British photographer Jimmy Nelson travels the world photographing tribal and indigenous people. But not as victims of environmental destruction or colonialism. But instead as proud and strong representatives of their threatened culture.
Text: Oskar Hammarkrantz
Photo: Jimmy Nelson
Photographing indigenous peoples and tribes is controversial as it is. And arranging the images and enhancing aesthetics, creates even more debate. Something that became clear to Jimmy Nelson when he published the book Before They Pass Away in 2013. For three years he followed and photographed 35 different tribes in Europe, Asia, South America and the Pacific. Many people had probably expected pictures of poor, oppressed people whose existence is threatened. Instead, Jimmy Nelson showed colourful portraits filled with pride.
The criticism of exoticism and that Nelson beautifies people who are exploited came quickly.
– At first, I was actually surprised by the criticism. With my pictures I wanted to show the beauty, to make more people aware of threatened cultures. But also to show their pride and strength.
Jimmy Nelson’s images may at first glance appear documentary, but they rarely show the unglamorous everyday. He hopes that his subjective portrayal can create a greater interest in the cultures ande the disappearing places he documents.
– It would be presumptuous to call myself an artist. But on the other hand, my images are not documentary, they are not photojournalism, but a staged, often embellished, version of reality. So I guess my pictures can be considered art. My photos are primarily a collaboration with those I photograph, they are highly participatory and this is how the people want to want to be seen by the outside world.
“I guess the amount of pictures is a way for me to make my voice heard”
Where many artists want the viewer to interpret the artwork themselves, Jimmy Nelson does just the opposite. The exhibition at Fotografiska is highly interactive, where each work is provided with a QR code that allows the viewer to immerse themselves in Jimmy Nelson’s intentions and stories about the image itself, directly on their phones.
– The picture on the wall is just the tip of an iceberg. Everything about how I and those I portrayed thought and reasoned is there under the surface. As well as continuing discussions about culture, politics, the environment and so on. Of course, it is also a consequence of the criticism I received earlier. The pictures need explanations and I would like to have a discussion.
Jimmy Nelson was born in British Kent in 1967, but spent much of his childhood traveling around the world with his father who worked as a geologist in Africa, Asia and South America. At seven years old, he was sent to a strict Jesuit boarding school in Lancashire.
– It was an extremely harsh environment where I had to endure so much abuse, both physically and mentally, that my hair eventually fell out from all the stress. I was totally broken down, nothing meant anything anymore.
At age 17, he dropped out of school and embarked on a journey that eventually took him to Tibet.
Jimmy Nelson brought a simple camera and documented the friendly people who took care of him. When he returned to England two years later, the images were published in National Geographic.
– The fact that they chose to publish the pictures had more to do with the sensational value than the photographic quality. At this time it was almost impossible to get into Tibet, so there was a great interest in pictures from there.
Carefree to Careful
Today, 51-year-old Jimmy Nelson lives a completely different life than he did as a 17-year-old, who didn’t even care if he came home alive or not from his travels. Now, he has three teenage children, nine employees and runs the Jimmy Nelson Foundation, an organisation that protects vulnerable indigenous peoples.
– I have another responsibility today, not just for myself. I continue to travel, even to somewhat dangerous places like Afghanistan, but I think twice before I expose myself to dangers. I hope it does not show in my photos, that I have somehow become cautious and no longer dare to take risks.
Last year, the book Homage to Humanity was released, a mastodon work with more than 400 photographs by 30 different tribes. Since the book was also filled with information and interviews, and not just pictures, much of the criticism from Before They Pass Away stayed away.
Jimmy Nelson’s photo books are heavy pieces with a huge amount of images, and the exhibition also includes more than 150 works, many of them in large-sized prints.
– I guess the amount of pictures I usually work with is a way for me to make my voice heard. I hope that the volume itself, the quantity, will make an impact.
However, the next project is more minimalist, at least regarding number of images.
– I will return to the tribes I previously visited and try to take a single, defining and ultimate image of each tribe, with a 10×8 large format camera. During my previous projects, I have drawn a lot of inspiration from Edward S. Curtis and his portraits of the American indigenous people. This time I am inspired by Ansel Adam’s sense of landscape, Irving Penn’s perfect compositions and Richard Avedon’s eye for portraits, and try to combine this into a single image. It may sound pretentious and grand, but I think it is important to challenge yourself and not be afraid to let yourself be compared even to the greatest.