Tribal instinct

Jun 26, 2013, 10:00 IST | Kanika Sharma

Renowned photographer Jimmy Nelson has embarked on Before They Pass Away, an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that covers 31 secluded and unique tribes from across the globe in a novel tribute to celebrate the very origins of humanity. Kanika Sharma attempts to delve deep into the mind and lens of this English discoverer

It is rare to follow up on a dream that you dreamt when you were hardly seven. More so, when all that it involves is simple understanding between people, not abandoning the belief that everyone around you is beautiful and travelling anywhere on this planet. A serendipitous encounter with Jimmy Nelson, a world-renowned photographer, can kindle such beliefs in contrast to the daily humdrum. Before it gets any more awe-inspiring, the warm voice of Nelson in a painstakingly enunciated manner says, “I am 45 years old now but the idea to do this surfaced long time ago. It began when I was seven as soon as I started travelling across the world with my father who was a geologist and worked for Shell — the oil company.”

The people
In between, he shares another experience that he warns might look trivial to the culturally remote but a chance circumstance that introduced aesthetics to him, “When I was 16, all my hair fell out because I was given the wrong medicine. You have to imagine that in the 1980s, in England, a bald person was taken as an aggressive person and I’m anything but that. It was at that juncture that I was confronted with aesthetics and I developed empathy and curiosity towards people.”

Throughout, we gather Nelson traversed the world through the eyes and heart of a man hungry to connect with people from all around. Perhaps, it’s why when it came to tuning into his own true calling, it was the land of Buddhism, Tibet where “warm, sincere and real” people stirred up his passion to visually document his trysts that led to his claim to fame.

The project
His experience of chronicling 31 tribes and ancestors of approximately 15 million people started on an extremely hilarious note, “In Northern Mongolia, the Tsatsan are a nomadic tribe with reindeer. I had been travelling with them for about a week but had not managed to break the ice. It was -30 degree Celsius but I had been refusing to join them in the customary drinking vodka. I had been refusing until then, as I wanted to stay sober. I succumbed to drinking it one night. In the middle of my sleep I felt the need to visit the lavatory but there were about 30 people sleeping all around me. So, I tried to roll outside the tent but being drunk, I managed to pee on the tent and myself. Soon, the reindeer started stampeding on the tent and barged inside and started nuzzling their head on my groin. By this time, every one is awake and starts laughing and I’m told that human urine is a delicacy for them due to its salt content!” Reflecting on his fallacy, he remarks, “As soon as I made the mistake, they realised that I was just like them and considered a friend.”

The economic crisis seemed to have triggered something inside Nelson. The adventurous photographer keeps on dropping the words, ‘development’, ‘developing’ and ‘developed’. It is the meaning of the first and the derivations that follow that he seems to be redefining although the loose usage can be discomfiting. “Before They Pass Away is a project that hopes to look at the old world and how it is witnessing speed and calling out for the new.”

The tribes
The affable English photographer confesses, "Actually, I am copying. Edward S Curtis, an American photographer who shot the American Indians a hundred years ago and documented a beautiful culture that is not there anymore.” With posterity concerns heavily weighing on Nelson’s mind, his journey is only halfway through.

But his conception as an anthropologist is something that he seeks to avoid, “It’s entirely based on fascination. I have experienced that the affluence that the developed world has is about indulging in things of no value.” Most of his visual documents are portraits and landscapes as he hopes that these primogenitors look hard “and jump put of the picture towards the viewer.” Talking about the unique 31 tribes, he feels that “it will be a pity if they lose their past. They want TVs and a cars but it is our job to tell them it’s not all about them. These tribes live on land, in nature and environment.”

The 1,000-year-old Rabaris that are mainly found in Gujarat and Rajasthan

The lesser-known Drokpas survive between the rife with conflict area between India and Pakistan

Ladakhis survive in eight months of harsh winters

The picture
The self-confessed romantic bore a cumbersome 50-year-old camera with 4 x 5 plates to forge an intimate connection. “I have observed that further the people are developed, they place each other in boxes making judgments. The beauty gets heightened when they are not aware of what the photograph is.

During the course of this project, I realised that people love attention; once I made them feel special, they gave me all their time.”

Looking back at Nelson's journey that was beyond language, borders and histories, he shares how the basic is always paramount. “Communication was reliant on hands, noises, on eyes, holding a deeper way. Papua New Guinea has 7,000 languages but you can’t find a translator who can speak all of them. Looking ahead at the repositories of the human condition, Nelson comments, “I can try to make a small change; once the project takes off in a big way we would want to go back and show them the book to tell them that is why they are important and give a small percentage of money in kind.” On a parting note, he promises several exhibitions such as the upcoming Dutch Natural History Project, tie-ups with organisations, and worldwide availability of his book.

The trade edition will be available in India from October 2013

Tribes of the world >>
Some of the tribes in Jimmy Nelson’s project: Chukchi: Siberia; Dropka: Tibet; Gauchos: South America; Himba: Namibia; Huaorani: Ecuador; Kazakhs: Central Asia; Ladakhi: Kashmir; Maasai: East Africa; Maori: New Zealand; Miao: China; Mursi: Ethiopia; Mustang Lopa: Nepal; Nenets: Arctic Russia; Ni-Vanuatu: Pacific; Omo Valley Tribes: Ethiopia; Papua in Indonesia; Papua New Guinea; Rabari: India; Samburu: Kenya; Tibetans; Tsataan: Mongolia. This extra-large photographic study of the world’s most threatened tribes and cultures is a limited edition hardback in a clamshell Presentation box.

India in focus >>
Nelson regards Indian tribes as the most colourful in the world. He captured the 1,000-year-old Rabaris that are mainly found in Gujarat and Rajasthan; Ladakhis who survive in the eight months of dire winter conditions and the little-known Drokpas that survive in between the rife with conflict area between India and Pakistan. Nelson relates that the disparity in India between developed and underdeveloped as very exciting and hopes to live for over 100 years to do more about this as he feels that he has simply “splashed the surface” as of now. 

Go to top