There are several photographers traveling to “remote places” with the aim to capture “human nature”, at its wildest form. One of these so-called explorers is British photographer Jimmy Nelson (b. 1967). Having spent his childhood in Africa and his teen years in England, Nelson started working as a photojournalist at the age of 19. Before they pass away (2009-2012) was the name chosen for the project that, he claims, captures “the beauty of over 30 remote tribes“, immortalized in the form of a book with over 400 photographs, the great majority of them staged and inspired by American photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952).
On October 2013, Time‘s journalist Andrew Katz published an article entitled Portraits of the Authentics and one year later, editor John Vidal, from The Guardian, gave voice to the amount of criticism that was raining down on Nelson’s work. The big difference between the one point of view and the other seems to be the fact that the first believed in the discourse of authenticity that supports the project and the other didn’t. Before they pass away is built on two premisses: 1) there are tribal communities that live isolated in remote places and whose culture hasn’t been contaminated by the Westerner; 2) those communities are about to pass away and we need to testify and document their passage in this world, before it happens. Both premisses are wrong. Nelson and his team know it, but the label of urgency adds credibility to the marketing of the project.
From the perspective of “the authentics”, Katz describes Nelson’s work, highlighting his courage and humility, explaining that “each tribe [was] selected for its authenticity, rather than its anthropologic vulnerability”, and that the photographs were the result of a two weeks works, approximately: “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.“ In his 2013 Ted Talk, Nelson describes his intentions to photograph these “dying cultures” “as art, as icons” and tells the audience how the project gave him more than photographs. Nelson explains it gave him life lessons which he went on to prescribe: 1) one should see the world beyond one’s prejudices; 2) one should always believe there is a choice and one can choose to be happy; 3) if one is vulnerable and humble one can connect with anyone. He then finishes by asking people to wake up to these cultures, by documenting them and adds: “As soon as they disappear, we will loose something which is very, very, very important to us. It’s our authenticity, it’s where we came from. It’s our origins.”
Nelson talks about his upbringing and how the project came along…
Nelson’s discourse is plain and clear regarding his intentions and goals. In a Q&A for Roads & Kingdoms, Nelson explains that although he works as a photographer he also sees himself as a messenger playing an active part on the preservation of the History of Mankind and the promotion of “individuality”. As we see him, Nelson is first and foremost a tourist of authenticity, someone who believes the photographic register of these cultures will keep them alive, when in reality it can do exactly the opposite: besides accentuating the prejudiced notion of the Other – in this case, the “noble savage” and the “westerner” -, planting in the “civilized Man” the seed of the exploring-tourist, urging him to “go and see”. The marketing strategy and its repetition end up vulgarizing the same portraits Nelson considers to be iconic and romantic. Instead of being Nelson’s encounters with different cultures, they are a portrait of Nelson’s cultural reality and a collection of scenarios where he projects such a reality. These are photography editor Zachary Rosen‘s words for Africa is a Country:
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”.
On October 2014, Nelson’s not-so-nice version comes out as Vidal compiles arguments to explain why his photographs are “wrong”. Vidal quotes Survival International director Stephen Corry saying Nelson’s tribal portraits are “just a photographer’s fantasy, bearing little relationship either to how these people appear now, or how they’ve ever appeared.“ Nelson’s mistakes go far beyond his poor aesthetic options: the way the portraits are constructed, as well as descriptions often made, are often adverse to the history of the cultures in question. Here’s some examples from Vidal’s article:
Indigenous leaders this week weighed in to the debate, saying that Nelson’s pictures reflected neither political nor historical reality.“I saw the photos and I didn’t like them,” said Brazilian Yanomami spiritual leader Davi Kopenawa, who was recently in London. “This man only wants to force his own ideas on the photos, to publish them in books and to show them to everyone so that people will think he’s a great photographer. He does whatever he wants with indigenous peoples. It is not true that indigenous peoples are about to die out. We will be around for a long time, fighting for our land, living in this world and continuing to create our children.”
Papuan tribal leader Benny Wenda, now based in Oxford, said: “What Jimmy Nelson says about us is not true. My people, the Dani people, were never headhunters, it was never our tradition. The real headhunters are the Indonesian military who have been killing my people. My people are still strong and we fight for our freedom. We are not ‘passing away’, we are being killed by the brutal Indonesian soldiers. That is the truth.”
Nelson’s rhetoric of authenticity is built on the premise that the Westerner is anthropologically ignorant. Deprived of critical sense, the “Civilized Man” would easily be convinced by the “iconic nature” of these images. When confronted with the claim that his photographs are out of context, Nelson defends himself by saying they were meant to be celebratory, “aesthetic, and not factual”. Truth be told, Nelson’s attitude is not so different from the average western tourist. They both search for authenticity and they’re both looking for a reality that matches their expectations. Both construct their photographic realities and both seem to believe they’ve witnessed something unique, exclusive, rare and of huge value, which they end up by naming authenticity. Nonetheless, the tourist of authenticity is always under scrutiny, while Nelson is acclaimed by the grand jury. Intellectuals and academics tend to condemn the tourists’ predatory, misinformed and superficial attitude, while the public seems to be blinded by the dramatic beauty of Nelson’s photographs, not wanting to understand the symbolic value of his representations. Once again, Zach Rosen:
“[w]hy is a critical eye not applied by many viewers of Nelson’s work? 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? The answer is not entirely clear.