Jimmy Nelson makes his living seducing tribes. While other Westerners see novelty in native tribesmen, Nelson sees beauty. He’s not the type to snap their photo and then jump on the first bus out of the village, never to be seen again. Instead, the 46-year-old Briton builds trust with communities, putting the native people on a pedestal and glorifying them in the hope that in honouring their culture, we might somehow preserve it.
For the last four years, the professional photographer has travelled the world, capturing astonishing images with a vintage 4 X 5 plate camera as part of his ongoing Before They Pass Away project, which seeks to lionise tribes who might otherwise lose their traditions or disappear entirely. The images are remarkable because they depict native peoples in a way no one ever has before – powerful, not vulnerable; beautiful not impoverished; proud not marginalised.
When we caught up with Nelson recently in his home base of Amsterdam, he insisted that his project will help spark a conversation about what these tribes can teach the developed world. In an era of globalisation and homogenisation, Nelson’s work is a reminder that there are many corners of the planet where people are living simple lives just as their ancestors did, hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Some travellers will follow in his footsteps; many others will live vicariously through his experiences. Either way, Jimmy Nelson is bridging the gap between the West and the world’s most traditional cultures.
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Q: How did you end up becoming a photographer?
It was 1984 and I was in a Jesuit boarding school with 1,000 boys when my hair fell out due to a condition called alopecia totalis. It never grew back. The English were even more preoccupied back then with class, accent, appearance, background and wealth. At that time, if you had no hair, you were a skinhead. Skinheads were regarded as people who were not only lower class, but violent, aggressive – pariahs of society. I went from being a well brought up, upper-middle-class schoolboy to being a pariah.
I decided to go the one place where I thought people would look like me, so in 1986, at age 18, I went to Tibet to live among the legions of bald monks. Tibet had only just opened to foreigners and I ended up exploring the whole country, which few outsiders had seen in more than 30 years. It was a massive life changer because it gave me a story, it gave me curiosity, and the pictures I took were published in the national magazine of the Royal Geographic Society when I returned.
Q: How did that formative experience lead you towards photographing tribes?
After Tibet, I kept photographing tribes as a hobby for about six years. I didn’t know why I was doing it and often I was photographing indigenous groups in places of strife like Guatemala, El Salvador, Afghanistan and Somalia. It was pure curiosity. At that age, you’re testing yourself; most of these were self-created assignments.
At 24, I met my Dutch wife, Ashkiane Horaadema, and to pay the bills I slowly evolved into commercial photography. Then five years ago, with digital photography firmly establishing itself as the new norm, I found that my chosen profession was in jeopardy and came to a moment of self reflection: I had to take a risk; I had to stick my neck out. I decided to specialise in the one thing that I knew something about, which was disappearing cultures and tribes.
For this project, I came up with 35 different groups – different cultures, different tribes. I had very basic criteria. Rather than vulnerability or statistics, the groups were based on wanting geographic diversity and diverse natural landscapes.
The nomadic Chukchi live in the Chukotka Province of northeast Siberia. There are less than 100 of them and they live like Eskimos. I went to Papua New Guinea because it is probably the richest part of the world for this subject matter. I only scratched the surface there. I photographed four tribes – the Huli, the Asaro, the Kalam and the Goroka.
Q: Most of the tribes you’ve photographed are in remote locations. How much travel did the project entail?
Over a period of three years, from 2010 to 2013, I went on 16 journeys, varying from one to two months each. Each trip was different. For example, it took a month and a half to find the Chukchi people, travelling in a Russian Tundra tank. There are only about 80 Chukchi left in an area the size of France with no roads. The only way to find them is to follow the reindeer droppings.
Q: How do you work with these tribes?
Eighty percent of the time we had no common language. You try to find translators but when you find the tribe, many times your translator will admit that they don’t know the dialect. So you’re often forced to communicate on your own. If you’re desperate and passionate enough, it is possible to communicate with people who don’t share your language.
I connected with the tribes by becoming fallible, by becoming vulnerable. I was with the Chukchi for three weeks before taking a single photo, because they said, “Our conditions are so extreme, you need to participate in our community first, because if you don’t participate you’re immune to our existence.” After three weeks, we were allowed to indulge in something other than just survival – and that was taking pictures.
Q: Were the tribes receptive to being photographed?
They saw this strange person who was very passionate, very peculiar, who was putting them on a pedestal, using this old technical plate camera. Many of the photos were made with a four or five second exposure, and to get into that process of mutual understanding there’s been a massive build-up, sometimes weeks of building trust. And the trust is all based on telling them, “You’re special, you’re beautiful, you’re powerful; for me, you’re iconic.” Most of these tribes are very pure, very honest. They’re not are aware of what photography is and they don’t share our same prejudices.
