Jimmy Nelson Responds

Editor’s Note: On January 2, I posted a critical review of Jimmy Nelson’s “Before They Pass Away.” When I put it up I contacted Jimmy Nelson through his website and offered him the opportunity to respond. He took me up on that offer. What follows is posted exactly as received.

I extend my appreciation to Mr. Nelson for taking the time to send these comments.

Jimmy Nelson

 

 

 

 

 

Tim

Good Afternoon.

Thank you for taking the time to write an article about “Beforethey,” for your blog.

I must compliment you on your observations and your ability to write. A talent that I am afraid I do not have hence why I generally just try and make photographs.

Initially I would like to say that what I have produced is a very personal document which has grown a commercial skin. It goes without saying that producing projects of this scale require enormous investments hence the somewhat pompous way it which it presents itself.

That is not to say that what I see and have experienced is disappearing very quickly and I find it enormously sad. Change is inevitable and the discussion we have here is a healthy way to learn how to progress forward.

Thank you for taking the initiative in contacting me and helping me continue to learn by having to answer your very good questions.

It would be my pleasure to reply to your review.

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.

Indeed it is. But not too slippery dare to discuss and yes using the exotic, distant and other, makes it more immediate and attractive to a wider and perhaps originally uninterested new audience.

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.

You are right in saying that my anthropological observations are loudly announced. This is very deliberate, as to cause a stir and to act as a catalyst for discussion . Just the same as the title of the book , Before They Pass Away.

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.

I believe that culture and appearance are directly linked. This belief has been developed and evolved over many years of me, living, cohabiting and photographing these indigenous cultures. The aesthetic authenticity of their appearance will “Pass Away,” very soon. At the same speed with which the recent digitization of the world has arrived. What is disappearing is not a romantic idea,  it is the essence of our cultural origins and individuality. The Homogenization of the world will spell the death of authentic cultural creative expression.

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.

As far as I am concerned there is already a dichotomy, which is the essence of what I present in my book. You are right when you say there are some universal realities which are ignored. But as I am not a studied anthropologist, I am purely communicating what I have seen and have experienced first hand. More often than not academic criticism and syndical assessments are directed by non objective sources who may not have had first hand experience.

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.

Yes it is a reverse observation not discrimination, to bring them to our attention to the fact that their ” Idyllic Garden of eden will definitely soon fall.” It is also tragic narrative portrayed in a romantic non fiction because it is fact. I find it no more troubling that the way we present ourselves in all our developed the worlds printed commercial media. True or false, it is the way we like to perceive ourselves and be perceived accordingly.

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.

The Massai working as a Night Security Guard is still a Massai. Much the same as a Cherokee Indian working in Mc Donalds. But what they are both not capable of teaching us “Love peace, survival and sharing as perhaps they used to when they lived, acted and dressed in their traditional settings. What they now teach would be an applied set of lessons. Lessons adapted to a very different world to that from where they originated. Lessons which would definatley not be traditional.

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)

Indeed it is too late for the Cherokee working in McDonalds . Not only have they not retained their heritage but they have lost all relative respect and pride.  Both of which are still to be seen in the tribes and cultures which I documented.

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.

Thank you for the compliment and yes the photography is very time consuming and as I have communicated at length, this project is still in its infancy. Production is in place to return to all the subjects in question and present them with the book and their photographs. A process which will be documented on film and give the people the voice to 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)

What?

What Mark Blaisse , the author to the introduction states is 100% correct in his statement.

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

 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.

In this case as well as in the production and sale of the book, I state at length that what I have seen is photogenic. I state at length that my representation is one of positive discrimination.

I have decided from personal experience, which is anything but culturally arrogant that what I have photographed is my personal vision and designed to create debate.

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.

The similarities are of no coincidence as I used Edward Sheriff Curtis as a inspiration.  Curtis 30 year document can be perceived as romantic yes but as flawed?

“Taken as a whole, the work of Edward Curtis is a singular achievement. Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity, their sense of themselves in the world, their innate dignity and self-possession. These photographs comprehend more than an aboriginal culture, more than a prehistoric past — more, even, than a venture into a world of incomparable beauty and nobility. Curtis’s photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time in every place. In the focus upon the landscape of the continent and its indigenous people, a Curtis photograph becomes universal.

Edward Curtis preserved for us the unmistakable evidence of our involvement in the universe.”  N. Scott Momaday

For Nelson it was one, massive, oversize book measuring 42 x 59 cm containing 464 pages and selling for 6500 euros (aprox 9000 dollars). (9) 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” (9) but as “the largest, the longest, the most ambitious and the most expensive photographic project ever attempted in photography.” (11)

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.

