Capturing Vanishing Worlds

Jimmy Nelson traverses the globe to photograph obscure tribes.

(Left) Jimmy Nelson.

Jimmy Nelson’s job is no walk in the park: constantly gallivanting in jungle thickets around the world, he leaves his family of four in Amsterdam, where they reside, and spends up to nine months every year in search of forlorn cultures.

He photographs them in ways that highlight their sheer power, pride and beauty. “These people stand next to beaches we spend most of our lives saving up to go to. We go to the gym every other day to get to their level of fitness. These people really have all we have lost,” says Nelson when he was in Penang last July for Before They Pass Away, his powerful photo exhibit – part of the George Town Festival – of the world’s last remaining indigenous cultures. Before They Pass Away is also the title of his book.

His travels at times are beyond daunting: he fondly recalls how he spent 20 days in a tank scouring the wilds of Chukotka in Siberia’s easternmost peninsula – a barren glacial area the size of France – looking for traces of the elusive nomadic Reindeer Chukchi.

Nelson finally found their camp. They allowed him to set up his clunky 50-year-old camera and shoot them only for one evening, after he had spent two weeks living with them. “I give people the respect they need,” he says. “That’s also why I use an old analogue camera: it’s not for the grain of the film, but for the human interaction. What I do is analogue and digital practical photography. It’s a trade, a profession: you can’t do it without experience. I want to make my photos with the highest technique and presentation – they aren’t photographs you can take by accident with a digital camera.”

An Iron Will to Tell Stories

After his first book was published in 2013, Nelson was criticised by Stephen Corry, the director of indigenous rights group Survival International, who claimed that Nelson’s work was not only diminishing of the tribal cultures he tried to depict, but was also not truthful.

“I was confused, but it was thanks to Corry and Survival International and all those who poked me in 2014 that my project didn’t fail. I started feeling what I had never felt before, and questioned what I was doing,” says Nelson, who had just spent six weeks shooting in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu where, for the first time in his life, he was robbed of all his possessions. (“The thieves stormed into our bungalow, taking the cameras, computers, passports – everything we had. Worst of all, they took the hard disks with six weeks’ worth of images from a very remote part of the world.”)

The name chosen for this project has roused attention: “Before they pass away” may give the impression that he pessimistically saw the sealed fate of those peoples he had come to meet. And maybe this was how he initially felt. But since he first published the book in 2013, his sustained and amazing interactions with the most diverse range of peoples have made him backtrack on this view. Where there are challenges, there are solutions. He has come to appreciate the pride, strength, vigour, honour and resilience of the people he asked to pose for his lens. This provides him with an unending inspiration to continue his work.

Te Pua O Feani, Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, 2016.

Vaioa River, Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, 2016.

Nelson is forging ahead: there is an upcoming second book, and his next exhibits will use different mediums to explain his journey of world and self-discovery; besides the photos, there will be screens showing the making of the film Nelson is producing, and 360-degree footage of the photo-shooting process. “I want to have a dome that people can walk into and experience exactly what I go through to take each shot,” says Nelson. The second volume of Before They Pass Away will be enhanced with a smartphone app that will make the pictures come alive through augmented reality.

I give people the respect they need. That’s also why I use an old analogue camera: it’s not for the grain of the film, but for the human interaction. What I do is analogue and digital practical photography. It’s a trade, a profession: you can’t do it without experience. I want to make my photos with the highest technique and presentation – they aren’t photographs you can take by accident with a digital camera.

Are the subjects of his books paid to pose for the shots? “Many of the tribes don’t use money, so there’s no payment; others do, so there is. But I always bring gifts with me – like an animal to eat,” says Nelson. “Is that payment? To me, bringing a gift is just courtesy and social ritual. You can’t take the pictures I do by paying the indigenous cultures. But there’s a different type of investment: if you turn up in a tourist bus, take photos and leave, the indigenous peoples will always want you to pay them. If you invest two weeks sitting under a tree and talking to them, then the bond that forms between you and them goes well beyond mere commercial terms. I want to raise awareness on the way globalisation affects our cultural heritage.”

His next book will be “mostly new locations and peoples, and some of it will be returning to old places. I bring books when I go back, I show the tribes their pictures, and we start a conversation. Everybody goes ballistic: you are not the first to come and photograph us, they say, but you are the first to come back and give us that respect,” Nelson says.

“I tell them that materially, culturally and naturally they are the richest on the planet. We are instead materially very rich, but culturally and naturally poor. It’s a matter of readdressing the Balance.”

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia, and blogs at www.monkeyrockworld.com. He also curates the Penang Insider, the smart guide for traveling and living in Penang, at www.penanginsider. com. His latest book, The Travels of Marco Yolo, is available in bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.



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