As his subjects stand proudly before him, the photographer snaps away enthusiastically. Each frame he captures offers a rare glimpse into a way of life that in some cases is arguably fading fast. But who is this man, and why are his images stirring hearts around the world?
He is Jimmy Nelson, and he was born in 1967 in Kent, England. As a child, he traveled through South America, Africa and Asia before being sent away to boarding school.
After leaving school, Nelson embarked on an incredible adventure, trekking across Tibet at the age of just 19. It was during this trip that he began to take photographs of the things that he saw on his adventures. Then, on his return, these visual insights into a little-known world won him his first dose of critical acclaim.
Later, Nelson began working as a photojournalist, covering stories such as the wars in the former Yugoslavia and in Kashmir. In the early 1990s, he spent three years traveling in China with his wife taking photographs for Literary Portraits of China, a book documenting China’s indigenous cultures.
In 1997, Nelson moved into the realm of advertising. However, he still retained a passion for the world’s most remote and forgotten cultures. In fact, he would use an old-fashioned plate camera to take pictures of tribes and their people whenever he came across them on his travels.
But it wasn’t until 2010 that Nelson’s biggest journey began. Having spent much of his life exploring the globe, he eventually came to the realization that his camera allowed him to build unique relationships with the people that he encountered.
So, inspired by the work of Edward Sheriff Curtis, an American photographer known for his images of Native Americans, Nelson began to conceive a project. Specifically, he wanted to travel to some of the most untouched and unexplored corners of the world, capturing on film the customs, costumes and traditions of some of the planet’s remaining tribes.
Nelson felt that various indigenous tribes around the world were under threat in an increasingly homogenous society, and, as a result, he wanted to create a lasting document of their cultures. In this way, he hoped to highlight the importance of preserving these rituals and rites for future generations.
So, with encouragement from his wife and agent, Nelson found a Dutch philanthropist willing to invest in the project. And with a generous backing of $450,000, Nelson’s adventure began.
Over the next three years, Nelson visited 35 indigenous communities around the world to take photographs of their people. In sum, his travels took him to 44 different countries across Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and the South Pacific.
Perhaps in a nod to the less technologically developed nature of the societies he visited, Nelson eschewed modern gadgets in favor of a more analogue approach. In fact, all of his photographs were captured on a vintage 4×5 camera – a piece of technology some 50 years old.
Nelson’s journey was often particularly arduous as he struggled to reach people living in some of the most remote reaches of Earth. In north-eastern Russia, for example, he traveled for seven weeks to reach a particular group of nomads – one of only two such groups that remain in the world. After he finally found them, he spent four days braving -40°F temperatures to capture the perfect shot.
While in Mongolia, he visited the Kazakh people who hunt for foxes with the help of horses and trained golden eagles. In Africa’s Omo Valley, meanwhile, he spent time with the Karo, capturing images of young men embellished with intricate white chalk designs.
However, not all of the tribes Nelson photographed exist completely outside of the boundaries of the modern world. East Africa’s Masaai people, for example, have been forced by social and ecological factors to adapt to life in the 21st century. In fact, many of them hold down jobs in government and commerce – although they still participate in traditional village life.
According to Nelson, his interest is not in depicting these cultures as alien or impoverished but in highlighting their visual beauty. Interestingly, he believes that his passion for aesthetics can be traced back to a childhood illness.
That illness left him completely bald. “Looking back on what I’m doing now, it seems clear my fascination with appearance, what one looks like, with individual expression, with eccentricity originates in wanting to be understood for something beyond appearances,” Nelson told The New York Times,
In 2014 Nelson’s photographs were published in a book entitled Before They Pass Away. The book subsequently received international critical acclaim and won several awards.
Not everyone, however, has been completely happy with Nelson’s work. In fact, some tribal spokesmen have accused him of forcing his own ideas on to the images and of depicting indigenous communities as inevitably dying out rather than fighting to survive.
Strangely, the criticism echoed that made of Edward Curtis and his Native American work, as some also perceived his images as romanticized versions of the truth. Nelson, however, insists that his work is representative. “80 percent of the people I photographed are dressed as they do daily,” he said. “About 20 percent are in their Sunday best.”
At the present time, Nelson is busy working on a second installment of the project. And despite some controversy over his methods, there is no doubting the excitement that many feel about the chance to delve once more into an unknown – and in some cases, arguably disappearing – world.