Photography: Exotic odyssey

Aiming the lens at next week’s annual Photography Convention – and Jimmy Nelson’s portraits of indigenous tribes all over the world.

‘Lelesas, Louelen, Lewangu, Lepokodou, Loingu & Nyerere’: Ndoto Mountain Range, Kenya (photo credit: JIMMY NELSON PICTURES B.V.)
‘Lelesas, Louelen, Lewangu, Lepokodou, Loingu & Nyerere’: Ndoto Mountain Range, Kenya
(photo credit: JIMMY NELSON PICTURES B.V.)
Jimmy Nelson is clearly not looking for an easy working life.
iPhone snaps of rare images which may be visible for just a fleeting moment are not for him. Despite (or because of) the rarity and exotic nature of his subjects, the British-born Dutch-resident photographer puts his all into his work – which includes lugging heavyweight, definitively non-cutting edge – at least in contemporary terms – equipment out into the field.
Nelson is one of the star turns at next week’s 10th annual Photography Convention, which will take place at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv on November 17. The program kicks off at 2:30 p.m., ending at 10 p.m., with the photographer roster including Paris-born fashion and portrait photographer Gabriel Baharlia; Israel Prize laureate Micha Bar-Am, who captured many iconic shots of the Yom Kippur War; and wildlife and nature photographer Roie Galitz.
Nelson, ostensibly, shares a common interest with the latter: both he and Galitz like to get out into the world to capture their subjects in situ. However, that is where the similarity ends.
Nelson began globe-trotting in 1985, and walked across Tibet at the age of 19.
The odyssey lasted close to a year and the teenager took a small camera along with him to document the trek.
On returning to the UK, Nelson began earning a crust as a photojournalist, and was sent abroad to capture all kinds of action shots, including Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan, military exchanges between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, and some of the nasty stuff that went on in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
But it was when he came across the work of Edward Sheriff Curtis on Native Americans from the early 20th century that Nelson found his real photographic passion.
That spawned his Before They Pass Away venture, which started in 2009. During the next three years, Nelson traveled all over the globe and documented close to 40 indigenous tribes in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the South Pacific. The tribes Nelson photographed include the Huli and Kalam tribes of New Guinea, the Tsaatan of Mongolia and the Mursi people of the Omo River valley in southern Ethiopia.
Jimmy Nelson, surrounded by some of his photo subjects .(photo credit: JIMMY NELSON PICTURES B.V.)
The portraits he produced make for stunning and even emotive observation, although Nelson has taken his fair share of flak for the stylized way in which he portrays his subjects. Last year, his ambitious project was hotly criticized by Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights. In a review entitled “Turning a Blind Eye to Pure Old Vibrations,” Corry termed Nelson’s work as “extreme – or bizarre” and questions how “real” Nelson’s portrayals are. Corry notes that Nelson has his subjects from the Waorani tribe of Indians of Ecuador “unclothed except for their traditional waist string. The Indians are not only shorn of their everyday clothes, but also of other manufactured ornaments such as watches and hair clips.” Corry also states that, far from capturing the members of Ecuadorian tribe in their natural state in their natural milieu, he has fallen prey to Western sentimentality. “In real life,” says Corry, “contacted Waorani have routinely worn clothes for at least a generation, unless, that is, they are ‘dressing up’ for tourists, and Nelson’s pictures are all taken in one Cononaco River community, which has indeed been promoted for tourist visits since the 1970s.”
For his part, Nelson says he never set out to produce a learned study of the remote and often endangered peoples he photographed, and that he was more intent on getting people’s attention and waking the Western world up to the fact that the groups may very well disappear from the face of the Earth in the not-too-distant future. “It is not definitive, it is not anthropological, it is more an artistic emotional scream. Indigenous groups have been changing since time began; there’s nothing new in that. So there’s nothing new happening now that didn’t happen before.
The only thing that’s different is the speed with which it is happening, due to homogenization and digitalization, and the fact that a large proportion of the film business now comes from people using smartphones. So people are visually becoming aware of how the rest of the world looks.” That, says Nelson, necessarily has ramifications for the subjects themselves.
“They are rapidly abandoning their cultural heritage and putting on a T-shirt.”
Nelson says he wants to convey the pace of that transition, and the dangers of losing a significant part of the world’s ethnic diversity, to as many people as possible.
“Having spent the whole of my life on the road, a large proportion of my childhood and returning to that as a young adult and subsequently in middle age, much as peopeople have harped on about climatic changes happening, I am making a statement about cultural changes.”
‘Yakim, Brigade 2, Nenet’: Yamal Peninsula, Ural Mountains, Russia (2011).(photo credit: JIMMY NELSON PICTURES B.V.)
That, for Nelson, is the bottom line. He refers, again, to his 19th-century American muse. “I am copying the way Edward Curtis documented the Native American Indians.
There is nothing original about what I am doing. I am basically doing a contemporary version of what he did in North America, and I am doing it around the world. Curtis also said, which I am copying, that these people are extraordinary and they represent something that is very valuable. They have to be celebrated, cherished and preserved in a contemporary way.”
The meaning of “contemporary” is, of course, a product of the current temporal slot, and Nelson takes that ethos somewhat outside of the here and now.
His striking works are hardly the result of state-of-the-art technologically advanced apparatus. He takes all of his pictures on a camera that has been around as long as he has, and has tweaked the equipment to bring it more in line with the gizmos that were available to Curtis and his counterparts.
Nelson’s photographs are all made on a 50-year-old 4x5 inch camera, using glass plates. That is, of course, highly reminiscent of the way Curtis had to go about his business, and the stylized prints also conjure up the work of hardy explorers and scientists from 19th century North America and Western Europe, and their romantic view of the “exotic” folk they encountered on their travels.
The British photographer says there are plenty of benefits to be gained from his work for all parties concerned. “If you imagine how we live – we live on concrete, so we are very far removed from what we are as human beings, in the context of ourselves, our loved ones and nature.
Where I am, in Holland, is an extreme example of this. It is very flat and was mostly made by man. We suffer, mentally and physically, because of that distance from the source, so to speak.”
The tribal folk Nelson documented have a different way of living and of experiencing their poise in the world. “When you spend time with them, which I did, you see they have a very special balance, a balance which we try to impose on ourselves by doing yoga and keeping fit, and watching our diets. But that is very superficial unless it is an inherent part of our daily existence.”
Nelson says we have much to learn from indigenous ethnic groups whose way of life is now rapidly dissipating. “We may think of them as poor or backward, and they don’t have a currency, but what they do have as human beings is quite extraordinary. We need to be aware of that.”
He will surely convey that message at next week’s convention in Tel Aviv.
The process involved in taking very long-exposure shots of his subjects, as the “antiquated” equipment demands, induces a yesteryear approach to the work on both sides of the lens, and somehow produces a more realistic end product. “A hundred years ago people were very unaware [of what the camera did] so you got a more natural picture, and perhaps that’s what people see in my pictures, that they are more real.”
Amazingly, despite the tens of thousands of air miles and trekking that Nelson has managed over the past three decades plus, he has never been to this part of the world. “I have been to about 80 percent of the world, but I have never been to Israel,” he says. “I am excited about it.”
For tickets and more information about the Photography Convention: