The Photographer Who Maps Indigenous Cultures

SLIDESHOW: Some of the portraits captured by Jimmy Nelson that are featured in his book Before They Pass Away.

British photographer Jimmy Nelson wants to create awareness about the value of the world’s cultural diversity through his visual projects.

British photographer Jimmy Nelson has spent the last seven years photographing indigenous cultures in an iconic and romantic way. The book that resulted, Before They Pass Away, is a visual homage to the cultures he saw and the lessons he learned. “I feel the peoples have something we have lost a long time ago. Their life is more in harmony and balance,” he says. “The traditional knowledge of indigenous societies can contribute to the planet’s modern vision of technology, science and medicine. Indigenous societies also provide outstanding examples of sustainable living.

Before They Pass Away was published in Autumn 2013 to international acclaim. He is now in Papua New Guinea working on the second part of the project. He talks about his experiences with Billionaire.

What particular social culture do you admire the most and why?
Within the Himba families in northern Namibia, children are never left alone. If the parents are working, the other brothers and sisters carry the babies. The younger people take care of the elderly, everybody lives together and helps each other. Everywhere you go, that is a common denominator. People are not as individualistic, which to me seems to make the people a lot happier and connected than in the West.

What could our dysfunctional Western society learn from the ways of these peoples?
The biggest lesson I have learned is to trust your instincts. I think when we are quite far away from our souls we do not live fully anymore, we rely on other people, information and digital devices. “When you are vulnerable you can connect with people on any level. We just have to wake up to a new reality: a traditional way of living is disappearing among indigenous peoples. I want to show them the pictures. We need to start a dialogue, so they can learn from each other and we can learn from all of them.

How are such cultures adapting to the future?
From a sociological point of view, they will all ‘modernise’. But it’s going to happen more quickly because of the digital era. They will all soon have internet and mobile telephones, and the danger is I think they will become homogenised through the information that they receive. What I’m trying with my photography is hopefully showing them that they’re already rich, that they already have something that’s very valuable in the way that they live and how they look.

Were the indigenous peoples always welcoming? How did you and your team gain their trust?
I needed to become humble and small without being patronising. I’m there for a very short period of time and I want to make that connection. Everywhere I went, I was accepted and people were kind. People took me in. In some cases, this just took longer than in other places. I take my time making the photographs; it’s cumbersome, tiring, and awkward. In that process I become vulnerable, stressed, and emotional. People see this and they take that very seriously; they give me much more of their time and attention. When you understand the language, you can be very distinct by using words, but when you don’t understand the language you have to be more physical and more human. It usually works in every situation. To persuade the sitter, you essentially have to worship them. You have to physically get on your bended knee; you have to sweat; you have to cry; you have to prostrate yourself to the subject. If you prostrate yourself to your subject, they will end up shining.

How do you organise to meet these people?
I’ve been researching indigenous cultures ever since I can remember. I also have local contacts in some countries who help me doing research. I travel with one producer who films/documents the whole time. When the guide and the translator are arranged and organised, we go to find and visit the communities. They’re usually not particularly interested at first.

What has been your favourite project and why?
I had always dreamed of visiting and ultimately photographing the peoples of Papua New Guinea. In 25 years of commercial or editorial photography assignments, I had always failed in persuading a potential client to send me there. So, in 2011 I decided to give myself the ultimate assignment and incorporate a selection of Papua New Guinea’s peoples. All my childhood dreams were answered in an anarchic kaleidoscopic adventure. Nowhere on Earth is there a more diverse visual indigenous heritage than on this extraordinary island. Until recently, all these remote peoples have been hidden from the world due to the rugged and inaccessible nature of the mountainous highlands. The indigenous cultures have also been hidden from one another. Until recently they have all congregated once a year in the village of Goroka to celebrate their cultures.

What is still on your bucket list?
One thing on the bucket list is going back to the Amazon. The Amazon is very difficult to get into because it’s highly protected. It’s very political. I tried before without a lot of success. I’m now in contact with someone who can help me and I’m still hoping this will work out. Next to that I would like to spend a lot more time in Siberia, another extraordinary part of the world. It is is very isolated because of its inaccessibility and its scale. Due to the harsh climate and difficulty of life in the tundra, hospitality and generosity are highly prized. Challenging conditions really reflect in the faces of the people and create very powerful images.

If one thing happens as a result of your work, what do you hope that will be?
The title Before They Pass Away generated a lot of attention, as people interpreted it in a variety of ways. The most negative connotation was that people were actually ‘passing away’. With the Jimmy Nelson Foundation, I’m committing to the most positive interpretation. ‘Before They’ is open, and can be filled in more positively and allows room for hope. With ‘Before They’ I want to create awareness and highlight the value of the world’s cultural diversity. I want to promote the possibility of cherishing this vulnerable and invaluable cultural diversity for generations to come.

Jimmy Nelson will be showing his work at various forthcoming exhibitions. Rademakers Gallery, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 6 October to 6 November 2017; Werkhallen, Remagen, Germany, 8 October to 22 December 2017; Crossover Showroom, Hamburg, Germany, 10 November until 28 February 2018; and Willas Gallery, Oslo, Norway, 24 November 2017 until 7 January 2018.

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