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Jimmy Nelson

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Text: Larissa Quaak

What a difference a pee makes

Jimmy Nelson Photographs Tribes Before They Pass Away

Sure, Amsterdam has some colorful characters and unique fashion and cultural diversity. But still. When looking around you mostly see a rather homogeneous mass of jeans and t-shirts and smartphones. The pictures  British-born photographer Jimmy Nelson shot for his book 'Before they Pass Away' show a very different, wild world. From the frigid mountains of Mongolia to the endless sandy deserts of Namibia, from the freezing Arctic Circle to the tropical South Pacific, he has  spend three years capturing the lives of indigenous people worldwide. Hoping to immortalize these relatively untouched tribes before it is too late. Amsterdam Enjoy gladly took the opportunity to interview Mr Nelson, and get to know more about his ambitious project.


This interview is for 'Amsterdam Enjoy', a magazine which subtitle loosely translates as 'for the curious mind.' It seems your curious mind has not only made you settle down in our beautiful city, but it has also brought you to some of the most remote places on Earth. Has your mind always been so curious about the world we live in and the people that inhabit it?

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For as long as I can remember, I have traveled the world. My father worked for a major oil company and by the time I was seven, I had seen more countries than most people get to visit in a lifetime. Thereafter I traveled back and forth to boarding school in the UK from all corners of the world. You can imagine that from a very early age I was made aware of the rapid cultural changes happening around the world.

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. This is why my curiosity the difference in appearances of people started to grow and eventually became my passion. Soon after, I decided to abandon my plans to go to university and instead disappear on a year's journey to 'find myself'. I traveled the length of Tibet by foot and on my return the amateurish photo diary that I made was published. This was the start of my career as a photographer.

You have given your book the title 'Before They Pass Away'. I have often read how important it has been for you to install some sense of pride in the tribes you visited; to make them less susceptible to this whole idea of modernization / Americanization / homogenization, whatever you want to call it. Do you see the greatest threat in the possible disappearance of indigenous tribes lying in their own desire for change and the things the so called developed world can bring, or is it something that is rather forced upon them through climate change, devious governments or a relentless march of civilization?

I think this is a combination of all or some of these reasons. Our world is changing at breakneck speed. Countries that, not so long ago, were considered developing nations are now among the worlds 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. You can not tell them to not change, this will happen whatever we do. But we can tell them what is so important about culture and how some traditions etc. don't have to be lost. How you can proud of your culture and traditions. Due to which conditions the tribes are disappearing is very different for every tribe. For Example in the Omo Valley they are going to build a huge dam which will be a problem for all the tribes there. Some of the grounds they live on will disappear or there will not be enough water in the river to water their crops. In other countries climate change will be a reason. For most of these people change will come due to several of the above reasons, not just one.

As a cultural anthropologist by education, I am especially honored to do this interview with you. After all, that whole anthropological field of study started on the same premise: documenting tribes before they vanish, and thus preserving them in some sense. However, that approach also received a lot of critique: taking away inherent dynamics and agency from so called primitive people; often romanticizing this whole idea of the noble savage; putting people on display or in a glass house; and simply overlooking or ignoring change. I know on some occasions you have received part of this critique. I certainly do not want to start this interview by attacking you, but I am curious how you defend yourself against this kind of criticism?

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. Yes the pictures are romantic, but not false. I just asked them to put on their nicest clothes, which they did. I'm not a anthropologist, but just a photographer who has a passion. The images are subjective but photography always is. I'm definitely not ignoring the change. I'm just trying to preserve some of what is left of these traditions and cultures. As for the picture, as I said I asked them to wear their nicest things, but when you see the images blown up really big, you definitely see lots of signs of 'civilized' society from watches to sunglasses and cellphones. On our Facebook we try and put some more information with the images and we try and explain that some of the tribes only wear some of the clothes only for tourists. I'm definitely not ignoring the change. I know they will change. The only question is how. I wanted to show people, even those who are not interested in the tribes or photography what we are about to loose. We can learn a lot from them.

You have given your book the title 'Before They Pass Away', and I have often read how important it has been for you to install some sense of pride in the tribes you visited. Hopefully to make them less susceptible to this whole idea of modernization/Americanization/homogenization, whatever you want to call it. Do you see the greatest threat in the possible disappearance of indigenous tribes lying in their own desire for change and the things the so called developed world can bring, or is it something that is rather forced upon them through climate change, dodgy governments or a relentless march of civilization?

