Wilfred Thesiger was born in 1910 to the British Consul-General in Addis Ababa, Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia). He spent his early years in Addis Ababa. During this time, he developed an interest in photography after he was allowed to play with his father’s roll-film box brownie. It was also in Addis where Thesiger’s curiosity of foreign cultures blossomed. Both of these interests defined his life and by the time of his death in 2003, he was credited for being one of the last great explorers and an important anthropological photographer.
At the age of 20, Thesiger was invited back to Addis Ababa to attend the coronation of Ras Tafari as the Emperor Haile Selassie. On this trip he traveled to the North East of the country to the Danakil Desert on a hunting expedition. The travel bug had bitten, and in 1933, he returned to Abyssinia once again. This time Thesiger was funded by a grant from the Royal Geographic Society to explore the course of the Awash River. At this time, it seems he was still traveling with his father’s box-brownie.
Thesiger’s reputation as a desert-man led him to serve in the Sudan Political Service from 1935. At the outbreak of war in 1939, he was recruited to join the elite Special Air Service, but in 1943, he left to become a military adviser to his friend Haile Selassie. With Thesiger’s military knowledge Haile Selassie was able to reclaim power in Abyssinia – the only African country that had not been colonized – leading to the Rastafari movement growing in the Caribbean.
However, it was after the war that Thesiger did most of his exploring. He joined the UN and was able to lead two expeditions in 1945 and 1949 crossing the Empty Quarter in the Arabian Peninsular. He swapped his English tweeds for local dress and walked barefoot with camels and Bedu guides as companions. It was on these expeditions that Thesiger took his most important anthropological photos – recording a way of life that would, within years, all but die out.
Thesiger upgraded his camera to a Leica II for the Arabian adventures and continued to use Leicas all his life. He shot exclusively using black and white film. While crossing the Empty Quarter, Thesiger carried his camera in a goat skin shoulder bag – he found that his bag gave his camera sufficient protection and used this bag his whole life.
Thesiger continued to travel, spending seven years with the Iraqi Marsh Arabs, once again recording a way of life that was disappearing quickly. He also traveled extensively in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He finally settled in north Kenya, but Parkinson’s disease later in life meant that he had to return to England and he lived his last few years in a nursing home in South-East England. Upon his death, he bestowed his collection of almost 30,000 negatives to the United Kingdom.
Wilfred Thesiger wrote a number of books about his adventures including his most famous book, Arabian Sands. The BBC have produced a nice presentation of his photography here. The The Pitt Rivers Museum holds his collection of photos.