I was a visitor who had come to praise and record. I was not coming in as a predator. I was taking portraits inside their huts, their caves. The majority of the images were large compositions or staged portraits which would take a lot of time to explain and set up. I needed the village to help me, holding these big reflectors I carry with me. You involve the whole community, and the more everyone participates, the less threatening you become.
Q: Why not use a digital camera?
The intricacy of using this camera meant that I was always on the edge, always in uncomfortable positions. If you’re trying to take photos in -40C, and you’ve got a plate camera that requires your fingers and you need to use a four or five second shutter speed, you’re so desperate and so vulnerable that people want to help you. And when you process these images and print them, the grain is fantastic compared to digital photography. Digital becomes very plastic. It all ends up looking the same. By using film, you’re capable of putting your signature on the pictures.
Q: Did you ever have to pay people to take their pictures?
We never paid money. Everywhere we went we brought gifts, such as goats or sheep. Whether that is a form of payment is debatable. More touristy places like Ethiopia’s Omo Valley are aware of money and photography, so you have to work harder – not by paying, but by participating in their community. We hunted, built tents, collected wood, played with their children, made films and photographs.
Q: Did you ask the tribes to dress up and pose for you?
The pictures are definitely arranged. People don’t naturally stand under a waterfall at 7 am waiting for the sun to rise, unless you ask them to. I’m presenting these people in a way that hasn’t been done before. We present ourselves in the developed world in a very idealised, stylised way because we believe we are important.
I’ve given them the time, the respect that we would give ourselves because perhaps these people have something to teach us, to show us.
Q: Did you ever give up on a tribe because they were hostile or uncooperative?
The only time that happened was in Australia with the Aborigines. That’s because their whole story is so jaded that everyone has a negative point of view – of the visitor, of themselves, of the camera and the media. They didn’t want to be photographed because of the ongoing negative publicity they have received, and I was just another photographer to them.
Q: Do you think that people will see your photos and want to travel in your footsteps?
I have followed in other peoples’ footsteps and others will follow in mine. Is that wrong? In my opinion, no. Most of the places are very hard to get to on a holiday. You’d have to quit your job or go on a sabbatical. The majority won’t do that. There will be some who will go. That’s fine.
The world is evolving; this romantic notion of, don’t touch the tribes, they have to remain pure – well, believe me, they won’t remain the same. How they change is the issue and we have to participate in that discussion. We can’t patronizingly say, “Go stand on top of the mountain with your spear in a grass skirt forever.” That would be demeaning. But what we can say is, “As you follow us into the developed world, in which you have all right in the world to do, can we communicate with you?”
Q: What are your next steps?
In 2015, I plan to return to many of these tribes to show them the pictures I took. It’s important because I’ve taken something from them without understanding what I was doing. I never showed the groups the photographs; most of them were unaware what a camera was. There was no financial transaction. The only reason they posed was because of the large amount of time invested in praising them, celebrating their beauty, strength and pride. I’ve published a book with their images and now I want to hear what they think about it. We’re going to make a TV show to document these conversations. We will return to the majority of these places and photograph new tribes as well.
Q: How will people benefit from your work?
Ten percent of what we earn will go to the Rainforest Foundation, which supports indigenous people by protecting their rainforests. We also take food and supplies back to these villages, and the pictures and books as well. I hope we will all benefit: they through realising that not all should be abandoned when moving to the developed world; we by learning from the tribes what we have lost. The tribes accept nature as a power bigger than themselves, which keeps them humble, while we have started to believe we can control nature. Since this is not possible, we have become discontented.
It’s also a journey of motivating other travellers to go on their own journeys. Journeys that will give them a better sense what’s going on around the world, and rather than worrying about what will happen 20 years down the line, inspire them to live in the present.
Q: Is there a common bond shared by many or all of the tribes you’ve photographed?
They all look different, they all live different lives in different places, but one common thread is how they all very much live in the now. In the developed world, we live in the past and the future. We strive to become happy but we forget about here, now, today.
Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson is published by teNeues. Also available as Collector's Edition XXL.
Title page photo: Nelson photographing Maoris in Gisborne, New Zealand. All photos © Jimmy Nelson Pictures BV, beforethey.com, facebook.com/btpa.jimmy.nelson. Illustration © Candace Rose Rardon.
All information correct as of March 2015.