Before they pass away

About Jimmy Nelson

Giving a voice to men and women, before they disappear forever. This is the declared intention of Jimmy Nelson for his work, Before They Pass Away. Born in Sevenoaks, south-east of London in western Kent, England, in 1967, Jimmy started working as a photographer in 1987. Having spent 10 years at a Jesuit boarding school in the North of England, he set off on his own to traverse the length of Tibet on foot — 1985. The journey lasted a year and upon his return his unique visual diary, featuring revealing images of a previously inaccessible Tibet, was published to wide international acclaim.

In 2010 he began his journey to create the iconic artistic document that became Before They Pass Away. After visiting 35 chosen Indigenous communities, part 1 was published to International acclaim at the beginning of 2014 and received many awards.

According to Stephen Corry, director of the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights Survival International, the pictures by Jimmy are more akin to high fashion than reality. He says in an essay in online US magazine Truthout that Jimmy’s “claim that it’s the ‘irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world’ is wrong — from pretty much every angle”. He adds that some of the pictures are “just a photographer’s fantasy, bearing little relationship either to how these people appear now, or how they’ve ever appeared. Of course, rendering people more exotic than they really are is a timeworn tradition. The images look like a throwback to a past era, but they’re also a contemporary invention.”

Jimmy responded, saying his pictures of Kazakh, Himba, Huli, Kalam, Goroka, Maori and other peoples are celebratory, and intended to be aesthetic rather than factual. “There is no sociology, no statistics. It’s how I see the world. I am aiming to document the variety and importance of what is left of indigenous culture. Yes, it’s idealistic. Indigenous peoples are usually portrayed — by groups like Survival — as impoverished. But they have a wealth and a pride. It’s not only about material possessions. I shoot from a very personal, aesthetic point of view. Different people can interpret what they like.”

Today Jimmy is still traveling and photographing to produce part 2 of the project. His communication and his passion are found on a far wider platform. He is exhibiting at International Museums, shows his work at the world’s leading Photographic Art galleries, speaking at international conferences and launched the Jimmy Nelson Foundation in October 2016.


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