It's easy to forget, when you wake up every day as an inhabitant of a monoculture that spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about what, say, Miley Cyrus wore to an awards show in a far-flung part of the globe, that there are still cultures in which people have never eaten a Whopper, and where Facebook is an alien concept.
These cultures exist all over the world. They're in 44 countries on five continents. And photographer Jimmy Nelson has been documenting them since 2009, armed with a 4x5 camera—the huge, old-fashioned kind that comes with a hood and an accordion-style bellows, and that is capable of capturing images with extraordinary detail—in order to create a record of cultures that still exist today.
They may not exist forever, though, which lends both an urgency and a sadness to Nelson's work, which he's recently published in a new book called Before They Pass Away.
"I would call it an urgent celebration. The pictures are intense—they're meant to be dramatic. The title is very dramatic: Before They Pass Away!," Nelson says. "They won't die, but their culture will. I want the project to bring attention to how valuable these people are. We have to be aware that these people and these places exist, because if they disappear—if they disappear from the planet, in my opinion, which is very melodramatic, we’ll lose our cultural origins. We’ll lose where we came from, and it’s very, very important that we keep that."
Look at the photographs of the indigenous people from around the world—from the Maori tribes of New Zealand, which was changed dramatically by their initial encounters with the British in the 1800s, to the Chukchi tribes of Siberia, who returned to the tundra after relocating to cities, because they found city life unsatisfying—it's easy to recognize the project's ability to document a shared humanity. Nelson talks about that in ways that are a bit unconventional.
"If you go into a magazine news shop, the magazines have very beautiful young people on the covers. Beautifully photographed, beautifully photoshopped, beautifully lit. That’s who we aspire to be," he says. "I don’t really think those people deserve that admiration and attention. What I wanted to give to the people in the book, these lost tribes and cultures, is the same dignity and pride, because they do have something that’s very valuable, that goes far beyond what we have."
Cautious readers might read a note of "noble savage" envy in Nelson's phrasing, which is something that he's careful to explain. As a person who lives in Amsterdam, he says, he's just very aware of the lack of balance that can come with embracing a digital culture. The tribes he's met through this project have that very intuitively, though—at least for now.
"A lot of these tribes aren’t aware of the concept of happiness, but I found a more natural balance than I found in the developed world," he explains. "But they’re going to develop very quickly because of the digital age. They’re going to leave this and put on a grey T-shirt. And what I’m trying to do, whilst they develop—which they have the right to do, it’s not for us to put them in a glass box—is say, ‘Please, please, please, hold onto your authenticity. Because that authenticity is a wealth that we don’t have anymore. We’ve lost it.’"
The idea of a white photographer from Western Europe venturing around to small tribes on five different continents, brandishing a giant, old-fashioned camera, seems a little hard to imagine, but Nelson explains the approach—and the importance of the camera that he used. These aren't just cultures that are unfamiliar with Facebook—many of the cultures, Nelson says, had never even seen a camera before. How did the different people he met react to it?
"They reacted in a very positive way," he explains. "I never presented them with the camera in the beginning—you basically communicate with them, and leave the camera in the box. The majority of them were unaware of what the camera was, let alone what a picture is. But the significance of using the old-plate camera is extremely important, because it’s cumbersome, very difficult to use, and very unhandy in the harsh climates. It forces you to be vulnerable, very communicative, and they see that it’s a lot of stress. You’re dealing with very slow shutter speeds, only dealing with ambient light, and you have to spend hours, days, and weeks playing to their vanity. If you run in with a digital camera, first of all, it’s very aggressive, because the lenses are very long. Second, you don’t really give much attention to the subject matter, because it’s very easy to photograph them. By going back in time, you slow down the technical process, and you also reconnect with people."
Reconnecting with people is, ultimately, what the project is about. It's also something that Nelson hopes to do again—by revisiting the people he'd initially visited. While he hadn't fully explained to them the purpose of the original photographs, he's created a special version of the book that weighs over 60 pounds to distribute to the subjects. "I'll give that to them as a gift," he says—but he's got more to offer than just books. "Also, a percentage of the money I've made. Not literally, but I want to take back animals, to illustrate to them that they have a value and they have a worth."
The photographs Nelson took certainly make clear that there's more ways of living in the world that have value and worth than we commonly think of. Before some of those ways fade, it's important to have a good look at them. Nelson's project does an unprecedented job of accomplishing that.