Jimmy’s dream has always been to create awareness about our world’s indigenous cultures through his photography. He has wanted to create a visual document that shows us and future generations the beauty of how they live. Like Edward Sheriff Curtis, the famous American ethnologist and photographer, who documented the North American Indians at the beginning of last century, he wanted to create carefully orchestrated portraits of these amazing peoples, at their absolute proudest.
Since 2010, Jimmy Nelson has traveled to the world’s most hidden corners to photograph indigenous cultures in his own romantic and iconic way. On his journeys he is continuously witnessing the speed with which the amazing communities are embracing the future. He has come to realize, after a life spent travelling, that his camera is the perfect tool for making contact and building intimate and unique connections.
Jimmy Nelson is not an anthropologist or a man of science. He does not claim to have the knowledge to address the questions we have about indigenous and other traditional cultures. He is a photographer and a storyteller. What started as a naive engagement with the peoples he met during work assignments, has over a period of three decades turned into a personal project. The book ‘Before they pass away’ is an homage to the cultures he will probably never fully understand, but who will never stop luring him to explore.
His experiences on these journeys have made a lasting impression on him. There is a great humility in how he has seen wealth defined by the cultures he has met. Where Jimmy is from, they are learnt to strive for material possessions. He feels that centuries of that conception have brought the world to the brink of ecological and political disaster. Many of the peoples he has visited have a different conception of value, with lives so symbiotically and sustainably connected to their surroundings, virtually merging the two together. They provide ongoing lessons for us all.
Before They Pass Away is not meant to convey a documentary truth. The portraits in the book are Jimmy’s own artistic and creative interpretation of the people he has met. He has focused on the beauty that struck him as an outsider. He wanted to create icons. Beautiful and positive images of strong and proud people. This approach is unquestionably romantic. He hopes his esteem and admiration for the people photographed are reflected by the result.
The name chosen for this project has roused attention. ‘Before they pass away’ may give the impression that he pessimistically saw the sealed fate of those peoples he had come to meet. And maybe this is how he initially felt. But since he first published the book in 2013, his sustained and amazing interaction with the most diverse range of peoples have made him backtrack on this view. Where there are challenges, there are solutions. he has come to appreciate the pride, strength, vigour, honour and resilience of the people he asked to pose for his lense. This provides him with an unending inspiration to continue his work.
In this light, ‘before’ attains a meaning that is diametrically opposed to the fatalistic reading of doom. ‘Before’ signals a moment of opportunity, a call for action and an appeal. To decide with confidence that we value what we have and will take our support into the future.