A Closer Look at the Last of the World”s Tribal Cultures with Photographer JIMMY NELSON

By Tyler Malone

Winter 2013-2014

The new inevitably eclipses the old. Traditions die out and are lost. Some call this progress and, sure, it is progress of a kind. But what is lost in this so-called progression? What is lost when we shed pieces of ourselves that connect us to our past, our people, and our planet?

The sad inevitability evoked in the title of Jimmy Nelson”s photography project Before They Pass Away speaks to this very question. It asks specifically: What is lost when vibrant tribal cultures “pass away”? And is there anything that can be done to stave off this assimilation and extermination?

His fascination with these cultures, and his staging of these images, has led him to be accused of romanticism and fetishization. Like the work of photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis, whose photographs of Native Americans remain controversial, Jimmy Nelson”s photographs exist somewhere between art and documentation. He acknowledges this existence in the grey area between these two worlds, and understands the complications this brings about. Nevertheless, he claims that he is using drama and beauty to get a point across. And it”s a point that most can agree with: look closer. Having done so, feel free to come to your own conclusions on the rest.

Tyler Malone: In the introduction to your book (out now through teNeues), Mark Blaisse claims “[you] travel to extreme places out of an inner necessity, remembering how at age 16, [you] already wanted to find out about [your] own eccentricity, not by hiding, but by encountering others like [you]: atypical, individualistic nomads.” Talk about yourself at age 16, and how you became the photographer you are today.

Jimmy Nelson: At the age of sixteen I lost all my hair due to the accidental use of the wrong medicine. This event changed me not only aesthetically, but also personally. I felt different from everyone else due to my new appearance. Soon after, I decided to abandon my plans to go to university and instead disappeared on a year’s journey to “find myself.” I traveled the length of Tibet by foot and, upon my return, the amateurish photo diary that I made was published. This was the start of my career as a photographer.

I worked as a photojournalist in various locations like Afghanistan, Pakistan, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and former Yugoslavia. I moved to China for a three-year project called “Literary Portraits of China,” which was eventually published to a wide international acclaim. In 1998 I settled down in Amsterdam, where I worked as a commercial photographer and began a family. At one point however, after living off my commercial work for over a decade, I felt that my career had slipped into a rut of superficiality. What I really wanted to do was get back into the world and search for ancient civilizations.

TM: How did this project and book, Before They Pass Away, come about? And how long have you been working on it?

JN: Our world is changing at breakneck speed. Countries that, not so long ago, were considered developing nations are now among the world”s wealthiest. It’s inevitable that such rapid progress in affluence and technology ultimately reaches those cultures that, up until now, have managed to preserve their own identity and values. And when it does, their longstanding traditions will gradually disappear.

My dream had always been to preserve our world’s tribes through my photography. Not to stop change from happening–because I know I can’t–but to create a visual document that reminds us, and the generations after us, of the beauty of pure and honest living, and of all the important things it teaches us, ingredients we seem to have forgotten in our so-called civilized world. I’m privileged to have had the opportunity to fulfill this life-long passion, but it is not about me: it is a catalyst for something far bigger.

TM: What are you trying to tell the world about these various cultures? Do you have a specific message you want the book to get across?

JN: The main message of this project would be: look closer. We in the developed world are very comfortable with our prejudices and with our judgments. Look closer, because you never know what’s around the corner. Some things can be very different than what they seem to be. The book that originated from this project–containing 402 color photographs–is meant as a source of inspiration and its main objective is to keep tribal tradition alive from us to learn from.

TM: One thing I found interesting is the title: Before They Pass Away. It seems fatalistic, as though you”re claiming, through that title, that these cultures inevitably will pass away. Because of globalization, do you think that there is nothing to be done, that soon these cultures will be gone no matter what they as an individual community or we as a global community do?

JN: I want to show these tribes that they are already rich. That they have something that money can’t buy. I would like to demonstrate to them that the Western modern society is not as pure and inspiring as their own culture and values and therefore it is not something to necessarily aspire. I want to make the tribes realize that their lifestyle is one of much more purity and beauty than “ours.” It is free of corruption and greed. I want them to be proud of their authenticity and defend it in order to preserve it.

If we could start a global movement that documents and shares images, thoughts and stories about tribal life both old and new, perhaps we could save part of our world’s precious cultural heritage from vanishing. I feel that we must try to let them co-exist in these modern times, by supporting their cause, respecting their habitats, recording their pride, and helping them to pass on their traditions to generations to come.

Even though I am aware that my photographic document will not be able to prevent the eventual disappearance of the tribes, I strongly hope that it adds to the realization that by respecting their natural habitat and way of life, we are able to stretch it as long as possible.

TM: How do you go about gaining entrance into these communities and getting them to trust you and allow you to document them?

On a number of locations, when we first arrived somewhere, the people were reluctant to let us photograph them. What we did was leave the camera behind for the first days in order not to intimidate them. We would sleep in their accommodation because we did not want to give the impression that we feel better than them.

Wherever we went we always approached the people we photographed with enormous dignity. We would try to communicate, usually with the help of translators. When the people we visited finally had warmed up to us, our enthusiasm worked as a catalyst for theirs. Our passion, our perfectionism, and our teamwork seemed to be contagious and, in most cases, the locals soon wanted to participate in it. The positive energy and pride that emerged from working together with the people is reflected in the photographs.

TM: Was there any community you wanted to gain access to and include in the project but were denied?

JN: Yes, in South America (in particular Brazil), in China, and in the Middle East. We have to, however, take into account that, because of political situations, religion, or conflict, some of these places and tribes might not be as easy accessible as others. Any recommendations or connections are of course very much appreciated!

TM: Some of these photographs seem a little candid, but most feel like beautiful staged, framed, and lighted like classic Western magazine covers. How much do you direct in these shoots?

JN: I worked for days on the staging and direction of the shoot.

TM: Would you say your goal is more in the direction of art or more in the direction of documentation?

JN: Both.

TM: I know you”ve talked about the Edward Sheriff Curtis anthologies as one of your inspirations, but his work on Native Americans remains controversial in some circles. Do you worry that your photographs will be controversial and that some will inevitably accuse you of manipulation, romanticization, and cultural appropriation?

JN: I would like to start a dialogue.

TM: I guess more specifically: What is your response to critics like say Andrea Landry of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus who, after seeing your book, asked, “Why are they romanticizing us again?

JN: This is my own interpretation, using the aesthetic to spark the debate. The title is purposefully dramatic to get people’s attention, using drama and beauty to get a point across. Yes, they will not disappear, but their culture will fade away. My goal is start start a dialogue and get the attention of as many people as possible.

TM: Besides Curtis, who are some other photographers, either predecessors or contemporaries, who have influenced your work?

JN: Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, Herb Ritts, Tim Walker.

TM: What”s next for you?

JN: We have photographed 35 tribes so far, based on aesthetic beauty, geographical location, and the diversity of the nature they live in. The photographs in this book show the enormous diversity of extraordinary nature on our planet.

I want them to realize how important their existence is for the rest of the world and the future of humanity.

In the next years, we are planning to visit and photograph another 35 tribes: for example in the Middle East, in China, and in Australia.

Jimmy Nelson is a photographer. His project Before They Pass Away documents tribal cultures around the globe.


Before They Pass Away Official Site

Buy the Book Now from teNeues

Written by Tyler Malone

Photography by Jimmy Nelson

Design by Marie Havens


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All Photography by Jimmy Nelson

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