As history and our collective experience reveals, so much of a photograph’s meaning is not captured within its frame. What is not confined to the frame is the social environment within which the image was created. This social context can profoundly affect the way we experience and interpret images and shouldn’t be forgotten, particularly with images that are thrust at us by the media. Such images are complimented by thoughtful meditation to balance our initial emotive reaction.
The ethnographic portraits of British photographer Jimmy Nelson that have been making the rounds recently may appear upon first glance to be simply captivating in their beauty. Indeed many prominent media websites have discovered and promoted his work including CNN, Time and the Daily Mail. In the images, members of various ethnic groups from around the world are depicted to convey the idyllic aesthetic of the lives they supposedly lead in their rustic and isolated environments. The Mursi are found nude and painted in Ethiopia’s rift valley, ochred Himba women are carefully assembled in Angola’s southern dunes, Maasai warriors emblazoned in their red cloth balance carefully on stones in the hills of northern Tanzania. All are immaculately posed in their majestic surroundings.
But that’s just it, the scenes have been deliberately constructed to capitalize on the photographer’s own vision of these groups. While such images certainly elicit awe and amazement, they can distract us from asking questions about their creation and the nature of their representation. A visit to the photographer’s website (beforethey.com) reveals more about his intentions. The message found there is this: let us, the tainted citizens of modernity, bask in the beautiful simplicity and cultural purity of these exotic people of color before they become corrupted beyond redemption by the burdensome complexity of our lives. While you’re at it, make sure to take special note of the photographer’s unique ability to tame these mysterious and wonderful tribes with his inexhaustible charm. And then, if you would be so kind, please produce your pocketbook and for only the modest sum of 6,500 euros you too can take part in this spectacular journey to the birthplace of mankind by purchasing the deluxe edition of the photographer’s book. Right.
By looking beyond the photographic frame and taking the social context of this body of work into account, a few observations come to light. The rhetoric Nelson uses to describe his images strongly characterizes the Western fantasy of the noble savage, whose ancient culture, unchanged for thousands of years, has been passed over by evolution. This is achieved by linking the romantic traditional aesthetic captured in the images with repetition, in his interviews and promo materials, of phrases designed to emphasize supposed authenticity such as “flawless human beauty”, “original human art” and “purity of Mankind”. Indeed the morose name of the project, Before They Pass Away, laments the loss of these supposedly untouched cultures.
Nelson suggests that inspiration for this project comes from the work of early 20th century image-makers such as Edward Curtis, a photographer who documented what he believed to be the vestiges of dying Native American culture. This style of documentation, aka “salvage ethnography”, imagines itself to be about the visual preservation of vanishing cultures. In practice, the intentions of Curtis and his peers were not malicious, though they approached their subjects with a paternalistic superiority. Jimmy Nelson explicitly mentions Curtis as an influence and makes reference to a new era of “classic photography”. It should also be noted that the works of both Curtis and Nelson were made possible by wealthy benefactors. For Curtis it was American steel man J.P. Morgan and for Nelson it’s the Dutch investment billionaire zoo-owner Marcel Boekhoorn (who also produced a film about hapless Dutch animal handlers lost in South Africa called Zoop in Afrika – we’ll leave that for another post). One important distinction between Curtis and Nelson however, is that 100 years ago, the concept of the “noble savage” was accepted by academia and popular culture, whereas today it is widely considered to be condescending nonsense for assuming a lack of sophistication and for falsely justifying an idealized supremacy of Western cultures. This is the tradition Nelson has chosen to align himself with.
Like Curtis before him, Nelson produces artificial images, dressing subjects in traditional attire, stripping them and their environments of objects deemed to be foreign and posing them to his liking. He is in effect, attempting to determine what is authentic as an outsider, denying the dynamic histories of the people he stalks. We see this firsthand in the pilot for a proposed TV show (Nelson fancies himself a reality star), travelling with him to the island nation of Vanuatu to see the master at work. In one scene, the show’s narrator describes a highly active volcano called Mt. Yasur. The narrator goes on to explain that the “population believed it would anger the spirits if anyone climbed the mountain.” Guess where Jimmy Nelson decided he wanted to photograph men and boys from the nearby Yakel village? Despite the visible anxiety of the Yakel models at the constant rumblings and explosions of the volcano, Nelson assembles them at its very rim for a series of images. This scenario of cultural disregard is repeated in various forms throughout his work, the final visual products being Nelson’s own interpretive gaze rather than the self-image of those that appear in the photographs.
The promotion of Nelson’s collection is significant as well. The images are backed by a slick marketing campaign with a level of obscene narcissism reminiscent of the infamous journalist turned “explorer” Henry Morton Stanley. It was Stanley who trekked through the wilderness of several African territories in the second half of the 19th century looking for the famous missionary Dr. David Livingstone. With tremendous self-aggrandizement, Stanley published glorified (and somewhat fabricated) stories of his exploits in Western journals while neglecting to mention the trail of disease and destruction he left in his wake. Apparently mimicking another of his heroes, Nelson takes a page out of the Morton Stanley playbook in the way he presents himself. His beforethey.com website, through dramatic, exaggerated statements, attempts to cultivate for the photographer an image of legend. It declares, “Hunters, fighters, nomads, Jimmy Nelson enchanted them all.” And, “Jimmy Nelson a gatherer of images, collector of truth.” It might as well say, “Jimmy Nelson, the world’s most glorious tribe whisperer.” Rather than establishing Nelson as a hero figure, what these messages convey is that Nelson is more concerned with making a name for himself than the conditions of the people he has photographed.
The most poignant observation raised by this body of work however, is not about Nelson, it’s about ourselves. That this photographic collection was so readily and uncritically celebrated by such a large audience in the media, the photography community and beyond is troubling and requires reflection. We are no longer in the golden era of salvage ethnography. At this point we know that exaggerated, exoticized representations of any classification of people carry with them a subtle condescension and a false force of othering. Yet, why is a critical eye not applied by many viewers of Nelson’s work? What is this strange admiration of authenticity that romantic “tribal” images readily tap into? Do they make us feel more advanced? Do we need to counter the perceived boredom of our “modern” lives with something exotic and different? The answer is not entirely clear.
What is clear is that we must train our eyes to place what we are seeing in context. We must become more visually literate. Nelson’s images can be admired for displaying human diversity and ingenuity — indeed the people he has photographed may even take pride in some of the images — however, let’s not strip people of their dynamic history with make-believe about purity. Peoples’ lives are not static, they never have been. And the noble savage marketing rhetoric coming from the brave explorer? That’s something we actually can encourage to pass away.
In the practice of photography, an image is on the one hand, an honest reflection of the visual cartography of an illuminated environment, but it is also fertile ground for spinning imaginative tales of an artist’s creation. Speaking at TEDxAmsterdam in early November, Nelson encouraged his audience to “look closer” as often “things can be very different than they seem to be.” When contemplating “tribal” images in the media, it would be wise to take his advice.