Before They Pass Away

Before They Pass Away Cover

Before They Pass Away
Jimmy Nelson
XXL Edition 464 pages, 42 x 59 cm, 6500 euros
Trade Edition 424 pages, 29 x 37 cm, 128 euros

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

The thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn of their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future.

Edward Curtis (1)
Photo Caption

In 1830 when the American President, Andrew Jackson, fulfilling an election promise to his western and southern supporters, pushed the Removal Act through Congress, he did so in order to get rid of thousands of Indians — particularly the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles — who were not dying and not particularly interested in going anywhere. 

These were not the Indians that Curtis went west to find.

Curtis was looking for the literary Indian, the dying Indian, the imaginative construct. And to make sure that he would find what he wanted to find, he took along boxes of “Indian” paraphernalia — wigs, blankets, painted backdrops, clothing, — in case he ran into Indians who did not look as the Indian was supposed to look.

Thomas King (2)
The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative

Edward Curtis - Sioux Chiefs

Edward Curtis – Sioux Chiefs

Culture is a slippery business. It is easy to find yourself authoring of a kind of patronizing determinism – especially when what attracts you to a subject is exotic, distant, and other.

This is the unfortunate case with Jimmy Nelson’s massive project “Before They Pass Away.” The anthropological assumptions of this project are so heavy handed; are in fact, so loudly announced on the promotional web site, Nelson’s talks, and the book itself, that what might have been a short aside when discussing Nelson’s photographic work demands to be addressed outright.

To identify a culture with it’s appearance, and to equate a change in this appearance with the end of a culture, is to make a fundamental mistake. The Scots did not vanish when the kilt went out of fashion. Inuits persist even without beaded mukluks and dogsleds. If North American native peoples do not look as they do in the photographs of Edward Curtis, this does not mean they have “passed away.”

What has “passed away” is a romantic idea of a culture. A fiction.

Jimmy Nelson Before They Pass Away

This romanticism is formulaic. It begins by constructing a dichotomy. There is a fundamental difference between us and them. We are first world. They are tribal. Once this separation is established, the others are described with the values one wishes to project: they are noble, original, true, and pure. Ignore such universal realities conflict (inter-family or inter-tribal) and say that they have a sense of peace and harmony that we have lost.

I’m not making this up. This is exactly the copy that fades in and out of the “Before They Pass Away” web site:

“Jimmy Nelson’s vision connects us to the purity of mankind.”

“Tribes teach us aspects of humanity such as love, respect, peace, survival and sharing.”

“A reminder of the harmony between man and nature that once was.”

“The tribes in Nelson’s book demonstrate the essence of life.”

“An example of pure and honest living.”

“The tribes achieved a harmony with nature that we can only dream of.”

This romantic fiction is disconcerting and not a little bit troubling. It’s a form of reverse discrimination. Instead of portraying tribal peoples all as backward, savage, uneducated, and primitive; portray them all as noble, egalitarian, peaceful, pure, and honest. It is still discrimination – it still ignores the reality of the people. Moreover, once you have isolated them as “original” (existing in a kind of idyllic garden before the fall) you can add the tragic narrative stinger – that they will all soon be gone forever.

It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have  been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant. (3)

Imagine a meeting with a member of these tribes who does not look like the pictures in the book. Imagine meeting a Maasai man in Kenya, out of traditional dress, working, perhaps, as a night security guard. Is he no longer a Massai? That would seem to be the implication – that you didn’t meet him in time, and that the Maasai, like the rest of the cultures in the book have “passed away.” Perhaps also, during such a meeting, the man is not able to teach you about “love, respect, peace, survival and sharing.”  Obviously it was too late.

Indeed, in Nelson’s mind it is already too late for North America, where “the tribes haven’t fully retained their heritage the way others have.” (4)

Jimmy Nelson Before They Pass Away

I began this review wanting to praise the photographic beauty of Nelson’s portraiture. The photographs are exceptional, carefully positioned with delicate light and a direct intimate closeness. I like the formal precision of them and it does not worry me that the subjects are carefully placed and posed. By all accounts Nelson’s interaction with individuals from the various groups was considered and time consuming. I don’t suspect that he exploited individuals and it is not surprising that “Before They Pass Away” is a commercial project. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking pictures of people, tribal or otherwise, provided the interaction is honest. Photographs, after all, are a common method of investigation, discovery, and representation.

There are many ways this project could have been staged and presented: as a series of portraits; as a showcase of regalia and costume; as a catalogue of remarkable people. Or better still, let the people speak for themselves.

