Before They Pass Away: stunning photos of vanishing tribes

Dele, Lale, Korcho Village, Omo Valley, Ethiopia 2011
Dele, Lale, Korcho Village, Omo Valley, Ethiopia 2011

In the milestone project ‘Before They Pass Away’ experienced photographer Jimmy Nelson captures the life and traditions of the surviving peoples who have managed to maintain their traditional ways and habits in our increasingly globalizing world. Epic and colourful portraits by the British photographer present these worthy heirs of noble and ancient traditions in a proud spirit and in all their glory. A unique visual experience.

It is not only a pleasure to look at, but also an important piece of historical record in case we humans ever fall into an idiocracy. The coffee table copies are visually stunning, unashamedly glamorous and appearing in world famous glossy magazines and leading galleries.


Noel Pearse & Dominique Pere, Huka-Falls, North-Island, New-Zealand 2011

For this project Jimmy Nelson visited 35 unique peoples in 44 different countries in two and a half years. Peoples like for example the Rabari (India), the Mursi (Ethiopia) and the Himba (Namibia) have not gone unnoticed by the photographer with a mission. Over the past 45 years, Nelson has travelled the world as a photographer and has seen many things, including the fact that over the years, and especially in the last few years everything has changed rapidly with the increasing development of digitalization and connectivity between people. A good example are the several Native American peoples in the US who are almost completely urbanized and only revert to their traditional cultures on special occasions with old symbolic ways, clothing and habits. Nelson saw this as a worrying development and in his opinion wanted to creatively capture and display all peoples who are threatened by extinction. A noble cause at first sight, but not everyone is pleased with this project and the outcome.

Nyerere, Loingu, Lewangum & Lepokodou, Kaisut Desert, Kenya 2010

Nyerere, Loingu, Lewangum & Lepokodou, Kaisut Desert, Kenya 2010

Flipside of the coin

Despite the fact that this project is hailed by many as a masterpiece and is already being regarded as a historical document, there are also many voices of criticism. In particular from the peoples involved themselves. The most common criticism is that they do not agree with the statement that the survival of these peoples is considered endangered, and that this statement puts them in a bad spot. Survival International, a worldwide organization that defends indigenous peoples, even goes so far as to say this project is false, hurtful and offending. SI says the photos are just high fashion and do not reflect the reality. Survival International also finds it outrageous that the people concerned were not paid in any form and were still used as a model for this, in their eyes, narcissistic project. Nelson responded by stating: “The only negative response comes from Survival International. I think they have a hidden agenda, but I will say no more about this. It’s too bad. We both try to achieve the same thing. “

Yakim, Brigade 2, Nenet, Yamal Peninsula, Ural Mountains, Russia, 2011

Yakim, Brigade 2, Nenet, Yamal Peninsula, Ural Mountains, Russia, 2011

That statement, however, turns out to be wrong, because there was also criticism from amongst the peoples themselves. Many indigenous peoples protested against the content of the book. Nixiwaka Yawanawa for example, from Acre State in Brazil, has a clear opinion about the book: “As an indigenous person I feel offended by Jimmy Nelson’s work ’Before They Pass Away’. It’s outrageous! We are not passing away but struggling to survive. Industrialized society is trying to destroy us in the name of ‘progress’, but we will keep defending our lands and contributing to the protection of the planet.”

Before They Pass Away, Jimmy Nelson, teNeues, nov 2013, ISBN 978-3-8327-9759-1, 424 p., price € 99,99.

All photos © Jimmy Nelson


This post is also available in: Dutch

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