The controversy of glamorizing disappearing people with photographer Jimmy Nelson

Way outside our cities and towns are societies of disappearing and endangered indigenous people . Some of us may think that’s natural— it’s been happening forever. Others fight to protect those cultures and have very strong opinions about what’s right and what’s wrong for those people. 

One of those opinions is whether there’s a “right way” to depict people who are different than us— who are not living in urbanized or Western societies. I was surprised by just how controversial this subject really was. I guess it’s ok that we’re surrounded by spectacular images that romanticize cars, sports, and marriage. Really anything commercial— but to apply a similar heroic lens to people who are different than us, well, that could be sacrilege. It seems there are people out there who believe that the only way to photograph those folks needs to be as an anthropological documentarian— capturing people only how they’re actually living vs in their Sunday best— proud, celebrated, glamorized. 

I mean, isn’t that what we do when we take pictures of ourselves? We're not posting pictures of ourselves hanging in sweatpants and stuffing our face with Fritos. It’s ok that we’re beautiful but god forbid that we make that commentary about those poor, exotic people living on the edge of the world. There are no edges to this world. There are people who live far away from our dense, standardized populations but our cultures are the edge from their point of view. 

This week it was my pleasure to talk to photographer Jimmy Nelson from his place in Amsterdam on his way out to another remote destination. Jimmy has been a photographer for over 30 years and his book Before they Pass Away, showcases 35 disappearing tribal cultural around the world. He captures them with stunning images. They’re truly incredible portraits of vanishing people (be sure to check out the portfolio of his images below as well as the video). As Jimmy puts it, photographing these people are as much about discovering them as it is about discovering himself and how he belongs in the world. 

Really isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? We’re all on that same journey. I hope you enjoy listening to Jimmy’s and it inspires you to engage in his important work, which I guarantee will have a huge impact on you.

Jimmy Nelson has travelled TO PLACES YOU HAVEN'T

Photo credit: Jimmy Nelson

Music credit: Masala by Anna RF