But I cannot get beyond the patronizing marketing material and the imperial posturing of the project. The title says everything. To be included in the book is to be an exotic other who is doomed. Peter Blaise, author of the anthropological introduction to each group, states:

“Because they are the last original humans, we must give them as many chances as we can to let them co-exist in modern times. This will not happen without intelligent plans. We are invited to organize their continuity, to paint their souls for posterity, if we don’t, they will indeed disappear forever and an essential part of us will disappear with them.” (5)


It may come as a surprise to the Tibetans, the Maori, and many others in the book that their cultural integrity depends on Jimmy Nelson’s photographic project.(6) Moreover it may be a shock to learn that their culture is public property, and that the world (presumably the first world so lacking in harmony and balance) has been invited to organize them for posterity.

We are invited to paint their souls?

In an interview posted on Time Lightbox Nelson claims “We’re out of context, that doesn’t mean we should reset to tribal living, but instead create a dialog with the last of the authentics to see where we went wrong; to learn from the purest source what they’re doing right and to take that with us into the future.” (7)

With his talk of “the last authentics” and “pure sources,” one almost expects Nelson to start talking about eugenics.

In his 2003 Massey Lecture, “The Truth About Stories” author Thomas King talks about the difficulty in presenting himself as a North American native when speaking publically. In particular, if he dressed as a native and spoke as a native he was seen as “entertainment.” Interesting, but not to be taken too seriously. If, on the other hand, he dressed as a white (western suit and tie) and reasoned like a white he was no longer either authentic or native and had no authority to speak on behalf of first nations. There is no escape from the authenticity trap.

“When I was going to university there was an almost irresistible pull to become what Gerald Vizenor calls a “cultural ritualist” a kind of “pretend” Indian, an Indian who has to dress up like and Indian and act like and Indian in order to be recognized as an Indian. […] We dressed up as the “Indian” dressed. We dressed up in a manner to substantiate the cultural lie that had trapped us, and we did so with a passion.” (8)

These are the very real difficulties of appearance. Maori are authentic (they get into the book) while Navajo are not – “they have not fully retained their heritage.” Neither option is very empowering. As blogger Scott Hamilton has pointed out when talking about Nelson’s portrayal of the Maori “For scholars of history and sociology, the noble savage myth recycled by Nelson is an annoyance; for indigenous artists, though, it is a serious threat.” (9)

But who decides what is authentic and how?

Is this judgment, in fact, not about cultural integrity at all, but rather about entertainment? That is, a judgment about visual representation: about Jimmy Nelson’s idea of what it means to be culturally real. Perhaps it would be more “authentic” for Nelson to speak personally, and simply state that he finds the Maori photogenic – the Navajo, less so. He is certainly free to photograph whom he pleases. But making pronouncements about the authenticity of a culture betrays an incredible cultural arrogance.

“Before They Pass Away” seems to have the ghostly hand of Edward Sheriff Curtis directing it. Both Nelson and Curtis seem to share more than just their flawed romanticism. Both projects attracted financial backers with deep pockets. For Curtis it was J.P. Morgan (who put up 75,000 dollars in 1906), for Nelson it was Marcel Boekhoorn (who put up an initial contribution of 400,000 euros). Both photographers have put out extremely expensive, rare book editions of their photographs.

For Nelson it was one, massive, oversize book measuring 42 x 59 cm containing 464 pages and selling for 6500 euros (aprox 9000 dollars). (10) This may seem expensive, however, Curtis’ 20 volumes (completed between 1907 and 1930) of ethnographic text and photographic images (over 2250 photogravure images were included in the final edition) stands alone not only as the most “photographically accomplished and influential record ever produced of Native cultures in the United States” (11) but as “the largest, the longest, the most ambitious and the most expensive photographic project ever attempted in photography.” (12)

It is especially odd that, working today and knowing the criticisms leveled at Curtis, Nelson did not temper or recast his project. It is perhaps equally odd that, knowing that Curtis had completed such an ambitious ethnographic mapping (the largest photographic project in human history – the scope of which Nelson could never hope to match) he still judged the North American tribal cultures as having “not fully retained their heritage.” By Nelson’s own peculiar standards, Curtis’ work failed in the cultural preservation that he so fervently hopes his own exposures will accomplish.

Yes, cultures are rapidly changing. Yes, many are endangered (UNESCO estimates that by the close of this century approximately half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will no longer be used). Yes, many cultures are remarkable, possessing attributes, customs, and attire that redefines and expands notions of human ingenuity and creativity. And yes, a well-executed visual record is an invaluable document.

A photograph is neither true nor false. It simply is. It is what we say about the photograph which will stand as honest or fabricated. Hence it is disappointing to read a book that had the potential to be one of the most beautiful books ever produced, and find that, instead of speaking about these very real cultures and the challenges they face with an expanding modern culture, Jimmy Nelson has forced them to play a part in a colonialist myth – the myth of the noble savage.

