Review: Jimmy Nelson’s “Before they Pass Away”

Jimmy Nelson’s “Before They Pass Away” received a lot of column inches when it opened at Atlas Gallery last month. A few weeks later our writer and resident exhibition wanderer, Dimitra Kountiou visited to see what the fuss was about and to see, now the dust has settled, if her initial opinions might have dulled a little.

The gallery and the artist were both contacted for this review, but neither commented.

Strolling in the streets of Marylebone, a huge photograph in the window of Atlas Gallery captures my attention. It is a stunning portrait of a Native American, in traditional dress and in full bright color. Looking through the window I can take a glimpse of more fascinating group portraits and I am guaranteed an escape into a faraway land. I enter… The huge photographs create a feeling of splendor with their rich colours and unfamiliar sceneries. The work, a worldwide trip visiting indigenous tribes around the globe, is by photographer Jimmy Nelson.

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Curious in finding out more, I begin to flick through the pages of the gigantic book, which is in the middle of the room. Within the pages, there is a chapter dedicated to every culture Nelson photographed, with information on beliefs, traditions and customs. Nelson chose to portray cultures that are about to “pass away” (more on that later). They are photographed in the style of a high end fashion shoot. Nelson explained his photographic approach as an attempt to put the subjects on a pedestal, to glorify them.

The portraits are of course heavily staged managed, posed, dressed up and taken in carefully selected locations. Nelson was taking his subjects to locations of his choice and made them wear outfits that would present them in a familiar way, familiar to us from 100 years of movies, with echoes to the pre-war ‘noble savage’. There is very little information on the cultures and beliefs, only a few lines, very little for such culturally wealthy societies. Nelson appears to disregard the cultural wealth and the contribution of these to our society. But how did he choose his settings and why? He skews reality by creating a fabricated presentation that meets the expectations of the western audience, whether consciously or not.

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There are certainly questions about consent. Nelson claims that he photographed people who don’t know what a camera is, thus they are unable to understand his motives, what he is doing and the material and intellectual benefits for him. If that is the case (and it seems somewhat patronising to assume so), it’s difficult to believe no-one was misled at some stage.

I am also uncertain if I agree with a collective representation of these cultures. Each of them faces different threats and problems. None of them are “passing away”, some flourish and at very least others are fighting to keep their cultures alive. It feels like they are all packed under the same label of the “other”. Given the amount of tribes covered in such a short period of time in addition to the way he portrays them, I wonder whether Nelson himself spent enough time with these people to understand them well enough.

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I was surprised to find no mention of the actual factors that caused the decline of the populations of remote tribes, often the result of the colonisation and genocide, violence, war and disease. Nor is there a mention to the social injustice that the subjects suffer even today. Nelson seems forgetful of the causes of the disastrous decline in their population and he appears indifferent to the actual problems that these cultures face. Just like souvenirs from a grand holiday, Nelson creates a cute shallow representation, questioning none of the social issues or delving any deeper into the cultures he has photographed.

I cannot but notice the title: “Before they pass away” and I wonder if this is really the case, are these cultures dying that soon? The world has changed and there is a tendency of movement towards the big cities, a gradual eclipse of customs and traditions, but “passing away” implies a passive decline into extinction. All cultures have been affected by this tendency and certainly tribal cultures and nomads are affected by this move as well. Since the opening of the exhibition and release of Nelson’s book, tribal leaders have protested at their depiction, that they are not simply “passing away”, that some are flourishing, some fighting and all are proud.

Most of all, I wonder, what is the purpose of this project? What does Nelson want to achieve? What am I supposed to take away with me as I am leaving the exhibition? The role of the photographer is to create communication and understanding, to open a dialogue. The work fails to be a documentary as it is fictitious. For the same reasons, it fails to be an archive. It neglects to raise awareness of any issues that these cultures may be facing. It fails to explain, to educate and to inform. It fails to bridge any gaps in communication. This work does no favour to its subjects. It simply enhances their already stereotypical image increasing the dichotomy between the tribes and the western world. This work echoes the Victorian imperialism, the idea of the “noble savage” that did so much damage to these cultures in the first place. I wonder what is Nelson’s drive for this project. His ethics are bought into question, does he have the right to use these cultures in such a way?

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This work not only offends the tribes who were used by the photographer, but also the intellect of the western viewer. Nelson, making use of the lack of knowledge and understanding of these civilisations, does everything he can to portray these people in a way of his choice, causing clashes and misunderstanding.

I left the gallery feeling confused about what am I supposed to look at? Given the publicity and prices, I wonder mostly about the ethics in photography and where we are heading. It’s worth noting the subjects were not paid to pose, although the prints and book have a considerable price tag. As for the work, if you like to look at fascinating photographs and to have a small escape into exotic locations, then you should look at this work. If you are interested in a documentary on indigenous cultures, then you might want to reconsider your visit.

You can read more on the journey on http://www.beforethey.com/journey

Bio:

Jimmy Nelson is a British photographer, currently based in the Netherlands. He produced commercial work and initiated a collection of photographs of remote tribes. This award winning work gradually developed to the “Before They Pass Away”.

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