“Before they pass away” Q&A: fading cultures in photography by Jimmy Nelson

Words by Alex Durham

Jimmy Nelson, in his documentary photography volume Before they Pass Away, offers us a series of gorgeous portraits of the world’s vanishing people. Capturing a pivotal moment in history, he preserves the memory of ancient cultures before they are caught in the eye of globalisation’s spreading storm, and through this we can learn something fundamental about our desire to understand one another, and ourselves.

Having travelled the planet for as long as he can remember, Nelson’s dream had always been to document our worlds tribes through his photography: “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.”

In this world of increasing change which Jimmy Nelson describes, traversing the planet on an excursion has evolved from an intrepid adventure to the unknown, into a commonplace, knee-jerk reaction. Why is travel and experiencing authentic culture so fundamental to the human race? We are dots on a map, constantly moving and searching for new insight into the human condition – but what is it that we need to achieve self-actualisation, and how do we find it?


© Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson, Kazakhs, Mongolia, published by teNeues, www.teneues.com. Photo © Jimmy Nelson Pictures BV, www.beforethey.com, www.facebook.com/jimmy.nelson.btpa

The romance of self-discovery

Nelson’s journey of self-discovery was one which he describes as self-indulgent. Having lost his hair at the age of sixteen, he quickly learnt what it was to feel physically different from everyone else. He then disappeared on a year’s journey to “find himself”, he air-quotes in jest, spanning an incredible career of photojournalism which saw him travelling the length of Tibet by foot, through to documenting portraits of culture in South Asia and Central America and finally moving to a lesser passion, commercial photography. “I felt that my career had slipped into a rut of superficiality. What I really wanted to do was get back into the world and search for ancient civilisations.”

What Jimmy Nelson offers us in his finished product of 402 collated colour photographs – Before They Pass Away, is a story worth listening to and learning from, and a display of true beauty worth observing, about what it means to be human. Rather than any professed self-indulgence, he helps to preserve and understand the precious, lost corners of the world which will one day be erased.

In his Ted Talk, delivered with such rich animation, and his voice often laden with emotion, you can tell that this choice to unpick cultural anthropology has shifted something in Nelson’s brain chemistry. When you’re a kid, everything is astonishing, and every passing second you are learning something new. What these photographs tap into, or invite us into, is a world where these patterns of the way the world works, and the stories we expect, are questioned. Nelson’s observance of ritual and beauty has given him a window into new fascinations; a life of childlike wonder, sense of adventure and alertness to detail which we are born into, and as adults, it is our duty to choose.

Lessons in identity

People were often reluctant to let Nelson, and his team, photograph them on arrival. What he quickly learned was that he needed to get to know them down to a personal enough level to understand social constructs within families, for example knowing whose boyfriend was whose in a Southern Ethiopian tribe, to avoid awkward photo compositions and arguments.

What special experiences does he have to share with us?

“When I first met the Tsaatan people, they were a bit distant and refused to pose for the photographs. It wasn’t that they were unfriendly; they repeatedly offered me vodka, which, not being much of a drinker, I refused. But after failing to gain their trust in order to take their picture, I decided to put my camera away and play the grateful guest. The result was that I got completely drunk and slumped into an alcoholic stupor. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a teepee tent surrounded by about 30 people with a bladder fit to burst. Wrapped up in about eight layers of clothes and with the temperature minus 40 outside, I didn’t see any other option but to pee in my pants and drift back off to sleep. The next moment I woke up from the tent that had collapsed under a stampede of reindeer – animals that, as I learned then, are attracted to the salt in urine. So there I was, standing in minus 40 degrees with a reindeer licking my clothes. Well, that broke the ice. Making a complete plonker of myself and becoming the laughing stock of the group, they finally began to open up.”

Of all of the tribes Nelson has captured on camera, he reflects that “there is a pure beauty in their goals and family ties, their belief in gods and nature, and their will to do the right thing in order to be taken care of when their time comes. They know what makes them happy and they choose to live that life.”

What does he hope to offer the tribes? Nelson aims to demonstrate through images that they are already rich. “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 towards. 

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.”

Nelson’s photographs reflect the enormous dignity with which he conducts his work, and the personal nature and human connection he channels between lens and subject. With this almost tangible humanity to his work, Before they Pass Away extends beyond the primary act of documenting a snapshot of culture in time, and moves happily into an art movement.

Tribal reflections 

Having photographed 35 tribes so far, Nelson plans to return to show them the results, hear their thoughts and show them how important their cultural heritage is.

In his TED talk given late last year, he describes returning to one tribe living near the border of Namibia to show them his book. He noticed that the fence which had previously encircled the area had gone: they explained that the Chief had died, but why did that mean no fence? “First, we destroy”, they said. “Then we reflect, then we rebuild, then we respect”. Nelson describes the realisation at this simple delivery of the grievance and acceptance cycle: the bitter taste of only knowing the value of those we love when we hear the sound of them leaving. His father having recently passed away, Nelson reflects on the stark truth that we are, by definition, a product of our ancestors, and this is something to be nurtured and conserved.

What is just as crucial to Nelson’s project as sharing tribal beauty with us, is sharing his work with the tribes themselves. Through portraiture, he hopes to hold up a mirror and instil in them a sense of pride and overarching significance, so that they may carry their strong, rarified cultural practices across generations and into tomorrow’s world: “I want to make the tribes realise 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.”

“In the next years, we are planning to photograph another 35 tribes: for example in the Middle East, in China and the Aboriginals in Australia.”

A portrait of the future

Jimmy Nelson both literally and figuratively develops an image of a world in which these groups of people may cease to exist: “if the tribes disappear, we will lose 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 that build on the principal aspects of humanity, such as respect, love, survival and sharing.”

It seems likely that Jimmy Nelson’s extraordinary journey of discovery will continue to unfold, and we will continue to be curious bystanders of beauty, whilst beginning to understand the world’s remotest lands and the people that occupy them through this immensely powerful, timeless and universal language – photography.


Buy Before They Pass Away here

You must be logged in to post a comment