Dec 2, 2013

The Remarkable Vision of Jimmy Nelson

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

I don't like the title of this book. It sounds fatalistic to me, as if the attrition of these indigenous cultures is inevitable. But it is also a warning, a reminder of what a treasure they are, a call to protect what's left of humanity's origins.

These are truly remarkable photographs. Jimmy Nelson devoted 25 years of his life gaining the trust of these tribal peoples, so much so that they were willing be documented by a Westerner.

Looking at Nelson’s photographs, it’s difficult to imagine how a British man could gain this kind of access. “I never, ever take out the camera right away,” Nelson says firmly. “I didn’t know their language, but we connected as people.”

Because each tribe has its own particular dialect, there was only so far a local translator could go. The rest was up to Nelson. He says he used body language to convey ideas. By way of demonstration, he stretches his eyes wide, puts his hands on his face, makes an expression of awe and ‘ooos’ and ‘aahs.’

“It’s all about vanity and empathy,” Nelson says. “You literally go onto your knees and you beg them… You put them on a pedestal and you say until you can’t hear yourself anymore, ‘You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful. You’re important.' And eventually people feel that.”

And they are beautiful -- so, so beautiful.

Nelson's story reads a little like a shamanic initiation. At age 16 all his hair fell out. This trauma set him on a course of spiritual discovery that sent him to Tibet where he explored the lives of Buddhist monks through the lens of his camera.

He went on to travel the globe and gain access to the hidden world of largely forgotten peoples. The result is a breathtaking compendium of images of very diverse cultures connected only by a set of principles.

The cultures Nelson visited spanned continents, worshipped different gods and had histories and mythologies all their own. But Nelson says all of the communities had two things in common: a sense of balance between the physical and spiritual, and they placed a heavy importance on family.

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