When the New York Times reviewed Jimmy Nelson’s work “Before they pass away” the writer Andrew Katz called his body of work “Portraits of the Authentics“. The concept of authenticity, in the art world, is nothing but a word. It serves the rhetoric of what’s original, genuine, singular, unique, and so on. We got used to hearing things being qualified as authentic not only in relation to the specificities of the work in question (whether it is an original or a copy; a singular work or a multiple; a genuine or a fake), but also in relation to the content of the work itself. The “things” depicted, presented, represented or evoked in the works became also the measure by which we talk about authenticity. But when we use the term in this context we are not so much referring to the rhetoric of authenticity within the artworld, but mainly to the philosophical roots of the word, even if we are not aware of it.
Jimmy Nelson’s work in question is the result of three-and-a-half years spent documenting vanishing cultures. […] Spending up to two weeks with each culture, Nelson would locate, meet, connect with and photograph these “last of the untouched.” After a guide or translator made an initial introduction, Nelson would step in to begin forming a bond and eventually get people to pose—in the jungle, on a mountaintop, in a river. Using the 4×5 plate camera, always in soft light, didn’t just slow him down and focus his concentration; it enabled him to directly confront his subjects. He would always be positioned lower than they were, and they would be seated or standing higher, above him, like icons. Getting them to remain still for a four-to-five-second shutter was a feat in itself. And stripping himself of his own modern-day arrogance and colonialist nature came with time.m
Katz also states that Each location was picked for its geographic remoteness and each tribe selected for its authenticity, rather than its anthropologic vulnerability, but what in the hell is the purpose of this redundancy?
The concept of Authenticity is an existential one. From Kierkegaard to Camus, several philosophers have tried to answer these questions: What does it mean to live an authentic life?; How can one live authentically? Although there are still no answers to this day, as we can see in this NYT piece, it doesn’t stop people from describing something as “authentic”, as though it meant something. It doesn’t. A close reading of the article allows me to pin down a couple of synonyms to Katz’s understanding of “authentic”, namely “untouched” and “pure”. But is there such a thing as an essence or a human nature? Aren’t we over the romantic ideal of the noble savage?
In an article about Nelson’s work for “Africa is a Country”, Zachary Rosen calls his portraits ‘ethnographic’, rather then authentic. He states that in the images, members of various ethnic groups from around the world are depicted to convey the idyllic aesthetic of the lives they supposedly lead in their rustic and isolated environments.
Contrary to what was said in the NYT, here the strength of the portraits allude to another set of adjectives, such as ‘sincerity’ or ‘honesty’, with which we can qualify characters, identities, but not consciousnesses. Also, ‘sincerity’ implies a social contract and social expectations to which the “sincere person” then complies to. Rosen goes on to say that the scenes have been deliberately constructed to capitalize on the photographer’s own vision of these groups. While such images certainly elicit awe and amazement, they can distract us from asking questions about their creation and the nature of their representation. […]
By looking beyond the photographic frame and taking the social context of this body of work into account, a few observations come to light. The rhetoric Nelson uses to describe his images strongly characterizes the Western fantasy of the noble savage, whose ancient culture, unchanged for thousands of years, has been passed over by evolution. This is achieved by linking the romantic traditional aesthetic captured in the images with repetition, in his interviews and promo materials, of phrases designed to emphasize supposed authenticity such as “flawless human beauty”, “original human art” and “purity of Mankind”. Indeed the morose name of the project, Before They Pass Away, laments the loss of these supposedly untouched cultures.
Rosen also says that Nelson produces artificial images, dressing subjects in traditional attire, stripping them and their environments of objects deemed to be foreign and posing them to his liking. He is in effect, attempting to determine what is authentic as an outsider, denying the dynamic histories of the people he stalks. In fact, if the philosophers of authenticity, namely Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus, agreed on something it was on authenticity being something dynamic that no one could ever possess. Authenticity is a verb: to be authentic, to act authentically; no inanimate object, such as a photograph can be or became authentic, nor can it depict authenticity. In respect to its medium, it can be an original or a copy, but never it can never be authentic for such a quality implies that there is consciousness.
Rosen suggests that the most troubling aspect of Nelson’s work is what it says about ourselves and I must agree. His work has been celebrated, and he has been praised as though he was a modern discoverer, bringing back from his expeditions the sort of objects supposed to capture the spirit of the colonized people. When Nelson stripped these people of their context he takes away their humanity, for he turns them into objects, all looking alike – different from us. Don’t be fooled, this is not naif, but rather a work rooted in bad faith.
The article in “Africa is a Country” leaves the reader with these questions and I shall do that too: What is this strange admiration of authenticity that romantic “tribal” images readily tap into? Do they make us feel more advanced? Do we need to counter the perceived boredom of our “modern” lives with something exotic and different?