Being aware of our global evolution and its costs, Jimmy Nelson, a british photographer, took upon himself to document the last remaining unspoiled men and their rituals, before they pass away.
In 2009, Jimmy Nelson planned to become a guest of 31 secluded and unique tribes. He wanted to witness their time-honored traditions, join in their rituals and discover how the rest of the world is threatening to change their way of life forever. Most importantly, he wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time.
Not only did he realize such incredible pieces of photography, that store and indulge our eyes with natural beauty, but he created an actual touch point that lets us explore, even if superficially, each tribe. With the help of the projects website,beforethey.com we can find out additional information about each tribe.
With all this information, I still wanted to know more, to get Jimmy Nelsons side of it. I wanted to have a look from behind the camera. This is why I approached him and here is a look at our conversation. Enjoy!
When did you fall in love with photography? Did you chose it or it chose you?
Photography chose me. At the age of 16 I lost all my hair due to the accidental use of the wrong medicine . I was thus confronted at a very sensitive age as to my appearance and how people treated me in traditional upper middle class 1980s England. At the age of 18 I decided not to study but to disappear on a years journey to “Find Myself.” I traveled the length of Tibet on foot and on my return the amateurish photo diary I made was published .
From your point of view, what makes photography special from the other visual arts?
Photography is so special because especially now everyone can participate. It is so accessible … Everyone can document of their own life as ART.
Looking over at your past activities, what inspires you?
The speed and vulnerability of life inspires me. By making pictures, it makes one self more aware of all the special moments and of their importance .
What makes the good picture stand out from the average?
A good picture is not of any technical merit .. It is purely based on the passion the photographer had in making it . The more he or she dares to feel the more this transcends into a beautiful picture.
What guided your attention to this project?
Up until the age of 7 I lived in the third world. After I traveled back and forward to boarding school in the UK from all corners of the world. From a very early age I was made aware of the rapid cultural changes happening around the world .
What was the purpose of the project? What where you searching for?
I am a visual messenger. I am trying to readdress the balance of understanding as to what is real affluence. I am teaching the developed world what they have lost and enlightening the underdeveloped world what they still have.
How did you find the tribes?
I have been researching for years ever since I was 18. Books , films , libraries and in more recent times the internet. Once found, I contacted locals on the ground some years before my arrival to research how accessible the tribes really were.
How was your presence and activity seen by the tribes people? Where there any restraints from their behalf?
By far the majority of the tribes were exceptionally kind and most importantly curious as to why and where I was from . The only real restraints where the physical conditions and relative inaccessibility of the tribes .
The people themselves couldn’t have been kinder .
Can you recall a special moment, event from this adventure that marked you? Could you share it with us?
As with all relationships in life, the key to profoundly connecting with someone is trust. For the bond between a photographer and his subject this holds equally true. On a number of occasions, when we first arrived somewhere, the people were reluctant to let us photograph them. We were often met with a great deal of skepticism about our intentions and understandably so. Imagine a group of western strangers showing up in a secluded village, asking the locals to pose for them in a language they don’t speak, for a purpose they don’t understand. You can’t exactly expect people to jump up and down, sharing your excitement. Only when they get to know you a little better and understand your motivations, that’s when they might open up. Our visit to the Tsataan people in Mongolia is the perfect example. The first few days, we weren’t getting any of the shots we wanted. The Tsataan weren’t interested in posing for hours on end in the bitter cold for a couple of strangers. We tried to blend in by participating in as many social and domestic chores as we could, but to no effect. It was clear something had to change. So one night I decided to join the locals in their daily vodka ritual and get drunk with them. But as I’m not a big drinker, it wasn’t long before I fell into a deep sleep on the fur-covered floor of our newly erected tee pee, among a couple of children of varying ages. When I woke up a few hours later I needed to empty my bladder. Still very much intoxicated, I decided not to stand up but instead roll to the side of the tent, lift up the tent skin and do my business, in -40 degrees. Having eventually reached my destination via the various prostate snoring neighbors, I tried to undo the many zips and Velcro fastenings of my eight layers of clothing. Of course, this all took way too long and, drunk as I was, and with the cold having penetrated my nether regions, I peed all over myself and the tent and fell back asleep. Who was to find out anyway?
