Biography Jimmy Nelson
Jimmy Nelson (Sevenoaks, Kent, 1967) started working as a photographer in 1987. Having spent 10 years at a Jesuit boarding school in the North of England, he set off on his own to traverse the length of Tibet on foot. The journey lasted a year and upon his return his unique visual diary, featuring revealing images of a previously inaccessible Tibet, was published to wide international acclaim.
Soon after, he was commissioned to cover a variety of culturally newsworthy themes, ranging from the Russian involvement in Afghanistan and the ongoing strife between India and Pakistan in Kashmir to the beginning of the war in former Yugoslavia.
In early 1994 he and his Dutch wife produced Literary Portraits of China, a 30 month project that brought them to all the hidden corners of the newly opening People’s Republic. Upon its completion the images were exhibited in the People’s Palace on Tiananmen Square, Beijing, and then followed by a worldwide tour.
From 1997 onwards Jimmy began to successfully undertake commercial advertising assignments for many of the world’s leading brands. At the same time he started accumulating images of remote and unique cultures photographed with a traditional 50-year-old plate camera. Many awards followed.
When he started to successfully and internationally exhibit and sell these images, this created the subsequent momentum and enthusiasm for the initiation of Before they Pass Away.
Video © Jimmy Nelson Pictures BV, www.jimmynelson.com, www.facebook.com/jimmy.nelson.official
Jimmy’s dream has always been to create awareness about our world’s indigenous cultures through his photography. He has wanted to create a visual document that shows us and future generations the beauty of how they live. Like Edward Sheriff Curtis, the famous American ethnologist and photographer, who documented the North American Indians at the beginning of last century, he wanted to create carefully orchestrated portraits of these amazing peoples, at their absolute proudest.
Since 2010, Jimmy Nelson has been travelling around the world to document some of the most iconic indigenous cultures on the planet. On his journeys, he is continuously witnessing the speed with which the amazing communities are embracing the future. He has come to realize, after a life spent travelling, that his camera is the perfect tool for making contact and building intimate and unique connections.
Jimmy Nelson is not an anthropologist or a man of science. He does not claim to have the knowledge to address the questions we have about indigenous and other traditional cultures. He is a photographer and a storyteller. What started as a naive engagement with the peoples he met during work assignments, has over a period of three decades turned into a personal project. The book ‘Before they pass away’ is an homage to the cultures he will probably never fully understand, but who will never stop luring him to explore.
His experiences on these journeys have made a lasting impression on him. There is a great humility in how he has seen wealth defined by the cultures he has met. Where Jimmy is from, they are learnt to strive for material possessions. He feels that centuries of that conception have brought the world to the brink of ecological and political disaster. Many of the peoples he has visited have a different conception of value, with lives so symbiotically and sustainably connected to their surroundings, virtually merging the two together. They provide ongoing lessons for us all.
Before They Pass Away is not meant to convey a documentary truth. The portraits in the book are Jimmy’s own artistic and creative interpretation of the people he has met. He has focused on the beauty that struck him as an outsider. He wanted to create icons. Beautiful and positive images of strong and proud people. This approach is unquestionably romantic. He hopes his esteem and admiration for the people photographed are reflected by the result.
The name chosen for this project has roused attention. ‘Before they pass away’ may give the impression that he pessimistically saw the sealed fate of those peoples he had come to meet. And maybe this is how he initially felt. But since he first published the book in 2013, his sustained and amazing interaction with the most diverse range of peoples have made him backtrack on this view. Where there are challenges, there are solutions. he has come to appreciate the pride, strength, vigour, honour and resilience of the people he asked to pose for his lense. This provides him with an unending inspiration to continue his work.
In this light, ‘before’ attains a meaning that is diametrically opposed to the fatalistic reading of doom. ‘Before’ signals a moment of opportunity, a call for action and an appeal. To decide with confidence that we value what we have and will take our support into the future.
Margaret Mead, a great social anthropologist, once said: “Having been born into a polychromatic world of cultural diversity, it is my fear that our grandchildren will awake into a monochromatic world not ever having known anything else”.
“In February we visited the reindeer-herding Tsaatan peoples in the Hovsgol Province in Northern Mongolia. We had been travelling for a number of days, every day breaking camp and moving onto the next location through the thick snow and extreme low temperatures. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to get the Tsaatan families to warm to me and eventually let me direct them into making the time consuming pictures that I had come for. One evening, I finally succumbed to their daily request to essentially get blind drunk on the local vodka —the cultural norm in the northern climes to escape the daily drudgery, dark and biting cold.
After a number of hours I and twenty other adult family members fell into a self-inflicted coma onto the fur-covered floor of the newly erected teepee amongst children of varying ages. After a few hours of sleep I needed to empty my bladder.
I rolled laterally over all the bodies to the side where I wedged my body up against the skin of the teepee. It was too late. But hey, who was to know? The varying layers of outdoor clothing would soon freeze. The underside of the teepee was already frozen. The drunken reindeer herdsmen were all still snoring.
Not long after having rolled to my designated spot in the Mongolian sardine tin I soon became aware of a strange sound outside the tent. A chorus of excited grunts eventually ended up in a herd of excited reindeer trampling over the whole teepee. Little did I know that that for reindeer, human urine is a delicacy. They will actively seek it out to drink and many tribesmen carry skin containers of their own urine, which they use to attract stray reindeer back into the herd.
To my delight I found the next day that I was welcomed with open arms into the group by both young and old. And all requests to pose in front of my old cumbersome camera were granted. As it seemed that having accidentally shown my fallibility, in their eyes I was human after all. This experience was at the very beginning of the project and I subsequently soon learned that the more vulnerable I presented myself to sitters, the sooner I would could gain access to their patience and trust.”
– Jimmy Nelson –
About Jimmy Nelson
Jimmy Nelson (UK, 1967) started working as a photographer in 1987. Having spent 10 years at a Jesuit boarding school in the North of England, he set off on his own to traverse the length of Tibet on foot (1985). The journey lasted a year and upon his return his unique visual diary, featuring revealing images of a previously inaccessible Tibet, was published to wide international acclaim.
Soon after (1987) he was commissioned to cover a variety of culturally newsworthy themes for many of the world leading publications ranging from the Russian involvement in Afghanistan and the ongoing strife between India and Pakistan in Kashmir to the beginning of the war in former Yugoslavia. In early 1994 he and his Dutch wife Ashkaine Hora Adema produced “Literary Portraits of China”. A coffee table book about all indigenous cultures in China and their translated literature. The book was the result of a forty-month project that took them to all the hidden corners of the newly opening People’s Republic. Upon its completion, the images were exhibited in the People’s Palace on Tiananmen Square, Beijing, and then followed by a successful worldwide tour.
From 1997 onwards, Jimmy successfully undertook commercial advertising assignments for many of the world’s leading brands. At the same time he started accumulating images of remote and unique cultures photographed with a traditional 50-year-old plate camera and awards followed.
In 2010 he began his journey to create the iconic artistic document that became “Before They pass Away”. After visiting 35 chosen Indigenous communities, part 1 was published to International acclaim at the beginning of 2014. Jimmy received many awards.
Today Jimmy is still travelling and photographing to produce part 2 of the project. His communication and his passion are found on a far wider platform. He is exhibiting at International Museums, shows his work at the world’s leading Photographic Art galleries, speaking at international conferences and is at the moment setting up the Jimmy Nelson Foundation.
Photos © Jimmy Nelson Pictures BV, www.jimmynelson.com, www.facebook.com/jimmy.nelson.official