With all Grand artistic cultural statements, both positive and negative criticism ensues. Edward Curtis received both but the in hindsight large majority of contemporary critic is positive and admirable for the monumental undertaking he achieved.  As I have only just begun my project Beforethey it seems very difficult to make an direct immediate comparison with Curtis’s extraordinary ethnographic mapping. Let alone to judge me for my own peculiar standards on a result of an undertaking which is far from finished let alone to be applied to long term cultural preservation.

 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.

The book which was intended to be one of the most beautiful photographic books ever produced is only the first step on a long journey of cultural documentation and dialogue to the challenges we all face in an ever expanding modern world . With this initial visual statement of the Beforethey book , I hope to learn with active discussion how to broaden my knowledge and better communicate that many cultures are remarkable and that continuing with my well intended and executed visual recordings I can provide further invaluable documentation and continuing debate.

Kind Regards

Jimmy Nelson

 

 

13 comments
  1. Jared Zaugg said:

    The fact that there’s any controversy whatsoever over this is completely absurd. McLaughlin and others of his ilk are preying off Nelson’s work. They’re contriving controversy. Without it, they would have no soapbox, no fodder, and no attention.

    What Nelson has done is reveal an entire world to us. He has also made a priceless record for humankind. He captured and represented the best of the subjects’ cultures and it is positive, it is complimentary, it is educational, and it is beautiful. Now these indigenous people have hundreds of thousands of new advocates and appreciators of their cultures, their lands, their challenges and their existences thanks to Nelson.

    Before They Pass Away is priceless and, like pioneering work of the past, will be regarded as one of the seminal works and contributions to world culture.

    My advice to Nelson is to ignore the critics. Anyone who’s ever done anything of worth has been and will be criticized by the envious and lowly “unachievers”. Da Vinci and Teddy Roosevelt have great quotes on that very theme.

    Jimmy, you have NO need to defend your work anymore. It speaks for itself and you, sir, are to be applauded.

    Jared Zaugg
    San Francisco / Salt Lake City

  2. Re: Jared Zaugg – Thanks for your comments. It may be the case that some people are already familiar with this world. And it is not being “revealed” it is being cast. Some have already traveled to it, others (especially if they are Tibetian or Maori) live in it. Indeed, it is a beautiful record. But surely people have a right to comment on it – especially given the declarative statements that accompany the work. You must agree that commentary on projects is valid. Otherwise I would not see your post here.

  3. It’s a difficult issue, this matter of culture, and I can see why it is so easy for the whole thing to become inflammatory. Perhaps we should stop to consider this fact, first, and ask ourselves whether the debate about “culture” can actually take place at all, before we have settled some other matters. Why is it inflammatory? Perhaps the truth is that NO ONE PERSON can fully, and accurately, define the meaning of “culture”. It has personal connotations. We are each and every one of us INDIVIDUAL, and therefore INTERPRET MEANING in individual ways. Besides, culture is LIVED, thus we each have our own LIVED EXPERIENCE of culture.

    Thus it is, perhaps, that OTHER’S INTERPRETATIONS of the meaning of culture mean LITTLE TO US. They likely incense us, because they do not FIT with what WE have understood culture to mean. I ask… has ANYONE, EVER gone out and asked EACH INDIVIDUAL HUMAN what the word culture means to THEM? I doubt it! It would probably be physically impossible! But, without this collective perspective, we have no real sense of what culture is interpreted as, on a worldwide basis; nor, to be frank, on an individual basis. We have no way of accurately measuring the disparity between one person’s interpretation of culture, and another’s.

    It may be that another reason why culture is so hard to define, is that it is fluid – rapidly changing, rapidly evolving. When Archaeologists study ancient culture, such as that of Egypt, or Rome, it may well be that they make innumerable errors in their interpretations; this may be perfectly natural, and the predictable result of discovering that even ancient culture evolved, and changed. Humans appear to cope best with a degree of predictability, and I suspect that, sometimes, this hampers their ability to accept things that change. Applied to culture, this means that humans necessarily question any change, and demand to know whether said change is a sign of the “original culture” having died out.

