Despite the obliterating march of modernity, Planet Earth is still a wild place. From the mountains of Mongolia to the desert of Namibia, deep in the forests of Papua New Guinea and jungles of Ecuador, people live in communities so remote that they are untouched by Western civilization. In his ambitious book “Before They Pass Away,” British-born photographer Jimmy Nelson travels to these places in the hope of immortalizing the world’s least-touched tribes before it’s too late—and maybe, in the process, showing what we have lost to modernization. He talked to R&K from his home in Amsterdam.
Roads & Kingdoms: Hi Jimmy, so how is it being back to normal life after such an adventure?
Jimmy Nelson: Well, I don’t see my life as ever being normal. Confronted by a number of things, one of them being all my hair falling out when I was 16, I disappeared to Tibet for a year to find myself at 18. [The trips abroad] have been going on for quite a long time. The only difference has been in the last year, I haven’t made any pictures because I’ve been consolidating and marketing this project. So that’s different, normally I would jump back and forth, do one and a half months away, then a month at home in Amsterdam, another month and a half away and so on. Those adventures are addictive because you’re in such a zone, you’re experiencing things and people in such a pure way. In the developed world, we don’t have that anymore. So the real adventure is how you can apply what you’ve seen and learned abroad and bring that back with you. But to be very careful not to be a hypocrite, I do live here. And this is where I have chosen to bring up my family.
R&K: You started the project with Ethiopia. Had you been there before?
JN: I had been to about three quarters of Africa already, but Ethiopia was new. I’ve subsequently been back there twice during the project. Southern Ethiopia is probably the most diverse place on the planet in terms of ethnic cultures in such a small space. It’s a little bit like Africa’s version of Papua New Guinea, there’s an awful lot happening. So I started there to give the project a sort of momentum.
I shot them from a very aesthetic, iconic and romantic point of view.
R&K: Before you set off for this first trip, did you have a clear idea of the places you wanted to go and the people you wanted to see?
JN: Yes, 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.
Drokpa woman, India / Pakistan. Photo by Jimmy Nelson BV / courtesy teNeues
R&K: Can you talk about the very specific style in which you chose to present your subjects?
JN: I shot them from a very aesthetic, iconic and romantic point of view. When I was younger I had been to a lot of these places as a photojournalist. Then I worked for a number of years in the commercial world. I saw how you can attract people with a still image. I applied this gloss and veneer to the project. One of the main catalysts behind “Before They Pass Away” was after an exhibition, somebody rang me and said they’d like to buy a few pictures. I went to visit them and they lived in a sort of dynasty-style mansion. The lady of the house told me: “We’re very rich, we have more money that we’ll ever need, but we think going abroad is a bit dirty. We have four kids that we feel obliged to show that there is something out there. You make pictures of faraway places and faraway people in a way that we don’t find confronting, in a way that is also educational.” And then she gave me a blank check and she asked me to fill the stairwell. These are the people I’m trying to attract. The masses, the MTV generation has no idea – whether rich or poor – that these people still exists in the world. And the more that I promote the book, the more I share it, the more I’m flabbergasted by how intelligent, educated and in some cases very wealthy people have no idea that this still is on the planet. So that is the statement I’m trying to make with a still of photography that is aesthetic. It’s very romantic, it’s very subjective, it’s very idealistic, but it does act as a catalyst for a greater discussion.
R&K: Is that why you decided to have a lot of very posed pictures?
JN: Yes. The idea was stolen from an American photographer called Edward Sheriff Curtis, who photographed American Indians for 30 years. He made the definitive document of the last tribes of North America. The photographs were taken in a very iconic, romantic, posed way. He literally rode around and said to the very last people of these tribes: “Please pose for me, I want to put you in a position of stature.” He was mocked when he did that. He died bankrupt, divorced, and all his material went into somebody’s basement because they thought it was valueless. In the 1970s, that material was taken out, and it was hailed as the ultimate ethnographic document of that time, but it was too late, because that culture was gone.