The unyielding forces of globalization and urbanization continue to shape our planet and cultures, with permanent impacts. One of them is the disintegration of the world’s tribal cultures. In his stunning portrait series “Before They Pass Away,” British photographer Jimmy Nelson documents secluded, shrinking tribes around the globe—from the Mongolian Steppe hawk-wielding Kazakh nomads to Guachos on Tierra del Fuego. Though the series has been out for a while, it’s worth revisiting as much for the images’ stunning compositions as it is for their cultural relevancy. Nelson’s dedicated site gives context to the tribes as well, providing an in-depth look at the making of the series shot on large format film.
Before They Pass Away
“The purity of humanity exists. It is there in the mountains, the ice fields, the jungle, along the rivers and in the valleys. Jimmy Nelson found the last tribesmen and observed them. He smiled and drank their mysterious brews before taking out his camera. He shared what real people share: vibrations, invisible but palpable. He adjusted his antenna to the same frequency as theirs. As trust grew, a shared understanding of the mission developed: the world must never forget the way things were.
There is a pure beauty in their goals and family ties, their belief in gods and nature, and their will to do the right thing in order to be taken care of when their time comes. Whether in Papua New Guinea or in Kazakhstan, in Ethiopia or in Siberia, tribes are the last resorts of natural authenticity.
‘’In 2009, I planned to become a guest of 31 secluded and visually unique tribes. I wanted to witness their time-honoured traditions, join in their rituals and discover how the rest of the world is threatening to change their way of life forever. Most importantly, I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.”
Elegant and evocative portraits created with a 4×5 camera. The detail that is attained by using such large negatives would provide an extraordinary view into the emotional and spiritual lives of the last indigenous peoples of the world. At the same time, it would glorify their varying and unique cultural creativity with their painted faces, scarified bodies, jewellery, extravagant hairstyles and ritual language.”