Nov 22 9:00 PM

Through the lens: The world's dying tribal cultures

“I was drunk, it was minus 30 degrees, blizzarding, I was covered in urine, and I was being licked by 40 reindeers.”

Jimmy Nelson was wired. His flight from Amsterdam, where he lives, had arrived in New York just a few hours before. And he launched into the story of how he convinced the Tsaatan tribe, Mongolia’s last surviving reindeer herders, to let him photograph them.  

There are only 44 families left in the Tsaatan tribe, and they live in the world’s most remote subarctic forest. Nelson traveled with them over the mountains, he said, spending every night in a tent. But he just wasn’t able to take a photo. “I couldn’t get that intimacy,” he told America Tonight.

Then, he got drunk off the vodka they offered him and peed himself in the middle of the night. Attracted to the salt in the urine, the tribe’s reindeers stampeded into his tent and proceeded to lick him from head to toe. The tribesmen erupted in laughter.

“The moral of the story was, by being stupid, by making a mistake, by coming down off our pedestal of authority and knowing, you make the link,” Nelson says straight-faced. "And the link was laughter.” 

Nelson has been crisscrossing the globe maniacally for nearly four years trying to make these kinds of links. He’s been to 45 different countries and photographed 35 different tribes, cultures that have persisted for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, in some of the most remote parts of the world.

“It all has to be very real and it all has to be raw,” he says. “Often, when you’re out of your comfort zone, when you’re away from what’s predictable, for me, I feel alive.”

The project, “Before they Pass Away,” has been 25 years in the making: 25 years of research, 25 years of building relationships and 25 years of dreaming of its possibility.

“I’m not the first person to be in these places… I haven’t discovered anything. Everybody’s been photographed or filmed earlier,” Nelson says. “I am the first to try and compile it with one visual signature, an iconic signature.”

This signature has been compiled into an impressive 400-plus page photo book published by teNeues Publishing Group in October. And it’s a project that Nelson hopes to continue. “If we don’t take these risks, if we don’t touch the void, if we don’t push our barriers, we’ll never go [anywhere],” he said.

The birth of a romantic

A boy and a girl from one of the tribes of the Omo Valley in southwest Ethiopia.
Jimmy Nelson

Nelson has been working as a photographer for nearly three decades, ever since he lost his hair at age 16. “I stumbled into the profession by default in a way,” he says. The trauma of his hair loss prompted him to take a trek through Tibet, looking for himself among Buddhist monks.

“I use the camera as a therapy,” he said. “I use the camera as a way to take me away from my… it was probably pain… and in essence, probably at the beginning, [a way] to hide behind it.”

Equipped with six rolls of Kodacolor Gold, Nelson captured vibrant images of Tibetan culture. That trip may have kick-started his career in photography, but his journey started much earlier than that.

Nelson’s family is English, but he grew up all over the world. His father worked for an international oil company, so Nelson became an experienced traveler by age seven. Relentlessly fascinated by the “extremes of the planet,” Nelson is an unabashed romantic. This sensibility comes through in his photographs: pristine landscapes accented by the rich culture of the people who inhabit them.

“Is it passion? Is it insanity? Is it eccentricity?” Nelson mused about his style. “I think it’s a combination. It’s a feeling of enormous privilege, most importantly.”

Nelson has traveled to dozens of countries and visited an extraordinary number of tribes, which most people have never even heard of: the Chukchi, the ancient Artic people of Russia, who live in -54 degree Celsius treeless tundra; the Drokpa, who live in the valley of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir; the Samburu of northern Kenya, where the men are warriors who proudly adorn themselves in what looks to Western eyes like women’s attire. 

Gaining access

Looking at Nelson’s photographs, it’s difficult to imagine how a British man could gain this kind of access.  “I never, ever take out the camera right away,” Nelson says firmly. “I didn’t know their language, but we connected as people.”

Because each tribe has its own particular dialect, there was only so far a local translator could go. The rest was up to Nelson. He says he used body language to convey ideas. By way of demonstration, he stretches his eyes wide, puts his hands on his face, makes an expression of awe and ‘ooos’ and ‘aahs.’

“It’s all about vanity and empathy,” Nelson says. “You literally go onto your knees and you beg them… You put them on a pedestal and you say until you can’t hear yourself anymore, ‘You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful. You’re important.' And eventually people feel that.” 

"It’s all about vanity and empathy. You literally go onto your knees and you beg them."

Jimmy Nelson


Three men from the Ni-Vanuatau of the Republic of Vanuatu, a chain of 83 islands in the south-west Pacific Ocean.

The cultures Nelson visited spanned continents, worshipped different gods and had histories and mythologies all their own. But Nelson says all of the communities had two things in common: a sense of balance between the physical and spiritual, and they placed a heavy importance on family. Nelson says he tries to incorporate these principles into his own life, which he shares with his Dutch wife and three teen children in Amsterdam.

Nelson doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what he is: a working photographer with a romantic, idealistic view of the planet. “I have no technical qualifications after my name. I’m not an anthropologist. I’m not sociologist. I’ve never written a book, but I have observed,” he says. “I have observed things, people and places that most of us will never observe, and I think I am allowed an element of a voice to communicate what I feel about that.”

When it comes to a Western explorer-type documenting native cultures in far-flung lands, any element of voice can be problematic. These kinds of projects have a long history, with foreign cultures typically represented as exotic and inferior – curiosities to amuse and bewilder more civilized eyes.

Not being patronizing

Four Huli Wigmen of Papua New Guinea.
Jimmy Nelson

When it comes to a Western explorer-type documenting native cultures in far-flung lands, any element of voice can be problematic. These kinds of projects have a long history, with foreign cultures typically represented as exotic and inferior – curiosities to amuse and bewilder more civilized eyes.

Nelson admits that his desire for these cultures to remain in their natural environments, untouched by development, is “controversial.” “You have to be very careful not to be patronizing,” he says. “But we must do something about it.”

And in terms of his work, Nelson is adamant that documenting these cultures is important. “Am I going to destroy them by having visited them myself? Well firstly, I think no. They’re going to develop anyway,” Nelson says. “They’re on a journey which is inevitable, so I think I’ve done something good. I’ve made a record of them.”

Nelson hopes his photographs will make people think about how valuable these cultures, our origins, he says, really are. “I think we should not all get on a plane and go off and find the last tribe in Chukotka. I’m not expecting that at all, but we should push ourselves to feel more as we live now. And we should be even far more aware of our environment.”


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