A distorted lens

Before They Pass Away, a project of the Anglo-Dutch photographer Jimmy Nelson, provides a window on some of the indigenous peoples of the world. His photographs — reproduced in a coffee-table book and a lavish website — are beautiful. But like museum exhibits without labels, there’s a great risk that they may be misinterpreted.

Citing Edward Curtis as an influence, Nelson set out to document what he calls “the world’s most aesthetic peoples” — he aims to “put these people on a pedestal, make them icons.” But speaking at University College London yesterday to promote the book, he revealed a startling ignorance about the actual state of the people he photographed.


Not all of the world’s indigenous people are equally at risk.

Lumping all of the 17 groups in the project into the same category of endangerment is crass. The Mursi of Ethiopia, for example, face very different pressures from the Gauchos of Argentina.

The Gauchos, cowboys of the Argentine pampas, are largely farmers or city-dwellers who come together for “a weekend-long picnic” every four years. They’ve long since integrated in Argentine society — indeed they are emblems in the national mythology of the states of the region.

The Mursi, who continue to rely almost entirely on cattle herding and small-scale agriculture in the Omo Valley, are under threat from rapidly expanding commercial agriculture and from a government that views their culture with contempt. To present their demise, as Nelson’s website does, as the result of  “extreme drought” and “national parks”, does them no favours.


Their “passing away” isn’t always voluntary or peaceful.

Nelson seems convinced that these cultures are doomed, and that their unraveling will happen quickly and painlessly.  “The world of materialism is so attractive that they’ll choose to leave,” he said in his presentation at UCL. “Nobody’s going to die, but their culture will.”

There’s a smugness here about the allure of Western lifestyles. For many Mursi, however, exchanging their cattle and mud-hut for an office job and a city apartment doesn’t sound at all like a good deal. Modern life certainly has its attractions, but the people I’ve gotten to know in Ethiopia and the Congo desire certain parts of it (e.g., medicine and literacy), rather than the whole package.

Furthermore, the idea that nobody gets hurt in these transitions is dead wrong. This is a sanitized version of history — like an episode of the A-Team where there’s lots of action but nobody ever gets hurt.


Many of these groups are actively engaged in struggles to secure rights to their lands.

Both locally and internationally, many campaigns are being fought to defend the sovereignty of these people.* After his talk, I asked Nelson if he was engaging with any of them. He had been bombarded with requests, he said. But he didn’t seem to have pursued them.

There was one exception — the United Nations, he said, was interested in screening some of the images on Times Square in New York. For five minutes, perhaps, their strange and beautiful faces would replace the ads for Coke and McDonalds. And perhaps as quickly, be forgotten.


Beautiful portraits alone won’t help these people.

There are several precedents to what Nelson’s doing, and it’s unclear that they have helped the groups concerned. What did Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs of the Nuba of Sudan do for them? Or Angela Fisher’s photographs of the peoples of the Omo Valley?


Changing course?

Nelson has a chance to redeem himself, and to channel the attention that his project is receiving in positive ways. The next steps in the project, he says, will be to take the book back to the people he photographed. And to ask, “Did I represent them correctly?”

A sequel and a BBC TV series are in the works. Done sensitively, they could be an opportunity for learning on both sides.** Done in the style of the first installment, they’re likely only to mislead.


* Some of the many organizations that are advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples include the Forest People’s Programme, the Rights and Resources Initiative, Survival, and Friends of Lake Turkana.

** For a great example of how to do this right, see Cory Kratz’s book on the reception of images of the Okiek in Kenya and the USA: The Ones That are Wanted: Communication and the Politics of Representation in a Photographic Exhibition (California, 2002).


This entry was posted in anthropology, Ethiopia, indigenous people, justice, photography, politics, Westernization. Bookmark the permalink.

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