer, many remain. These include pastoralist nomads, who shepherd animals between territories at different times of the year, as seen in Tibetan Changpa herders, the Lapp Sami, the Berbers and the Bedouins; to the Khoisan bush people of Southern Africa, the Qashqai of the Middle East, and the Bajau, the famed ‘sea nomads’ of South East Asia, to historical hunter-gatherer nomads such as the Australian aboriginal peoples, and the Blackfoot and Sioux of the American plains. 

Then there are the nomads who ply trades and crafts, or undertake casual work on the road – modern examples of which might include the Romani and travelling carnival folk. All are a modern statement of the fact that as long as there has been people, there have been nomadic lifestyles – and that the lure of the journey is, for some, the way of life they choose. 

Gallery: images of nomadic people from NatGeo's archive

And of course, there are those who are born into a nomadic tradition, and then there are those who choose it.

Nomadland director and writer Chloé Zhao - who on 25 April became the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for Best Director – sees the two as distinct, but united in spirit.

“Some people belong to the road and they belong to that kind of lifestyle, that is the case for example with nomadic tribes,” she said. “Then there are others who need to be on the road because mainstream society has tossed them aside and they have to figure out another way to live and to find a level of comfort.”

She added of her film: “I think the themes and spirit of the story are relevant in any part of the world, and in any walk of life.”  

In any case, by default life on the move breeds a strong sense of self-reliance. As a character in Nomadland says, albeit referencing a more practical scruple of nomadic existence, “I love this lifestyle. It is a lifestyle of freedom, of beauty, of connection to the Earth... but there is a trade-off. You gotta learn how to take care of your own shit.”

Nomadland is streaming on Star on Disney+ from 30 April.

The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.


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