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I think this is a combination of all or some of these reasons. Our world is changing at breakneck speed. Countries that, not so long ago, were considered developing nations are now among the worlds 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. You can not tell them to not change, this will happen whatever we do. But we can tell them what is so important about culture and how some traditions etc. don't have to be lost. How you can proud of your culture and traditions. Due to which conditions the tribes are disappearing is very different for every tribe. For Example in the Omo Valley they are going to build a huge dam which will be a problem for all the tribes there. Some of the grounds they live on will disappear or there will not be enough water in the river to water their crops. In other countries climate change will be a reason. For most of these people change will come due to several of the above reasons, not just one.

If we could start a global movement that documents and shares images, thoughts and stories about tribal life, maybe 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.

Only that way we can help them keeping their way of life for as long as possible. If we don't, they will vanish and with that we will loose a living example of how to treasure our natural surroundings and values like hope, optimism and courage, solidarity and friendship. We could learn a lot from these authentic cultures building on principal aspects of humanity, such as respect, love, survival and sharing.

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Do you also see an other side to this disappearance coin, where people tend to maybe become more aware of their culture when they stand at its boundaries? When I look around me, it seems that many times people overstress and enlarge their cultural uniqueness when they encounter other cultures, or when they become aware of other ways of doing things, or merely of contradictions to their own culture. This seems to happen with emigrants, churches, indigenous tribes, urban tribes, fundamentalists etc. Do you see this happening with 'your' tribes as well, or is it too early to tell?

Some tribes use their traditions to earn money, some live alongside the 'civilized' world, like the Maori. Some don't like to be in contact. But I think most of them are unaware of what they are about to loose, when they don't hold on to their culture and traditions. I think you should be proud of your culture and traditions, and I hope that will be part of the change to come for these people. 

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Your work seems to equate culture with appearance: if the tribes you visited will start to wear the same jeans and t-shirts and use the same smartphones as us in the 'modern' world, their authenticity and thus culture will be lost. Do you not think it would be possible to still be a proud Maori, even whilst wearing Nike shoes for example? Is a Scot without a kilt not still a Scot?

Yes, you are right, I believe that culture and appearance are directly linked. This belief has been developed and evolved over many years of me, living, cohabiting and photographing these indigenous cultures. The aesthetic authenticities of their appearance will "Pass Away", very soon. At the same speed with which the recent digitization of the world has arrived. What is disappearing is not a romantic idea, it is the essence of our cultural origins and individuality. The Homogenization of the world will spell the death of authentic cultural creative expression.

In this light, I like to quote Margaret Mead, a great social anthropologist, who once said.

Having been born into a polychromatic world of cultural diversity. It is her fear that our grandchildren will awake into a monochromatic world not ever having known anything else.

Your photographs are all highly staged and iconic and dramatized and aesthetized. And some people think this makes them less authentic in a way; false representations. What do you say to these people?

I think the real question here is who decides what is authentic and how? Do we in the developed world only ever present ourselves in an authentic way? Cultural representation is a slippery business, and every photograph that was ever been made is a subjective creative document of the photographer. These pictures are as real as any other picture ever made since the invention of photography officially in 1839 with the original daguerreotype process.

In my case yes they are directed, staged to portray the various sitters in the most celebrated light technically possible. They are all real pictures of real people. All the images represent who they really are. Although the difference is that I chose celebrate the subjects and put them and their stories in a positive light, their beauty on a pedestal.

In an age when beauty talks, surely we owe it to tribal peoples to be represented in a way that we take for granted when we comfortably represent ourselves.

A more pragmatic question: how did you select the tribes portrayed in your book? It seems climate has a lot to do with it, as many of the pictures show people living in extreme and hash conditions. Was this a coincidence, or simply a prerequisite for more 'authentic' tribes to exist?

I have been researching the topic for years. I hadn't anticipated being able to do it all in one go, but it had been a hobby since I began, since childhood. So I was aware of these locations, I had contacts in many of these places, some of them I had been to already in previous years. Next to that, I had a very specific idea of what I wanted to achieve and why I wanted to achieve it and how I wanted to show it. I looked for beauty, pride and esthetics. So yes when we choose the tribes we were looking for extremes, beautiful nature and diverse people. But all the tribes all over the world are beautiful and have something that's unique about them. This is only the beginning of my passion, I would love to and I'm going to photograph more tribes in the upcoming years.

Just out of curiosity: did you succeed with all tribes, in the sense of managing to win their trust enough to take their photos? We all know the stories of native Indians believing a picture captures their soul, and I can imagine some tribes must have been suspicious of this white man coming with strange technology and even stranger plans. Was it always a success story?

