Jimmy Nelson: Photography will save us

The author of the reportage ‘Before they pass away’, dedicated to endangered populations, retraces his journey to the most remote corners of the Earth to celebrate the most archaic cultures. Before they disappear and, with them, our roots.


To capture the cultures and the values of remote populations, so different from each other, before it’s too late. This is Jimmy Nelson’s precious job among the Dassanech in Ethiopia, the Tsaatan in Mongolia, the Huli of Papua New Guinea and the Huaorani of Ecuador. A job that is far from simple  – consisting of long journeys in the freezing temperatures of Siberia and sudden attacks by angry herds in the middle of the night – made possible only thanks to photography: « the first global language that everybody understands».

From Oscar Pomilio Forum’s stage (watch video) Jimmy Nelson shares the background stories of his most popular shots, the hard times trying to establish a relationship, to overcome the initial mistrust: «I was with the Tsaatan in Northern Mongolia. I found myself having to speak with a group of people for more than three weeks and not managing. One evening, we crammed ourselves inside a tent (we were 40 in all!): it was freezing cold and we had to drink a kind of homemade vodka to keep us warm. In the middle of the night, I pee in my pants and a few minutes later, the tent begins to tremble and collapses – there are 40 reindeer outside and they begin to chase me so they can lick me from head to toe. After a while I see the tribal chief approach, laughing: thanks to this disaster, that which I call “overturned authority”, we finally found a way to communicate. And finally I was able to explain to them that I wanted to celebrate them through photography».

Just like 150 years earlier, Edward Curtis had tried to be an ethnographer and photographer, travelling in the North West of America to document the lives of Native Americans: «He wrote 30 books to celebrate these cultures, books that were hidden in a basement upon his death: people thought they were useless, just as they thought he was useless and even Indians. And so their traditions disappeared. This photographic material was found in the late 70s and for the first time the Americans realised what they had lost».

To Nelson, this is what photography is about: a very powerful means to document, to narrate, to celebrate. But, above all, it is a “life-saving” tool: «What I’m trying to do, in a simple and contemporary way, is to travel across the planet and show, scream, share and help people understand that there are fantastic cultures that are rich, powerful and very important for the modern world. We must find a new balance in our communication and understand who we are, what we can learn from each other».

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