There are a few shots. For example, this one, on which a slightly dressed man is seen walking barefoot over a stony beach. With the bow drawn up, he aims at the height, where he is photographed from. A picture, as seen in the early days of colonialism, when unknown ethnic groups were portrayed as aggressive savages.
It was only 15 years ago – on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea in the northern Indian Ocean. An Indian Coast Guard employee picked her up from a helicopter shortly after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami washed over hundreds of islands and vast stretches of coastline, killing 230,000 people. The inhabitants of Sentinel, probably about 100, were believed to have been able to evacuate on time. The Coast Guard did not discover much more than this armed man.
The coral reef-lined island of North Sentinel, about the size of Manhattan, has been given a life largely isolated from the outside world. Invaders? Are chased away successfully. Photos and movies? Barely available. Formally, the island belongs to Indiabut even researchers and staff of the Indian authorities have little contact with this part of the national territory. Outsiders prohibit the New Delhi government from entering North Sentinel.
Nevertheless, the 27-year-old American missionary John Allen Chau had set his mind to convert the Sentinelese to Christianity. From fishermen he had let end of 2018 bring over the sea. But before he could enter the island, he was killed by the arrows of the contact-shy residents.
Finally, in the media reports about the incident, the photo from 2004 appeared again and again – as obvious evidence of the primitiveness, danger and aggressiveness of the islanders.
Danger from the helicopter
The picture shows, of course, only the point of view of the photographing Coast Guard – and not that of the photographed islander. For him, the situation is a completely different one: he sees and hears only a flying object approaching with monstrous noise, and perhaps he recognizes in it one or more people with cameras and lenses in front of their faces. Most likely, the man in the helicopter suspects a threat. At the same time, the photo does not provide any insight into how the Sentinelese actually live and what constitutes their culture. It only serves the usual stereotypes.
But how did these stereotypes come about? And: How hostile are the Sentineleses really?
The Indian anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya is one of the few scientists who had contact with the isolated island nation in the 1990s. He is a professor at the Information and Communication Technology College in Gandhinagar, India.