Before They

"Before They" image by Jimmy Nelson
image by Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson is a monster. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but he’s a monster of photography and art and culture. I mean that in a nice respectful way, I promise.

It’s almost cliche for white, well-to-do photographers to go to the third world to record disappearing culture. They come home and show more white people vanishing tribes and sell giant prints to cover their costs and future adventures. Who knows what becomes of these exploited groups? Do they sign model releases? Do they see a percentage of the sales? Would this even help? Or does it continue the subjugation of these cultures only to turn museums and galleries into human zoos?

Even though this is likely one of the most important jobs we have as image makers, I’ve seen so much of this imagery that I have grown accustomed to it. It’s almost like you get a free ticket to somewhere remote when you buy a D-3 or a 1-D. So, maybe I’m a little numb. You see a thousand photos of that distant, crimson clad,  8 year old monk with the honest eyes every year. They are almost always amazing. The alien nature of the culture provides a nice culture shock for Western photographers. Its like geography class within a frame. And church. There can be a lot of guilt built right in to these images. If things keep on going like they’re going, we all know the people in these photographs represent the last folks on the planet who don’t own a t-shirt or an iPhone 5.

Photographers have the ability to preserve and share. I don’t really care if the guys above look like this only when the camera comes out. The observer effect, not to be confused with the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, is a term used in physics to describe the breakdown of a system once an observer is introduced. It basically says that when you observe something, you change it. Is it worth exposing these folks to the outside world so that we can gawk or would we be better off leaving them all alone? Should the act of recording be viewed here as a violent one?

I don’t think so.

According to the website,, Jimmy took the time out to get to know each group, learning their rituals. “He adjusted his antenna to the same frequency as theirs,” says the site. Of course, most artists do not want to trample their subject.  Jimmy is quoted, “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.”

So can we look at these images and feel good? I certainly do. I see unfiltered, unfettered and raw, lovely humanity. I confess, has been parked in my browser for almost a week now. I can’t close the window. At over $8,000, on my meager artist’s wage, I can not afford the book. If I could, I’d buy it faster than you can say aboriginal culture. Reminiscent of the great Edward Curtis, this series stands out as a document of our time and planet. I get a sense of impermanence when I look at these photographs, a sense that we must pay close attention to what’s around us. Everything is vanishing. The quality and technical skill displayed here is phenomenal. To allow Nelson to pose and place them in perfect light, they must have trusted him. Trust is often the most important thing in portrait photography and you can’t buy that from B&H or Adorama.

I’ve been a fan of Joey L.’s work in Africa for quite a while now. I go back to them over and over again. The use of strobes is masterful. Jimmy Nelson’s work is comparable but stands alone. His use of composition, setting and natural light is phenomenal. I do not miss that strobe look. I can not imagine hiking trough the jungle up to my ass in bugs and sweat with a 4×5 camera only to try to pose your subject through a translator. The sheer shock value of some of the images carries a stark reality with it that isn’t present in Joey’s work. Reality slaps you right in the face when you see these images. Its a false dichotomy to compare the two bodies of work, they live in harmony, but with all due respect to Mr. Lawrence, I wonder what Nelson’s work would look like with Joey L. assisting.

I want this one on my wall about 20 feet wide. image by Jimmy Nelson
I want this one on my wall about 20 feet wide. image by Jimmy Nelson

Are these images pure documentary? No, not really, he’s obviously posed and placed these folks in pleasing settings and gorgeous light. Some might freak out and say that these aren’t authentic, but I see a relationship when I see these images. I know there’s a rich white dude behind the camera, but I don’t care. Its hard to think of anything else except the purity of living in concert with Earth when viewing these photos. Due diligence reveals Nelson’s due diligence. What remains when my conscience shuts the hell up, is an unbelievable body of work that I think everyone needs to see. Humanity is beautiful. In beautiful remote locations beyond the scope of your life are incredibly pure and skilled humans that live in concert with our planet, quietly, respectfully and successfully, with no phones, no internet and no jobs and yet more honest, simple and beautiful than you or I.

Please do yourself a favor and view these photographs. They stopped me in my tracks and have captured me for days. These are simply the best documentary photos I’ve seen in a very long time. Here, you can look into the soul of another person and surmise what their life is like. Here, you can be native, unmitigated by commerce and industry. Here, you can be a hunter or gatherer again like your ancestors. Already a classic work in my book, these photographs will serve as a record of human nature. Pull up a chair, get some coffee or snacks and look at these photographs with your heart and mind. You’ll be glad you did.

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