Putting aside a successful career, British photographer Jimmy Nelson embarked on a treacherous, lengthy journey to document the last remaining indigenous people of the world. From the thick, wet Amazon rain forests of Ecuador to the frigid tundras of Siberia, Nelson sought out and spent significant time with each native culture, grasping a genuine understanding of their lives and traditions. Shot with a 50-year-old plate film camera, Before They Pass Away is a poignant chronicle of heritage and humanity that threatens to be lost forever. His energy an absolute contagious source of inspiration, we recently spoke with Nelson about his life and work.
“If we could start a global movement that documents and shares images, thoughts and stories about tribal life both old and new, perhaps we could save part of our world’s precious cultural heritage from vanishing. We must work to let them coexist in these modern times by supporting their cause, respecting their habitats, recording their pride, and helping them to pass on their traditions to generations to come.
“I want to show these tribes that they are already rich, that they have something that money can’t buy. I would like to demonstrate to them that the Western modern society is not as pure and inspiring as their own culture and values and therefore it is not something to necessarily aspire to.
“Even though I am aware that my photographic document will not be able to prevent the eventual disappearance of the tribes, I strongly hope that it adds to the realization that by respecting their natural habitat and way of life, we are able to stretch it as long as possible. I strive to create a visual document that reminds us, and the generations after us, of the beauty of pure and honest living.”
“There is one particular story of a tough moment for me as a photographer. There is a photo of three native Kazakh men from Mongolia with eagles on their shoulders on a mountain. That picture took three days to make, because each morning there wasn’t enough light. On the fourth morning, it was about minus 20 degrees on top of the mountain and the light was beautiful. I took off my gloves to take the photo and they literally froze to the camera.
“I began crying and when I turned my head I saw that two women had followed us to the top of the mountain. One of them took my fingers and cradled them in her jacket until I got the feeling back and was able to take a couple of photographs. What I didn’t know was that these women are actually strict Sunni Muslims, and broke all codes of modesty in order to aid me. They had noticed my desperation and did what they could to help me achieve what I was there for.”
As a person who rides 4-8 miles a day (in medium-traffic areas), this is particularly enlightening. We have very few bike lanes in our city; I’m constantly surprised by how few drivers actually look up before moving their vehicle to block the sidewalk or crosswalk.
The biggest priority is teaching my son to be on the defensive at all times. Because, like, we don’t want to get creamed by clueless drivers. And stuff.