Old school, eccentric and controversial
The English photographer famous for his indigenous portraits
Premature baldness and a 1950s comic book first launched Jimmy Nelson on an odyssey through Tibet, Siberia and other remote regions, culminating in a trip to Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands.
The 51-year-old British photographer travels to indigenous communities around the world recording their traditional dress, jewellery, weapons and symbols, in widely exhibited images.
Nelson consciously ‘stage-manages’ his subjects into stylised poses that critics say misrepresent the reality of indigenous life to affluent western audiences.
He argues that disappearing cultures deserve to be “put on a pedestal” and has risked everything from civil wars to rampaging reindeer to do so.
The beginnings of the odyssey were decidedly unheroic. While travelling with his geologist father, Nelson caught malaria, took the wrong medicine and all his hair fell out – a traumatic experience for a sensitive teenager.
“I remembered reading Tintin in Tibet as a child and thought about all the bald monks,” he says.
“I was ostracised from my own culture and Tibet seemed like the one place on earth where a bald guy like me could fit in.”
Nelson embarked on a “self-finding mission” where he walked from one end of the country to the other, taking photographs along the way.
The published images led to a career as a photojournalist, including stints in war zones such as Afghanistan, Kashmir and the former Yugoslavia.
Less hazardous assignments followed as Nelson became a successful commercial photographer “selling alcohol, cigarettes, airlines and banks for 18 years”.
More recently, he’s focused on his first love: photographing remote indigenous cultures from PNG to Mongolia. For his latest project, Nelson spent three years shooting 35 of the world’s lesser-known communities for a lavish book of portraits, entitled Before They Pass Away.
“I was inspired by US photographer, Edward Sherriff Curtis, who spent 30 years early last century creating orchestrated portraits to record and preserve the culture of Native Americans,” says Nelson.
He believes the need to capture images of traditional cultures is now more urgent than ever, because the internet has increased the speed and reach of modernisation.
“Cultures have always been evolving. But over the last decades, digitisation has boosted this process.”
While Nelson himself uses digital technology for much of his work, he’s old school when it comes to portraits of traditional peoples.
Whether it’s jungle, mountain or desert, the eccentric Englishman lugs around a heavy 1930s-style studio camera, complete with a limited number of bulky film plates. As a result, firing off hundreds of exposures at random is not an option.
“Analogue photography forces you to really think about what and how you want to shoot,” he says. “It slows life down and that can feel very good these days.”
However, it didn’t feel so good in Mongolia when photographing Kazakh eagle hunters in a shoot that took days to set up.
“When I took my gloves off to take a picture, my hand froze to the metal camera and ripped off the skin of my hand,” says Nelson.
“I was frozen, bleeding and angry with myself for bothering to use such a cumbersome object. Here was this stupid, bald English guy literally crying.”
As it turned out, the incident helped Nelson bond with the nomadic group and encouraged their cooperation.
“A nearby woman opened her jacket, grabbed my hands, put them on her armpits and held them there,” says Nelson. “It was a very moving moment. She overrode some strong cultural prejudices about contact with strangers, contact between the sexes and tried to help me.
“Time and again on this project, I found that the more things went wrong, the more empathy I received.”
Nelson finds that empathy and understanding are vital to set up portraits, and he goes to great lengths to win the confidence of his subjects.
The eccentric Englishman lugs around a heavy 1930s-style studio camera, complete with bulky film plates. As a result, firing off hundreds of exposures is not an option.
During a shaky ceasefire in South Sudan’s civil war, he reached the Mundari community and participated in their rituals for more than two weeks before asking them to pose for his camera.
“You ingratiate yourself, you live, you see. Every morning you join them naked in the river, you wash, you cover yourself in dust to protect yourself from the sun. Eventually there’s a sort of empathy. The last two days are spent taking the pictures.”
Perhaps a more dangerous way of winning acceptance was getting drunk on the local vodka with Tsaatan reindeer herders in northern Mongolia.
Along with 20 adult family members, Nelson passed out on the crowded, fur-covered floor and, to put it politely, lost control of his bladder. Soon afterwards, a herd of excited reindeer joined the party and trampled the yurt, to the huge amusement of all.
“Little did I know that reindeer are attracted by human urine,” says Nelson. “The next day, delighted by my accidental fallibility, the group welcomed me with open arms and all requests to pose in front of my old cumbersome camera were granted.”
There was no need, however, to dodge stray bullets or hangovers for what Nelson considers his best photograph, taken at Ambua Falls, in PNG’s Tari Valley.
“The image captures everything I’m trying to achieve with this project,” he says. “It shows Huli Wigmen looking statuesque, iconic, beautiful and proud, in the midst of their extraordinary environment.
“I wanted to put the Huli on a pedestal and that’s why I photographed them in this staged way. I felt they deserved the sort of attention we give to important people in our culture, like politicians or celebrities.”
Nelson says it took him two weeks to set up the picture, wait for the right light, position the group and prepare them to stand still enough for the four-second exposure required.
“I spent hours sitting on my knees in front of them, saying ‘ooh and aah’, clapping my hands, raising my voice, even hugging them. Slowly, they began to appreciate this wildly eccentric character.”
Not everyone appreciates Nelson the same way.
Indigenous protection groups, anthropologists and other leading photographers have criticised him for creating unrealistic and idealised images that smack of the ‘noble savage’ fantasy.
As a self-described romantic, Nelson responds that he’s an artist, not a documentarian. In fact, his work suggests the influence of romantic painters such as Delacroix and Gericault.
“By romanticising, you get your point across more efficiently,” he says.
“The tribes have been photographed a thousand times before and so-called ‘authentic’ pictures, showing mundane, everyday tasks don’t attract attention.
“I wanted to create icons – beautiful and positive images of strong and proud people.
Snapped ... Jimmy Nelson's photo of Huli Wigmen in the Tari Valley (left); Nelson in the field (above).
Nelson’s images ... camel handlers in the Ndoto Mountains, Kenya (left); a Kazakh eagle hunter in Mongolia (opposite page).
Rugged up ... Nelson photographed this group in Siberia.
I hope the book shows my esteem and admiration for them.”