No definitely not, sometimes it took weeks or even longer to get their trust and take their picture. There is one particular story of a tough moment for me as a photographer. There is a photo of three native Kazakh men from Mongolia with eagles on their shoulders on a mountain. That picture took three days to make, because each morning there wasn't enough light. On the fourth morning, it was about minus 20 degrees on top of the mountain and the light was beautiful. I took off my gloves to take the photo and they literally froze to the camera. I began crying and when I turned my head I saw that two women had followed us to the top of the mountain. One of them took my fingers and cradled them in her jacket until I got the feeling back and was able to take a couple of photographs. What I didn't know was that these women are actually strict Sunni Muslims, and broke all codes of modesty in order to aid me. They had noticed my desperation and did what they could to help me achieve what I was there for. This is a good example of what was demanded from me but also from the people I photographed to get the picture right. I still see flaws in a lot of the pictures I took for the project, but on my next journeys I will try and improve.

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Sometimes it did take a lot of time, patience and willpower to get what I wanted. 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 being reflected in the photographs.

You also made some photos here in the Netherlands, portraying inhabitants of Marken and Terschelling. Especially in the case of the first, Marken, tourism has become a big part in the survival if you like of that kind of local folkloric fashion and culture. Do you see this possibility for some of the other, indigenous tribes as well?

This is already happening for example the with the Mursi, they dress up for the tourists and ask money when you want to make a photograph. 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 that 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. They'll probably be happier and healthier staying in their natural environment, earning an income from tourism. And even though it becomes a little bit fake, maybe it is still better than disappearing altogether. And who knows, maybe in the process, they learn the value of their culture.

Next to being an anthropologist, I am also a costume designer. From this angle, your work is probably even more fantastic! Whereas in the West we mostly see a homogeneous wear of jeans and t-shirts, the people in your pictures all look absolutely stunning and unique. There are so many details, decorations, ornaments, artifacts, layers, things going on. So much individuality expressed. Are we looking at the equivalent of everyday dress here, or is it more ceremonial? In other words: did you have people put on their most spectacular outfits for the photo?

Like I said earlier I asked them to put on their nicest clothes. Eighty percent of what you see the people wearing is what they wear on a daily basis. The rest is their ceremonial dress. So, yes on some occasions I was there at a festival, at a wedding, but on all occasions I said to the people: ”I'm here to celebrate you, I'm here to put you on a pedestal, I'm here to make you feel special, please present yourself at your very best and at your very proudest.” The majority of them were unaware of what a photograph was or what I was going to do with it but they were all aware of being vain, they were all aware of me saying you are special. 

I know you must have plenty, but can you share one of your favorite memories of that long travel and exploration with us?

Well this may not be my favorite moment, but it is one I learned a lesson. When I first met the Mongolia's nomadic Tsaatan, they were very distant and refused to pose for photographs. I kept refusing their wodka, I'm not much of a drinker. Eventually I decided to join the drinking, because I saw no way of getting the pictures I wanted and was desperate, disappointed I could not get it to work between me and the Tsaatan. The result was I got completely drunk and slumped into an alcoholic stupor. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a tepee tent surrounded by about 30 people, with a bladder fit to burst. I was wearing several layers of clothes reindeer skin to keep me warm, I rolled over on my side tried to get all of these layers off and peed on what I thought to be the edge of the tepee. Drunk as I was I peed myself and drifted off back to sleep and the next thing I knew I was waking up surrounded by reindeer licking my clothes in minus 40 degrees. What happened? Turns out reindeer love salt and they can smell it from a far distance. They had ran over the tepee, so they could lick the salt of my urine. Embarrassing but it broke the ice. Making a complete plonker of myself and becoming the laughing-stock of the group, they finally began to open up. So what had I learned to be humble, to be grateful, drink and eat everything they will give to you and eventually they will trust you more and more.

jimmy_nelson_VanuatuNow that your book has been such a huge success, do you plan to go back to the people you portrayed, and show them the results?

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. 

The first next step indeed is to go back to the tribes that we photographed and show them the result. 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 the Aboriginals in Australia. 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.

And a personal last question: why did you choose Amsterdam to settle down? Do you have the feeling you found your own tribe here?

Well my wife is Dutch and I just love Amsterdam. My family is my tribe, we are with the 5 of us (me, my wife and 3 children).

www.jimmynelson.com

Till the 7th of September 2014, you can visit a special Jimmy Nelson exposition at the Museum of Volkenkunde: www.volkenkunde.nl

 

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