Jimmy Nelson's wrong: tribal peoples aren't passing away, they are fighting against brutal oppression

An exhibition of photographs of tribal peoples may mean well, but in reality, it operates as propaganda for those oppressing these peoples.

Julia Lagoutte
12 November 2014
Benny Wenda.jpg

Benny Wenda ©

Jimmy Nelson trekked across continents in a bid to create an “irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world”. The result, Before They Pass Away, a collection of breath-taking photos of 31 ‘dying out’ and ‘remote’ tribes which has captivated audiences, has also attracted fierce criticism by tribal peoples and organisations worldwide.

Nelson’s work is accused of portraying a false and damaging image of tribal people. Most worrying, apart from some absurd inaccuracies, is its branding of tribal peoples as ‘passing away’, which plays into the hands of those whose interests lie in their ‘passing’. In the wake of the opening of his exhibition in London, it is urgent to highlight the errors of ‘Before They Pass Away’ to mitigate its potential harm.

The models in Nelson’s work are mostly dressed in ways they are not used to. Similarly to the much criticised work of photographer Edward Curtis, they appear shorn of the ‘modern’ things and clothes they wear daily, like watches, t-shirts and mobiles phones. This could be justified artistically, but Nelson presents his photos as an ‘ethnographic record’. The photos are designed to promote his preconceived notions of tribal life, fetishising purity, authenticity and spirituality, as well as simplicity and connection to the earth. As Survival International Director Stephen Corry puts it, his work is a ‘photographer’s fantasy’. People dressed up for annual Maori ceremonies are presented as though this were their daily garb. Waorani girls from Ecuador are photographed wearing fig leaves (nod to Adam and Eve – pure, yes, but also backwards and outdated), something they have never done.

Nelson alludes to tales of cannibalism and hostility towards white people, and describes gaining the trust of tribal peoples by appealing to their silliness and vanity. Despite looking scary the Huli Wigmen of Papua New Guinea are “actually sweet, giggly and vain”. Combined with heroic tales of how hard it was to reach them, and constant reference to their simplicity and connection with nature, this is uncomfortably reminiscent of wildlife photography. They are treated like “an endangered species that need to be seen, shared and documented”, in the words of Maori blogger Jay Dizzle. They are beautiful creatures, rather than fellow humans – less evolved versions of us perhaps, or "vestiges of pure humanity". As you would with a child, Nelson “spent hours sitting on my knees in front of them, saying ooh and aah, clapping my hands, raising my voice, even hugging them” - this is a real quote.

It is simply not true that tribal people have been “unchanged for thousands of years”; they have been evolving constantly, as we have. It is clear that for Nelson, their attraction and purity is rooted in their exclusion from the future, and their containment to the past – so that is the only reality he presents in his photos. By omitting their interactions with the ‘modern world’ that they are a part of, and perpetuating the myth that they are dying out, Nelson's work freezes tribal peoples in the past and effectively denies them a place in this world.

As disrespectful and potentially damaging as the condescension are the errors and fundamental assumptions that pervade Nelson’s project. Maori, Gauchos and Tibetans are included in his selection of ‘remote’ and ‘dying out’ tribes. However, the most elementary Wikipedia search would have revealed that Tibetans are as much a tribe as the French. Gauchos are just Latin American cowboys. The Maori are an ethnicity, not a tribe, and represent a very much alive 15% of New Zealanders. To quote Facebook: “I just turned my head and looked at my three Maori kids perched on the couch watching Chowder. Like arms length away. Hardly remote lol.”

It seems that almost everyone who has read Nelson’s Guardian interview has visited the Ambua Falls in Papua New Guinea, where he shot the Huli Wigmen. In hilarious contrast to his claim that "It took me two months to reach them, via a missionary plane and a two-week jungle trek", tourists claim that the photo was taken at Ambua Lodge, a 25 minutes bus ride from Tari. Nelson’s commentary on the Huli tribesmen emphasises hostility and savagery; they used to be cannibals, are “very angry” and attack “just about anyone who’s white”. Exaggerating an adventure is one thing, but this age-old myth about tribal peoples' ferocity and violence affects how they are treated by the government, as it shapes public opinion. Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s work with the Yanomami in the 1960s, falsely portraying them as violent savages living in perpetual warfare, was used by the Brazilian government to justify their persecution and displacement. It is staggering that Nelson can mention Huli anger at having had their land exploited in the past but make no mention of the current nightmarish situation of Papuan tribes, who face systematic rape, torture, arbitrary arrest and murder under Indonesia’s racist military occupation. Papuan tribal leader Benny Wenda said, “What Jimmy Nelson says about us is not true… The real headhunters are the Indonesian military who have been killing my people. My people are still strong and we fight for our freedom. We are not ‘passing away’, we are being killed by the brutal Indonesian soldiers. That is the truth.”

Against all the odds, tribal peoples are still here and proud, but they are struggling to survive. The tribes in Nelson’s book face constant threats of displacement, murder, racism, or forced ‘development’, yet the average viewer would have no inkling of the suffering behind every dramatic print. Exposure to the western world is a rare chance for them to hold oppressive governments accountable. Instead, Nelson has selected picturesque elements from each place, added a pinch of untruths, removed political and social context and painted their deliberate and preventable destruction as effectively a fait accompli. Is he really a ‘teller of truth’ while his whole mission, as Cowlitz Indian Elissa Washuta wrote, “is built on a horrifying assumption: that these indigenous peoples are on the brink of destruction. He couldn’t be more wrong.” The very forces which are causing the disappearance that Nelson mourns in his book, are not mentioned one single time in it. Any tribal persons who hoped Nelson would give something back must be bitterly disappointed. The underlying message: tribal people do not belong in the modern world. It allows us to feel sadness at their inevitable demise, but the very nostalgia it engenders about the current state of humanity implies they are not part of this humanity.

Davi Kopenawa, Amazonian Indian leader and shaman said, “I saw the photos and I didn’t like them. This man only wants to force his own ideas on the photos, to publish them in books and to show them to everyone so that people will think he’s a great photographer. Just like Chagnon, he does whatever he wants with Indigenous people. It is not true that indigenous people are about to die out. We will be around for a long time, fighting for our land, living in this world and continuing to create our children.

Nelson is a talented photographer whose intentions were not malicious but his work is, ultimately, a fantasy which works to the advantage of corporate and state interests who are doing their best to ensure the ‘passing’ of these tribes. Tribal people are not stuck in the past; indeed, they are at the forefront of progress, calling on us all to stop the destruction and pollution of the planet. Let’s call Nelson out on the damaging aspects of his work, but let’s also use this opportunity to look behind the pictures, listen and make tribal rights something we all fight for.


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