About the author:

In addition to critical writing, Tim McLaughlin is a photographer and designer who has been working to help document traditional craft techniques for over ten years. At times this involves working with tribal cultures (mostly in India). He has worked as the designer on the museum exhibition “Through the Eye of a Needle” documenting the tribal embroidery of the Kutch desert in India. He also edited the documentary film and co-authored the book of the same name. In 2005 he helped bring two of the tribal embroiderers to Canada for the Maiwa Textile Symposium. More recently through Maiwa he has been working with embroiderers from the tribal Banjara community.


1. Edward Curtis’ photo caption is quoted in: The wrongheaded obsession with “vanishing” indigenous peoples by ELISSA WASHUTA.

2. Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Massey Lecture Series 2003. Available as audio from CBC radio:

3. Within this conversation it is important to keep in mind that many interests (from governments that must honour treaties, to corporations who work in resource extraction) see indigenous cultures as holding rights to territory and status that are a hinderance. There is often a vested interest in eliminating tribal status. If tribal status is interpreted to be the equivalent of visual appearance (or an idea of a tribal people as not modern) then it becomes easier to deny a group status. This is the goal of much government legislation which states who is native and who is not.

4. Portraits of the Authentics: Photographing Ancient Cultures Before They Pass Away – LightBox

5. Before They Pass Away. Trade Edition Book. “Painted Souls: The Beauty of our Origins” by Peter Blaise.

6. At least one Maori has blogged about the unusual experience of discovering the book. Jay Dizzle “We’re Not Dead Yet.” Posted November 11, 2013

7. Portraits of the Authentics. See (3)

8. Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Massey Lecture Series 2003.

King’s comments on Edward Curtis are worth quoting at length:

Curtis was fascinated by the idea of the North American Indian, was in fact obsessed with it. And he was determined to capture that idea, that image, before it vanished. This was a common concern among many intellectuals and artists and social scientists at the turn of the nineteenth century, who believed that, while Europeans in the New World were poised on the brink of a new adventure, the Indian was poised on the brink of extinction.

In literature in the United States, this span of time is known as the American Romantic Period, and the Indian was tailor made for it. With its emphasis on feeling, its interest in nature, its fascination with exoticism, mysticism and eroticism, and its preoccupation with the glorification of the past, American Romanticism found in the Indian a symbol in which all these concerns could be united. Prior to the nineteenth century, the prevalent image of the Indian has been that of an inferior being. The romantics imagined their Indian as dying. But in that dying, in that passing away, in that disappearing from the stage of human progress, there was also a sense of nobility.

I probably sound a little cranky – I don’t mean to. I know Curtis paid Indians to shave away any facial hair. I know he talked them into wearing wigs. I know that he would provide one tribe of Indians with clothing from another tribe because the clothing looked more “Indian.”

So his photographs would look authentic.

And while there is a part of me that would have preferred that Curtis had photographed his Indians as he found them, the men with crewcuts and moustaches, the women in cotton print dresses, I am grateful that we have his images at all. For the faces of the mothers and fathers, and aunts and uncles, the sisters and brothers who look at you from the depths of these photographs are not romantic allusions, they are real people.

9. The noble savage and the Toilet Club. Posted November 9, 2013 on “Reading the Maps” a blog by Scott Hamilton.

10. Nelson’s work is also offered in a more conventional format, measuring 29cm x 37cm, containing 424 pages and four gatefolds. It is a behemoth that requires a table to support it and sells for approx. $150.

11. ‘Art-Science’: The North American Indian (1907-30) as Photobook. Shamoon Zamir. published in The PhotoBook from Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond ed Patrisia Di Bello, Colette Wilson & Shamoon Zamir.

12. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History. Vol 1.

  1. Thanks for this piece! Although I love the images, and the aesthetic in Nelson’s pictures, something did not quite site right with me while reading some of the words attached. You’ve formulated my reservations with the project very well.
    I have to admit that I have at times fallen victim to this “fictionalization” and am quite familiar with the romanticized notion of for instance North American Indians. And to a certain extent, I think writers or artists should be “allowed” to explore these aspects as well – but the notion that such traditions or people are “vanishing” because times are changing – this appropriation of what “they”/the “other” should be like – is a dangerous one that I think we should remain mindful of.

  2. Thank you for your very thoughtful thesis on how and why we photograph. How a culture is represented in language as well as image. I begun following this story a week ago or so, when I picked up the bio of Curtis once again to finish reading it. Than came across the blog pieces on Nelson’s exhibition and his approach. Thank you for fleshing all of that out.
    I don’t think Curtis went out to do it for money, because it seems he was broke and living off his family in later years, and dedicated his life to photographing the “First Nations”! Where Nelson’s seems to have created this project to make himself famous and loads of $$ inspite of his idealism.
    I am sure this is an on going conversation!

    Thank you again!

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