    Far be it from me to know how to define culture; I can only hold to the belief that it means many things to many people. I would also add that interpretation of the word may also be influenced by an individual’s background, education/training and career/discipline. Thus, for example, the fashion journalist may well interpret culture in terms of dress sense and outward appearance (e.g. the back-combed hair, pale skin, black make-up, and “vampiric” appearance of “Goth culture”; or the ornate hairstyles, kimonos and face paint of Japanese Geishas). The archaeologist may be interested in culture from a different perspective altogether; looking at piecing together fragments of ancient culture. The sociologist may view culture in terms of how society is structured, in terms of class systems, or systems of power. The fervently religious will always include religion in their evaluation of culture; the political will look for the political… ergo, we ALL seek to explain things via media which WE UNDERSTAND… OUR OWN EXPERIENCES are of huge significance.

    So, in sum, if Mr. Nelson (proponent of the visual arts) wishes to present culture via a series of pictures that feature traditional dress (for example), who are we to argue? As he says, it is HIS way of drawing attention to the subject. There MAY be other ways – but THIS is HIS. Each of us may have our preferred method, and each may be perfectly correct. THAT is the thing… culture could arguably be so vast, so all-encompassing in its remit, as to allow for ALL of our interpretations.

    It is sad that the matter of “colonialism” had to be raised, at all. To photograph people in traditional dress is not, in itself, inherently “bad”. It does not immediately imply a patronizing, “noble savage” interpretation of a culture. The truth is that a dichotomy DOES EXIST… that the Western, capitalist world encroaches dangerously upon other cultures that it does not fully appreciate, or understand. It seeks to “Westernize” everything; a Mc.Donald’s here, a business suit there, skyscrapers, mobile telephones, cars, aeroplanes… “western” clothes, “western” food, “western” technology, “western” thinking. It “railroads” its way through other countries, and other cultures; rather than accepting them for what they are, it alters them to fit a more “western” model. We CANNOT argue that this DOES NOT happen. After all, we are witness to obesity in Japan; a country that has increasingly embraced “western” fast food. We are witness to the children of Hindus, Sikhs, Indians, Pakistanis… rejecting Saris, and Shalwar Kameez in favour of jeans, mini-skirts and trainers… becoming Punks… listening to rap, not ragas! We are witness to native American Indians on “Reservations”, and the forced adoption of Aboriginal children by “western” parents…

    So, perhaps Mr. Nelson is correct to argue that we must recognise and acknowledge certain cultures “before they die”? Whatever angle we view it from; whether we are critical of the “noble savage” aesthetic, or otherwise; whether we see culture as dress, food, language, customs… WHATEVER… we MUST accept that PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT. And we must EMBRACE THAT DIFFERENCE – WHATEVER IT LOOKS LIKE.

    • Re: Elain Ellis – thanks for taking the time to provide such a considered response. There are a number of issues at play which makes this topic complex, but also very interesting. Yes cultures are changing. That is the essence of a culture – it is always in flux. As you correctly point out western culture has impacted other cultures, jeans replace saris (and today in tribal areas of India saris replace other modes of indigenous dress). I am not saying that these cultures are not radically impacted by globalization. What I do find surprising, however, is the stance stated in the book that some undefined “we” needs to manage the cultures of others in order to ensure their continuity: “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.” I just find such rhetoric culturally naive (and not a little dangerous) in a book that is attempting to explore cultural identity. It is a very impressive project, and I have great admiration for it – which is why the marketing stance and text that accompany it disturbs me so much. I am happy to see, however, that on my last visit to the web site the text had been toned down somewhat.

  4. This was so interesting. Basically a debate on marketing over content. (You might feel I’m over simplifying it some but that is what really stuck out to me comparing your argument to Nelson’s rebuttal.)

    I do agree to a point that culture is disappearing in the wake of a common, modern way of life. That doesn’t mean every single element of culture is gone so much as a sort of homogenization of individual culture into a world culture. We see this effect in the creation of the Euro. History is retained but culture is fading.

    I find it fascinating that Nelson’s project is about the loss of visual culture. The minutiae of very specific, lesser known cultures that might very well disappear as the youth from these cultures find the global culture more practical.

    The comparison to Scotland is too broad as it really isn’t a niche culture. It also had Great Britain maintaining the basics of their culture through there laws of what was and wasn’t allowed in Scotland. In the modern world now with these laws abolished they have retained much of their history and celebrate their culture in festivals and such.

    The Navajo language is probably a better comparison to what Nelson means by cultural disappearance – at one point it did almost disappear until people started deliberately teaching it with the purpose of it being remembered.

