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Capturing the Vanishing Tribes of the World with Photographer Jimmy Nelson

This is one in a series of articles excerpted from the Winter 2014 issue of Resource Magazine. The issue can be purchased here.

Photographer Jimmy Nelson certainly has a well-decorated passport. The British native has made sixteen trips in the last three years, traveling to forty-four countries, all for his project Before They Pass Away — a series about the slow extinction of the most ancient and remote tribes in the world. Check out our interview with the photographer, who recently published the project as a book.

How did this project come about?

Nelson: For me, photography is a medium to connect and to answer questions for myself. With this work, there are three things I hope to achieve. First, I want to bring the world’s attention to the fact that these people are about to disappear. They won’t die, but their culture will. Secondly, we have to form a dialogue with them and ourselves as to how important these cultures are to keep society in balance. If we lose them, the world will become a homogeneous gray t-shirt: we will be very poor because we will lose a reference of where we come from. And then there’s another very personal goal — this unending search for a human connection, whereby no matter how we look or how little we understand one another, we can still connect as human beings.

The pictures are made in a very romantic, idealistic and iconic way because I want people to pay attention to them. If they were not, people wouldn’t notice them — there are two billion images being put online every day as it is, so the same subject matter has to be presented in a compelling way.

What goes into preparing for a journey?

The important aspect is money, because it costs a lot of money to do this. So I found an investor who helped me begin the project. Secondly, you have to be very fit and healthy. Thirdly, you have to be very clear on what and why you want to communicate — you have to have very grounded answers for yourself.

How did you find the tribes you photographed?

I’ve been researching tribes ever since I can remember. I also have local contacts in some countries who do research for me. I travel with one cameraman who films me the whole time. We arrive, we get a guide and a translator, and then we go to visit the tribes. They’re usually not particularly interested [at first]. It’s based on communicating — persuading them that they’re special and that I want to put them on a pedestal.

Why did you choose to shoot with a 4×5 camera, which is bulky and cumbersome, especially when traveling to remote areas?

It’s very deliberate. First, the end result when the photograph is enlarged is ten times more beautiful when it has grain as opposed to pixels. Secondly, using the camera is very difficult. It’s cumbersome, tiring, and awkward, and in that process I become vulnerable, stressed, and emotional. People see this and they take that very seriously; they give me much more of their time and much more of their attention. Lastly, you aren’t looking through a camera — you’re looking at them. You don’t have to get close with a digital camera; you can just put on a long lens. You become very lazy, so you stop communicating. By taking something that’s difficult and cumbersome, you’re forced to communicate in a different way.

How long does it generally take to photograph each tribe?

On average, the trips would last from a month to a month and a half. I would say two-thirds of the time is spent traveling, and one-third is spent being with the communities. It’s quite short for this kind of project.

How do you gain their trust?

By becoming humble and small, and by not being patronizing. I’m there for a very short period of time and to document an aesthetic. Everywhere I went, I was accepted and people were kind. People took me in. Because they don’t have material wealth, there’s no need to threaten me in any way — what I have they don’t need.

There are often debates about posed images versus candid shots and how the intrusion of a camera distorts reality. What’s your stance on staging your shots? Do you feel that it creates a false reality, or do you feel that you’re just trying to make a perfect image?

Every single picture one makes, whoever it is, is subjective. Even Sebastião Salgado makes a subjective picture. Many of his images are staged, because he’s influencing the proceedings; he’s influencing it by being there, he’s influencing it by his style, and he’s influencing it by taking the color out of the image.

I direct my subjects, and there’s a very specific reason for that. All of these tribes have been photographed before, but they’ve been filmed in a patronizing way as lesser people. I’ve inverted that: I’ve put them on a pedestal and made me small. I have given them the dignity that they deserve and that we give ourselves on a daily basis. The covers of our magazines show somebody very beautiful, beautifully lit and beautifully photographed, someone put on a pedestal.

Staged photography is what we do ninety-nine times out of one hundred with ourselves. The non-staged photography is a gossip magazine, with the same model on a beach with cellulite, cigarettes, a beer, a newborn baby, and a screaming boyfriend. We don’t want to see that (except when we want to laugh); what we want is the staged imagery, the beauty. We as human beings associate with beauty. I wanted to make these people look beautiful, but in a natural way. None of the images are Photoshopped. All of the images are natural — the setting is their environment, the clothing is what they wear on a daily basis — but I’ve just directed them in the most beautiful way possible.

You show the people in their traditional outfits. How prevalent are these traditions? Are most tribes you visit still living traditionally or is “civilization” changing their way of life?

Civilization is always changing — it’s been changing since time began and it will carry on changing. The people I met are the very last people at the end of the chain. Nine out of ten of their communities have already put on a grey t-shirt and gone to the city. This is the very end of each culture, the very end of each group. I would bet, in a period of ten years, none of them exist like this anymore. We need to start the discussion and start doing something about it.

So what’s the next step?

This is only the beginning of the project. Right now, I’m promoting it — I have to get a name and an association behind me — then I’ll return to all the tribes, as I want to give the book to them as a present and discuss with them why I made it, what I took from them, how I see them, and how they may see themselves. I want to start that dialogue and maybe travel back with people with academic qualifications who can analyze and judge the situation. Last, I want to photograph another thirty-five tribes, so they’ll be seventy in total.

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