Old school, ec­cen­tric and con­tro­ver­sial

The English pho­tog­ra­pher fa­mous for his in­dige­nous por­traits

Paradise - - In Paradise | Contents -

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.”

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