London, United Kingdom – British photographer Jimmy Nelson travelled for three years from 2009 to fulfil his objective of photographing 35 of the world’s most secluded and visually unique tribes.
Nelson’s images show, for example, men from the Huli community of Papua New Guinea with faces painted bright yellow and feathered headdresses, and Yali members in Papua and Indonesia, a horizontal half of whose bodies are daubed in grey mud with only a penis gourd, bones, and pig or dog teeth for attire.
Yet, Nelson says of interacting with the tribes, “Nothing surprised me.”
Everyone agrees the photos are majestic. At a gallery in London, a passerby noticed Nelson’s almost two-metre tall picture of three august Kazakhs in Mongolia each holding a golden eagle and sitting on horses on a mountaintop above a valley. The passerby stopped and said, “That is absolutely brilliant. Wow.”
Nelson told Al Jazeera he has been intermingling with such communities for all of his 46 years. His father worked for an oil company and he “grew up in the bush, so to speak”, returning to the UK to attend boarding school. His photos are now part of a museum and commercial exhibition tour in Western Europe and the United States. He says he has taken an ethnographic record of the purity of humanity as it faces extinction.
But some indigenous community members are aggravated by his approach, and particularly the title of his work: “Before They Pass Away“. Some have complained the photos misrepresent the lives of many indigenous groups.
Nixiwaka Yawanawá, from the Yawanawá tribe in western Brazil, held a protest outside the London exhibition in September. Yawanawá works with the tribal rights organisation Survival International.
“We are not actually passing away, we are struggling to survive,” Yawanawá said.
New Zealand’s Maori community has also expressed its shock at being included in the exhibit and considered close to extinction.
While Nelson says he has photographed the tribe’s past and present, others say he’s neglected the fact that he’s showing its future, too. And the question has been raised as to whether Nelson’s works have best promoted understanding between indigenous groups and the Western world.
But Nelson defends his project. “The title is very, very deliberate and it is meant to get people’s attention. Something is passing away.”
Some indigenous people agree. Michael Tiampati is a member of a Maasai community in southwestern Kenya and a manager for a network of pastoral organisations. He says an outsider’s exhibition, including photos of the Maasai wearing piercing red sheets and colossal brown headgear, will help.
“It shows the world the reality confronting these communities – the threats to the culture, ways of life and livelihoods,” he says.
Nelson spent months to achieve some shots, finding the tribes and gaining their trust. It took two weeks to earn the Kazaks’ confidence in order to take their photos.
He painstakingly arranged compositions, along vast landscapes in bitter conditions. Oftentimes, this meant successive shooting days to capture the best ambient light – the only light used. Nelson, who worked in commercial photography for years, wanted his subjects to present themselves at their proudest, and produce photos glorious enough for a fashion magazine.
He admits this meant at times changing what they would traditionally wear – using leaves, for instance, to cover the naked women of the Ecuadorian Waorani tribe, or an uncustomary setting such as the Goroka group in Papua New Guinea posed high among treetops.
Yawanawá argues rather than promoting indigenous cultures, this misconstrues their identities. “He is faking, they are fake pictures,” he says. Yawanawá argues Nelson’s photos conflict with his work to develop public understanding of indigenous people’s plight.
Nelson launched a book of the photos last year and it’s been widely covered in the media. Only since Yawanawá’s protest has criticism flared, however. Nelson opened the exhibition in Brussels this month, and it is travelling further.
Ironically, Nelson has his own image problem. Yawanawá told Al Jazeera the photographer is working for himself only, otherwise he would convey the communities’ struggle, particularly against government and businesses’ theft of their lands. Nelson selling limited edition books at $8,000 each and prints for $58,000 does not help this portrayal.
The photographer says the large financial investment needed for the project means it can only exist by recouping the money commercially.
He has in the past also thanked his billionaire investor Marcel Boerkhoorn. He adds the sales attract an audience that’s tired of being confronted by charities’ messages.
Nelson says Survival International is trying to enforce “in a patronising, despondent, wanton way” how tribal people are perceived in order that its work continues.
“It’s about money,” says Nelson.
Orla Bakdal, executive director of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, says while the beautiful photographs stimulate curiosity, he is unable to use them for his work, particularly for documentation. Bakdal says the images fail to show the complexity of the tribes’ lives and the often-severe conditions the world’s 370 million indigenous people live in.
“I think we have to approach this serious issue from different angles. It is not fair to those 370 million people that they are just being exhibited like a tourist attraction and object for a photographer,” Bakdal says.
A more multi-faceted view – even if by adding written explanations – would provide a fairer representation and best promote understanding with the Western world, she says.
Tiampati, from Kenya’s Maasai tribe, says he would also have liked to seen an approach inclusive of more tribal members. “It should have been made through a consultative process so the voice, vision, or ideas of the communities would have been incorporated.”
Nelson’s exhibition will go to New York in February. He says he’ll then visit 35 more tribes over the next three years, producing a film and more photo shows.
But right now, he told Al Jazeera, he plans to return to the initial tribes he shot to present his book and, “Try to get more objectivity. Was I right – was I wrong?”