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.
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 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.