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Into the Wildest Indigenous Tribes

By Kames Narayanan

The Sadhus — the holy men  of India.
Jimmy Nelson
The Sadhus — the holy men of India.

“I am currently in New York. From New York I go to Norway, from Norway I go to Angola, from Angola I go [to] Namibia, from Namibia I go to Kenya, from Kenya I go back to Amsterdam, from Amsterdam I go to Tokyo then I go to Paupa New Guinea,” rattles off British photographer, Jimmy Nelson, in unabated breath. The back-to-back travel is not merely a foreshadowing of Nelson’s schedule in the coming months. In fact, it has been his life for the past three decades.

At only 17 years old, Nelson left school for Tibet to embark on a two-year-long journey of self-discovery. The decision, largely motivated by his diagnosis of alopecia totalis — a condition that caused all of his hair to fall out — was Nelson’s answer to finding a place where he would finally fit in. But this pursuit of finding himself was hardly an introspect, for Nelson, it meant looking outward at the people around him and documenting their lives.

“The first pictures I made were when I was 17 years old. I left school and went to Tibet for two years and lived with the monks. All the people I met, I took pictures of. That’s how it started,” he recalls.

Since his self-imposed exile as a teenager, Nelson, who is now 50 years old, has not lost steam on his journey across the globe. Fuelled by a passion so strong, the British photographer has spent the greater part of his life in pursuit of documenting the lives of indigenous tribes in far-flung corners of the world.

Jimmy NelsonWorking past the communication  barriers with his subjects through what Nelson calls the “Mr. Bean  approach” (in reference to the widely popular British sitcom character),  the photographer, over time, establishes trust with the indigenous people of Africa, like the people of Chad.
Working past the communication barriers with his subjects through what Nelson calls the “Mr. Bean approach” (in reference to the widely popular British sitcom character), the photographer, over time, establishes trust with the indigenous people of Africa, like the people of Chad.


In 2010, Nelson embarked on a four-year-long journey across Asia, Africa, Europe, South America and the South Pacific in an almost blind chase of 35 untouched tribes. The self-taught photographer took it upon himself to visit these remote regions, chosen solely based on their geographic diversity. The arduous travel, averaging about a month to two every trip, is made with one end goal: an attempt to “get a visual, kaleidoscope look at the world’s most remote and diverse-looking culturally orientated people.”

His first photobook titled “Before They Pass Away, published in early 2014, more than met his initial goal. Nelson’s stunning imagery of the indigenous people juxtaposed against the exotic landscape served up a visual feast just as he had intended. Soon after its release, the British photographer’s groundbreaking work became matter for media fodder. His glamourised portrayals, an anti-thesis to commonly held assumptions of malnourishment and poverty pegged to the lives of tribal dwellers, were unlike anything people had seen before.

Admittedly not a photojournalist, Nelson’s aim was never to capture the indigenous in their everyday. “These photographs (of their everyday lives) have already been made by other people but they are not very interesting,” laments Nelson.

This deliberate glorifying of his subjects — impeccably dressed in their best traditional garb, headgear and tribal markings on their face — has invited much controversy from leading photographers and indigenous people alike who fault Nelson’s photographs as a misrepresentation of reality.

Brazilian Yanomami spiritual leader Davi Kopenawa, went as far as accusing the Nelson of “forcing his own ideas on the photos” to build an awe-inspiring repertoire of work. Others have raised ethical concerns and discredited his photographs as an exploitation of a vulnerable group of people. In extreme instances, protestors have taken to Nelson’s exhibition venues to express their displeasure.

Jimmy NelsonFrom left: Indigenous people of Chad, Africa; a boy  from the Miao tribe, who resides in the Southern Chinese province of Guiyang.
From left: Indigenous people of Chad, Africa; a boy from the Miao tribe, who resides in the Southern Chinese province of Guiyang.

Despite being acutely aware of all the negative sentiments towards his controversial photographs, Nelson stands firm in his modus operandi. “I do glorify them. It is very deliberate. When we, in the developed world, portray ourselves in a magazine, we get our hair combed, makeup done and put clean clothes on. The real, actual portrayal is the same as that of them. I want to put them in the same light of respect and dignity that we put ourselves in,” he explains.

It is an easy idea to get around to. “We know
 how they really live. That is not the information I
 am trying to portray, I am trying to create something that is inspirational.” Nelson presents his 
truth through a dignified lens. “I stand behind it a 100 percent because what I am trying to create is something beautiful. I do not alter in Photoshop — everything you see is real but a lot of the times, I manage the outcome. I want to leave a powerful image to have a powerful conversation and discussion,” he continues.

Contrary to the opinions of naysayers, the tribal natives whom he photographs are more than mere subjects. Over time, a real connection with deeper trust that surpasses communication barriers is established between the two parties.

“You spend a long time talking, using your arms, touching, and being very, very patient. It is about showing a kind of empathy and when you feel that you have a connection, that is when you take the camera out.” According to Nelson, the process of getting to know the people before convincing them to pose for his vintage film camera is a process that usually spans two weeks. These connections are kept close to Nelson’s heart and at times, even warrant multiple subsequent visitations. He recalls his most recent trip to Mongolia, fondly recollecting the people’s reactions.
“The people were very happy to see me and they told me that since I made the first pictures, there have been more people going back to their tribal traditions and customs because they are now more proud of it.”

His renowned works have also opened a gateway of tourism to the previously unknown corners of the world that are not closed off by isolating “no contact” policies. Steering away from the hackneyed skeptic of tourism, Nelson sees it as a money-making opportunity for these tribes.

Jimmy NelsonThe Mundari people of South Sudan.
The Mundari people of South Sudan.

“I am an advocate for them to look after their culture and look after the environment they originally live in, persuade them that it is more important and beneficial for them and for us.”

Resolute in making a difference in the lives of the people he has spent more than three decades chasing, the British photographer established the Jimmy Nelson Foundation last year in between working on a film and two new books slated for release in 2018 and 2022 respectively.

“I want to encourage other young people to go and make pictures or films to tell stories about the same subject matters that I am interested in. My way of helping the indigenous people is to help others make a document of them to teach and show them how important they are,” Nelson succinctly articulates his aspiration for the foundation.

Thirty years on in his field of work, Nelson’s unwavering passion for storytelling continues to grow. “I will carry on going till the day I die,” he declares with much resolve.


Jimmy Nelson's photobook, Before They Pass Away is available on Amazon.

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