Five minutes later we were all brutally woken up as the whole tent suddenly caved in. It had been overrun by reindeer. Reindeer, it turns out, are attracted to human urine because of its salt content, and the tent, of course, was covered in it thanks to me. It was instant pandemonium. With the tent gone, we were unexpectedly standing right in the middle of a raging blizzard. Everyone was shouting and scrambling for cover, while I was trying to stumble away from the reindeer that kept advancing towards my groin. At that point, everyone started laughing, realizing what had happened. That’s when the ice broke, because the Tsataan realized I was just a simple guy, like them. We rebuilt the tent, finished the vodka together and the next day I could take all the pictures I wanted, because after all I was humanly fallible too. One of the great lessons we learned is how important it is to leave all your arrogance behind when you need to connect to others. Only stripped of wealth, class and culture disparities, true communication starts flowing. A shared vulnerability then becomes the key.
When the people we visited finally had warmed up to us, our enthusiasm worked as a catalyst for theirs. Like them, we are just people trying to achieve something. Our passion, our perfectionism and our teamwork seemed to be contagious and in most cases, the locals soon wanted to participate in it. Wherever we went, we would always approach the people we shot with enormous dignity. I deliberately physically position myself lower than them, to shoot in an upward angle. When the tribesmen saw me struggling, yet supplying an unending flow of compliments, they figured they had to do their best too. In the end, it’s all about intimacy. The more effort you put in as a photographer, the more vulnerable you are because stress ensues . The redder your face becomes, the more sweat glisters on your forehead, the more your subjects feel a sense of importance, urgency and pride! Photographing with a long lens from a distance, you’ll never get this kind of close encounters.
One very special image, that illustrates the people’s willingness to cooperate best, was that of the Kazakh eagle hunters on their horses, on a mountaintop, in the rising sun. We had to wait two days for the right conditions. When on the third try we finally got the right light, I took my gloves off and started taking pictures. But it was so excruciatingly cold my hands froze within seconds. I couldn’t feel them anymore and started crying. Out of pain, but mostly out of frustration. Right in front of me was the picture I spent years dreaming of, and now I couldn’t make it.
Behind me were two of the women who, unknown to me, had walked up the mountain with us. In an incredible special, almost supernatural gesture, one of the women opened her jacket, the other grabbed my hands and put them on the woman’s chest and closed her coat around us. They enveloped and held me tight for five minutes, humming softly in the howling winds. All the while the men stayed on their horses and didn’t move a muscle. When I could feel my fingers again, they raised their chins, I took 2 pictures and nobody ever said a word about it. These were people that maybe didn’t quite understand what I wanted, but fully felt what I needed.
What was the common denominator, the common value that all the tribes shared?
A deep and passionate knowledge for the nature within which they lived .
Could you walk us through the actual process that you use to set up one of your photos?
We typically spent days building up a set, carrying around a heavy fifty year old 5 x 4 plate film camera, before taking the shot from up close. Using very long exposures due to the limited low-light conditions, our subjects would often have to stand very, very still. Whilst making the portraits we had no artificial light, choosing only for the flexibility of reflectors to bounce off the natural light for the desired painterly effect .
What are the elements without which these pictures would have no life? What are the elements that give life, meaning to the hall project?
Constantly on a mission to create unique images, it’s easy to forget to appreciate how privileged we were to travel to these amazing far-off places. But every once in a while, nature made its point of reminding us of the special position we were in. On one of our walks back, after a shoot in Nepal, I ended up on a high pass with a fantastic vista. As I stopped to take in the view, I heard a swooshing sound in the air. When I looked up, I saw an eagle, with a three-meter wingspan, soaring right above me. There I was, in complete silence, with a view to infinity, and only the sound of the wings a majestic eagle. It was absolutely beautiful, no, it was absolute beauty… I was physically exhausted, my body shattering in a frantic way. I was fulfilled, spiritually, emotionally, photographically, and then this phenomenal natural experience happened around me. Sometimes, practical and logistic factors prevent you from enjoying things the way you probably should. Your awareness seems to slip away behind daily practicality. So every now and then, you have to remind yourself of the spectacular reality you’re in. That is if nature doesn’t already do it for you.
For the savvy photographers, that read this interview, could you tell us what camera/s did you use in this project?
I would love to but I am not… Because it has nothing to do with the cameras it has purely to do with the passion to communicate and the eye.
Please complete the phrase: A picture is worth a 1000 words, because
… the real thoughts of visual thinkers are taking place in another dimension. They don’t have words to describe them.
After this, I suggest that you go and take a look at the projects website and start to explore the tribes. Indulge yourself with a look at some of the last unspoiled communities on Earth.