PHOTOGRAPHER AND PURE CONFERENCE SPEAKER JIMMY NELSON ON FOLLOWING HIS INTUITION TO FIND A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON THE WORLD’S LAST INDIGENOUS CULTURES – AND HIMSELF
INTERVIEW BY OLIVIA SQUIRE
“For me, a rich life is like a chessboard where you’ve got hundreds of different pieces and characters, but everything is in balance.” When it comes to playing this complicated game, Nelson appears to be something of a mastermind. Having lived in 30 different countries before the age of 17 and spending the 30 years since travelling across continents as an acclaimed photographer, searching for equilibrium is something he has been doing in one way or another his whole life.
Speaking to me from his family home in Amsterdam, Jimmy agrees: “I have essentially been travelling full-time for the last 47 years. It is a continual evolution and very much who I am, whether I like it or not”. This process of self-discovery began at the age of 16, when he developed a condition that caused all his hair to fall out. To escape the superficial judgements of those around him, he disappeared to walk the length of Tibet for a year, dressed as a monk. “That was a wild experience because I came across a lot of other people, young monks, who essentially looked like me,” he says. “They saw me for who I was, not what I looked like. That was a very profound experience that very much formed me: who I am today, and the decisions I’ve made.”
The translation of photography from a lifelong passion into a profession was undoubtedly driven by this early experience of travel as a means of self-evaluation, resolution and growth. As Nelson puts it, “it was very much a means to an end. I was desperate to be free, make my own decisions, dictate my own timetable”. Nonetheless, this self-professed “young idealist” was forced to evolve into commercial photography to sustain a career, putting aside the kind of work that has made him famous (and in some corners, notorious) today. Five years ago however, the world of advertising began to change due to the advent of accessible digital photography and the opportunity to return to his original vision presented itself. The result is the ambitious Before They Pass Away, in which he captured the natural environments of 35 indigenous tribes in 44 countries around the world.
“It is a catalyst to look at the world’s last indigenous cultures; to put them on an iconographic pedestal aesthetically so that we look at them in a different way. Most of the places I visited I had been to as a child and have seen extreme changes. I think those changes are beneficial for us as modern people. We need to look at them, analyse them and discuss them.
“I wanted a kaleidoscope around the world. I wanted to make it geographically and aesthetically diverse. It is meant to be a palette of colour, of creative inspiration. Once these people are beautiful they will titillate our fancy. Then we will start asking questions.”
When I ask how much the desire to provoke debate informed the original intent behind the project, he is equivocal: “I knew where I wanted to go, whom I wanted to see, how I wanted to represent them. It was a gut instinct, a primeval urge to go and make these pictures. Why, what, where and when I wasn’t sure. It was just something I felt I had to do”. Perhaps anticipating my next question, he adds, “I am not an explorer. I am not an anthropologist. I am not a sociologist. I am a passionate lifelong traveller with a very aesthetic eye.”
This slightly defensive edge is understandable. Upon publication of Before They Pass Away, Nelson received harsh criticism from certain audiences who accused him of distorting and aestheticising the narrative of these tribes in a way that was at best misleading and at worst, harmful. However, in keeping with someone who has embraced the idea of constant self-renewal, he is philosophical about this period. “When somebody pokes a finger at you very hard, you become very self-reflective. You start asking, “What on earth is this about? Who the hell am I? What am I trying to say?”
“It’s a bit like being in a relationship. The only way you will keep it healthy is if you poke each other every now and again where it hurts. This is very much within the controversy that I have received: it has poked me in a place that has made me think and come up with answers to what I feel about what I am doing. The more controversy there is the more strongly I feel that what I am doing is right if one understands its origins.”
One such perspective-altering experience took place when Nelson was pursuing a childhood fantasy of meeting the last Eskimo, tracking the Chukchi tribe in northern Siberia. After four years of research and one and a half month’s travel, he arrived on the tundra and was told by the chief that he couldn’t take any pictures. “But they did say, ‘You are welcome to stay and be part of our community. You are going to have to work very hard because it is very cold. We will keep you alive and you will keep us alive.’
“I am often accused of only seeing things through a lens. It is sometimes nice to put those cameras away and actually experience them. That was probably one of the most profound journeys because for the next two weeks, living in these tents on the edge of an ice floe, you just became part of it. I observed many more things than I perhaps would have if I had been looking through a camera.
“In doing this project I have really learned to trust. There are many things that only happen if you give yourself to them. When you go into these environments you can’t control the timing, the safety, the schedule. You have to give yourself to it. I think that is probably the most exciting thing I have learned: letting go and trusting people to take me to places that are perhaps not what I wanted, but are even more profound than I could ever have expected.”
The combination of “letting go” with the unparalleled media attention that followed has propelled Nelson into the second stage of the project, in which he aims to document 35 new tribes in protected areas he would have previously been unable to visit. He also plans to return to the subjects of the original book to make a TV programme about their reactions. “Returning is very important and special because it is the completion of the circle. There is the returning of me. Returning of pictures that they see for the first time. Then even more importantly, the return of some of the material gains in a sort of foundation, whereby a percentage of the revenue can be reinvested in a responsible way.”
I wonder if he ever imagined that the project would evolve this way when he embarked on that long-held ambition five years ago? “I dreamed it could end up like this. I just take it one day at a time. I dream of where I will take it but I don’t take it for granted that it will end up going there. In the meantime we have got to keep happy, healthy, sane, solvent, not divorced. That whole big chessboard.”
Indeed, Nelson is keen to acknowledge that the balance between material and emotional wealth is what allows him to continue along the journey of self-discovery. “I don’t ever want to sound like a hypocrite, saying that these tribal cultures have a wealth that is more important than ours – they have a different kind of wealth, an extraordinary wealth we must know much more about, but has to be held very much in balance with the wealth we’ve created. That material wealth enables you to have access to that other kind of wealth. PUREists should acknowledge how extremely privileged they are to be in their position and cherish it for how valuable it truly is. They may be selling a bed or promoting a ship, but it is the deeper value of what they are doing that matters.”
From the young man walking Tibet to find acceptance, to the commercial photographer trying to make a living, to the artist driven by creative intuition to dare to speak his authentic voice through these pictures, I get the sense that his projects are about more than simply taking photographs. In many ways, each picture is like a piece on the chessboard and an excavation in the real project being assembled here: that of losing yourself through travel in order to find your place in the world.
When I ask him how much he thinks the real purpose of his travel is belonging, he responds, “It is complete belonging. I will never get where I am going. There isn’t a specific destination. It will be unending travel until the day I die. Despite having seen an enormous amount of the world I think there is a very simple expression, “The more you see the more you know you will never see”. It is very much addictive. It keeps me alive. It won’t ever change.
“I will never get to where I am going but that doesn’t really matter. The affluence, the richness is the process.”
Hear Jimmy Nelson speak live at the PURE Conference 2015 on Monday 9 November, brought to you by Tourism Australia.