Jimmy Nelson’s photographs from his series ‘Before They Pass Away’ are beautiful pictures documenting the last indigenous tribes on earth, those communities who still hold on to their distinctive lifestyles, art and traditions. Here’s how he puts it on his website:
The purity of humanity exists. It is there in the mountains, the ice fields, the jungle, along the rivers and in the valleys. Jimmy Nelson found the last tribesmen and observed them. He smiled and drank their mysterious brews before taking out his camera. He shared what real people share: vibrations, invisible but palpable. He adjusted his antenna to the same frequency as theirs. As trust grew, a shared understanding of the mission developed: the world must never forget the way things were.
There is a pure beauty in their goals and family ties, their belief in gods and nature, and their will to do the right thing in order to be taken care of when their time comes. Whether in Papua New Guinea or in Kazakhstan, in Ethiopia or in Siberia, tribes are the last resorts of natural authenticity.
Nelson travelled to over 44 countries – with his 4 x 5 plate field camera – his travels taking him from the rain forests of Papua New Guinea to Northern Mongolia and the Namibian desert to the wastelands of Siberia. It was a journey in which he always looked to capture people in tune with their environment, people that will inevitably by forced to step into line with the force of globalization and free market ideology. Most interestingly for me is that he went to Vanuatu, a place I lived for the first 10 years of my life.
Vanuatu is an archipelago in the South Pacific, each island having its own peculiarities, distinctiveness and rich cultural tradition. And so it was that I decided to show you the Vanuatu section of his travelogue. In these pictures Nelson travelled from the North to the South of the island nation exploring the various rituals, religions, dances and traditions, always looking to learn more about the history and stories behind everything he experienced.
I admit the pictures leave me nostalgic. I left the islands when I was 10 years old but went back when I was 18 to have another look around; see my old school, the house where I lived, the beaches we used to play on and so on. That was over 25 years ago. These days I reminisce, my memories but a dream. A dream I lived.
However let not my romanticism blur the reality. Vanuatu maybe a last bastion for an ancient way of life but it is also a honeymoon paradise for Australians and Kiwis. It’s capital Port Vila is tech savvy, its beaches crowded with surfers and wealthy holiday makers, its harbour filled with cruise liners. That is the other side of the coin. The encroachment, the virus that is capitalism. Here’s what Nelson has to say about his work:
In 2009, I planned to become a guest of 31 secluded and visually unique tribes. I wanted to witness their time-honoured traditions, join in their rituals and discover how the rest of the world is threatening to change their way of life forever. Most importantly, I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.
Elegant and evocative portraits created with a 4 x 5 camera. The detail that is attained by using such large negatives would provide an extraordinary view into the emotional and spiritual lives of the last indigenous peoples of the world. At the same time, it would glorify their varying and unique cultural creativity with their painted faces, scarified bodies, jewellery, extravagant hairstyles and ritual language.
All the photographs in these wonderful series are worth studying. They are a reminder to us all that it is diversity that gives us our humanity rather than our homogeneity.