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Pictorially capturing the tribes of the world

21 October 2020
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21 October 2020

In the Click of Time


Photographer Jimmy Nelson talks about his ambitious project to capture on film the world’s tribes before they lose their individuality


P hotographer Jimmy Nelson has been travelling the world since before he can remember. His father worked for a major oil company and Nelson Jr ended up tagging along to all points of the globe.

In his late teens he toured Tibet, on foot, eventually publishing a book about the trip. He then worked as a photojournalist and commercial photographer for more than a decade.

Eventually, though, he realised this wasn’t exactly hitting the spot. ‘I felt that my career had slipped into a rut of superficiality,’ he says. ‘What I really wanted to do was get back into the world and search for ancient civilisations.

‘Our world is changing at breakneck speed. Countries that, not so long ago, were considered developing nations are now among the world’s wealthiest. It’s inevitable that such rapid progress in affluence and technology ultimately reaches those cultures that, up until now, have managed to preserve their own identity and values. And when it does, their long-standing traditions will gradually disappear.’

Nelson set out on a journey to preserve the world’s tribes through a photographic record. ‘I wanted to create a visual document that reminds us, and the generations after us, of the beauty of pure and honest living. And of all the important things it teaches us; ingredients we seem to have forgotten in our so-called civilised world.

‘The main message of this project would be: look closer. We in the developed world are very comfortable with our prejudices and with our judgments. Look closer, because you never know what’s around the corner. Some things can be very different than what they seem to be.


‘The most important lesson I learned was that, in order to connect to any kind of people in any situation, you need to let go of all your arrogance.’


Nelson has now published a book that tells the story of his ambitious project. Containing more than 400 colour photographs it shows the variety and humanity of those he met.

Researching and shooting the photos took much time and effort but that is not all, Nelson says: ‘The most important lesson I learned was that, in order to connect to any kind of people in any situation, you need to let go of all your arrogance. Showing them that we are – just like them – human and vulnerable, is a prerequisite for a project like this. As with all relationships in life, the key to profoundly connect with someone is trust.

‘On a number of locations, when we first arrived somewhere, the people were reluctant to let us photograph them, so we left the camera behind for the first days, in order not to intimidate them. We would sleep in their accommodation because we did not want to give the impression that we felt in any way superior.’


‘They have achieved the perfect harmony with nature that everyone in the West dreams of. That was one of the essential characteristics of the tribes.’


Nelson discovered many similarities among the people he met, even though they might live thousands of miles apart. He was also hugely impressed by the way in which they approached life.

‘The tribes are all similar in how they live in balance with the environment,’ he says. ‘That is one of the most outstanding differences between them and the people in the more “developed” world.

'They have achieved the perfect harmony with nature that everyone in the West dreams of. It was one of the most essential characteristics of the tribes and I have tried to catch that in my photography.’

So did he have a favourite tribe among all the peoples he visited? ‘They all definitely stand out. The further away you go from the developed world, the more pure the experience becomes and each tribe was as special as the next. However, I think visiting people in extremely cold climates was very intense, because they are really surviving on the edge of the planet.

‘There is a photo of three native Kazakh men from Mongolia with eagles on their shoulders on a mountain. That picture took three days to make, because each morning there wasn’t enough light. On the fourth morning, it was about minus 20 degrees and the light was beautiful. I took off my gloves to take the photo and they literally froze to the camera.

‘I began crying and when I turned my head I saw that two women had followed us to the top of the mountain. One of them took my fingers and cradled them in her jacket until I got the feeling back and was able to take a couple of photographs. What I didn’t know was that these women were strict Sunni Muslims, and broke all codes of modesty to aid me. They had noticed my desperation and did what they could to help me achieve what I was there for.’

Words: DH

The Facts

Before They Pass Away
By Jimmy Nelson
Published by teNeues, priced £100

teneues.com

This article was originally published in Halycon magazine in 2014.


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