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Turning a Blind Eye to Pure Old Vibrations

(Book Cover: teNeues Publisher)

There are hundreds of large-format photo books about tribal peoples, but perhaps none as extreme – or bizarre – as Jimmy Nelson’s Before They Pass Away (teNeues, 2013). It’s certainly the biggest, weighing in at 11 pounds, and the most expensive, at $150. That’s actually a “bargain” compared to the collector’s edition (6,500 euros, or $8,845) or an individual print (119,000 euros, or $161,935).

Nelson, we’re told, set out to “search for ancient civilizations . . . and document their purity in places where untouched culture still exists.” We learn from his website that he, “found the last tribesmen and observed them. He smiled and drank their mysterious brews. 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.” The “cultures” he found are, needless to say, supposedly “unchanged for thousands of years.”

What this hokum amounts to is undoubtedly beautiful and dramatic photographs of a couple of dozen peoples, taken with a large format, plate glass camera. The subjects are posed as if they were models in the advertising salons where Nelson developed his career. The “tribal” peoples (who for some reason include Tibetans and South American cowboys) are largely portrayed as being as different to “us” as possible. This is not just in dress and decoration, but also through how they’re asked to pose: Nelson’s wacky idea for positioning a group in Vanuatu, for example, was putting them all in a tree.

This is one problem with the book: was the world ever thus? Are the pictures a “real” representation of anyone, or are at least some just a photographer’s fantasy, bearing little relationship either to how these people appear now, or to how they’ve ever appeared?

Of course, rendering people more exotic than they really are is a timeworn tradition. Probably the first, and best, exponent was Edward Curtis, who photographed North American Indians at the beginning of the 20th century (and to whom Nelson often compares himself). Our view of these tribes remains largely rooted in Curtis’s immortalizations of startling human beauty and, yes, clear nobility.

Like many photographers since, Curtis didn’t want Western manufactured items spoiling his portrayal, so he’d remove them, either when shooting, or later in the darkroom. He posed and captioned the Indians as if he’d been there a generation earlier. Men are invariably “braves” or a “war party,” and are usually in full ceremonial regalia. I call this ploy the “Curtis device”; it’s ubiquitous in imagery of tribal peoples, but can be damaging, especially when their real context is glossed over, as I’ll explain.

Before that, how “real” are Nelson’s portrayals? In his photos of the Waorani Indians of Ecuador, he has them unclothed except for their traditional waist string. The Indians are not only shorn of their everyday clothes, but also of other manufactured ornaments such as watches and hair clips. In real life, contacted Waorani have routinely worn clothes for at least a generation, unless, that is, they are “dressing up” for tourists, and Nelson’s pictures are all taken in one Cononaco River community, which has indeed been promoted for tourist visits since the 1970s. In this case, Nelson isn’t simply emulating Curtis by shooting people as they looked a generation or two earlier, because his Waorani female models have now preserved their modesty by tying “fig” leaves into their waist string, which they would never have done formerly: the images look like a throwback to a past era, but they’re also a contemporary invention.

All this matters partly because Nelson claims to be capturing “ethnographic fact.” He goes further and boldly asserts that his work represents something that others have failed to convey. If you really want to know what these peoples are like, you’re supposed to believe that Nelson’s pictures will lead you closer and deeper than other portrayals. It’s hubristic baloney, presumably contrived by his publicists, and one can only hope it fools few sensible viewers.

There’s another problem: these peoples, we’re wrongly told from the title on, are “passing away.” The book is supposed to be a “catalyst for something far bigger. If we could start a global movement that documents and shares images, thoughts and stories about tribal life both old and new, maybe we could save part of our world’s precious cultural heritage from vanishing.”

This vacuous mantra, or some variation, has now become one of the problems tribal peoples face: supposedly they can be “saved” by being photographed or filmed. It suggests that their “passing” is both natural and an inevitable result of history, to be mourned perhaps, but not opposed. Why bother? As King Canute famously illustrated a thousand years ago, fighting the relentless march of time and tide is pointless.

In reality, many minority peoples, especially tribal ones, are not “disappearing”: they are being disappeared, through “our” illegal theft of their land and resources. The Mursi in Ethiopia – “considered to be a rather primitive tribe,” according to Nelson – are now booted off their lands to make way for state-run agribusiness, though you won’t find that mentioned in his book. The Omo valley tribes – who Nelson thinks “lead a simple life” – face what he calls “serious concerns about the impact of a gigantic dam.” You can say that again: the “concerns” are that they’re being dragged off their land and, if they object, beaten and imprisoned. All this is at the hands of a state, Ethiopia, which happens to be one of the biggest recipients of US and UK aid. If you think that means “we” require fundamental human rights to be respected there, think again: we are simply turning our usual blind eye.

It’s a recurring pattern. Nelson’s section on the Tibetans makes no reference to the fact that their country was invaded and annexed by China, which maintains its grip through lethal force. The same is true of the West Papuan tribes, raped and killed under Indonesian occupation. Again, no mention in Nelson’s book, where we’re informed instead that the Dani, “have been called the most dreaded head-hunting tribe of Papua.” This is yet more offensive mischief, peddled by entrepreneurs to attract gullible tourists: the Dani were not “head-hunters.” As a representative of the tribe, Benny Wenda, implores, “It’s time these lies about us were stopped, and people realized that it’s the Indonesian government who are the real savages here.” We are also told by Nelson that the independent country of Papua New Guinea is “a ferocious place with inherently wild people.” Given that Nelson labors under the delusion that most tribes there eat their enemies, one might understand why he thinks them “wild.”

Get the picture? Somewhere far away dwell “pure” but “inherently wild” people, and we should be grateful to Nelson for braving the really tough “pilgrimages” he endured to gift us – at some considerable price – their “palpable vibrations,” before they fade away forever.

However, despite the crimes vested on so many tribal peoples, it just so happens that, ironically, few of Nelson’s subjects are “passing away” at all. The Waorani, for example, whom Nelson absurdly asserts “consider themselves . . . the bravest tribe in the Amazon,” are a good example. They have seen parts of their land wrecked by petroleum mining and further areas are now threatened, but some territory is still under their protection and their population has quadrupled in the generation that has slipped by since I visited them.

The criminal, often genocidal, treatment of many tribal peoples remains underpinned by a portrayal eliciting from us little more than wistful pangs of history lost. Nothing wrong with nostalgia of course, but there’s a lot wrong with presenting crimes against humanity as just another historical inevitability, as natural and unstoppable as Canute’s rising tide.

The reality of the onslaughts against tribal peoples, as in Ethiopia or West Papua, ought not to be airbrushed out of the photo frame. They are atrocities – like slavery or female genital mutilation – which should be exposed, and opposed by all who believe in fundamental human rights.

All this sites Nelson’s work as an element of the problem, rather than of any solution. If his images look like they come from the 19th century, it’s because they do. They echo a colonial vision which remains deeply destructive of peoples who try and reject its domination. Nelson must surely “retune his antenna again,” for whatever else his work might be, the claim that it’s the “irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world” is wrong – from pretty much every angle.

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