    Props to you sir, on highlighting an interesting project and posing your view and then turning around and being willing to highlight the author’s view of your review. I think when we keep our views respectful if still passionate it creates an environment to explore topics and ideas in a really fascinating way. Cheers!!

  5. Dantares said:

    A paragraph from my Pacific studies in a globalising world discussion on Pacific archiving; More broadly on the issue of contemporary foreign archiving of Pacific Islanders and taboos, I feel it relevant yet infuriating to mention what I consider as the neocolonial arrogance of a certain self proclaimed archivist entrepreneur known as Jimmy Nelson. His project offensively and inaccurately titled ‘before they pass way’ may look great on the surface reflecting stunning images of Melanesian s (and many other peoples and areas around the world) staged with traditional regalia in their autochthonous environments (before they pass away 2011-2014). This beautiful imagery is primarily due to ‘the Islanders own’ amazing cultural heritage, ornaments and setting which is not properly credited by Nelson who seems to think his million dollar equipment and photographic professionalism is the reason ‘his’ images are so stunning. Looking a little deeper to his documentary series on the project one finds he was quite happy to ignore the peoples cultural and spiritual taboos in pursuit of the forged images he desired. In Vanuatu people were coerced (whether bribed with sik blong mani-money sickness) to climb one the worlds most active and dangerous volcanoes against the spiritual/cultural protocols of the whole region (with the potential to cause direct danger, conflict, instability and spiritual harm in the community). As frighted subjects wince from the volcanic rumbles and spewing lava, Nelson insists on the shot while considering whether he has crossed the ‘danger’ boundary (Nelson 2013). In another insistence he coerces peoples to climb a sacred rocky outcrop which is a forbidden taboo. When nobody arrives for the organised shot a young boy explains they only agreed out of politeness. Insistent on the shot he manages to bribe (presumably with money) a couple of locals to break the taboo and climb the rock which was physically and spiritually dangerous. Nelson ought to be ashamed although it is obvious he has no scruples.
    I do wonder…what do Pacific Islanders feel about the effect of this kind of archiving?
    References
    Before They Pass Away, 2011-2014, Photographic project by Jimmy Nelson ‘Before They Pass Away’ viewed 17th of March 2014 http://www.beforethey.com/
    Nelson , J 2013, ‘Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson-Vanuatu Update V2’, Published on You Tube 14th of November 2013, viewed 17th of March 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYcjGdFiJi4

  6. A paragraph from my Pacific studies in a globalising world discussion at ANU earlier in the year on Pacific archiving; More broadly on the issue of contemporary foreign archiving of Pacific Islanders and taboos, I feel it relevant yet infuriating to mention what I consider as the neocolonial arrogance of a certain self proclaimed archivist entrepreneur known as Jimmy Nelson. His project offensively and inaccurately titled ‘before they pass way’ may look great on the surface reflecting stunning images of Melanesian s (and many other peoples and areas around the world) staged with traditional regalia in their autochthonous environments (before they pass away 2011-2014). This beautiful imagery is primarily due to ‘the Islanders own’ amazing cultural heritage, ornaments and setting which is not properly credited by Nelson who seems to think his million dollar equipment and photographic professionalism is the reason ‘his’ images are so stunning. Looking a little deeper to his documentary series on the project one finds he was quite happy to ignore the peoples cultural and spiritual taboos in pursuit of the forged images he desired. In Vanuatu people were coerced (whether bribed with sik blong mani-money sickness) to climb one the worlds most active and dangerous volcanoes against the spiritual/cultural protocols of the whole region (with the potential to cause direct danger, conflict, instability and spiritual harm in the community). As frighted subjects wince from the volcanic rumbles and spewing lava, Nelson insists on the shot while considering whether he has crossed the ‘danger’ boundary (Nelson 2013). In another insistence he coerces peoples to climb a sacred rocky outcrop which is a forbidden taboo. When nobody arrives for the organised shot a young boy explains they only agreed out of politeness. Insistent on the shot he manages to bribe (presumably with money) a couple of locals to break the taboo and climb the rock which was physically and spiritually dangerous. Nelson ought to be ashamed although it is obvious he has no scruples.
    I do wonder…what do Pacific Islanders feel about the effect of this kind of archiving?

    Before They Pass Away, 2011-2014, Photographic project by Jimmy Nelson ‘Before They Pass Away’ viewed 17th of March 2014 http://www.beforethey.com/

    Nelson , J 2013, ‘Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson-Vanuatu Update V2’, Published on You Tube 14th of November 2013, viewed 17th of March 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYcjGdFiJi4

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: