Jimmy Nelson (photographer)

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Jimmy Nelson
Jimmy Nelson
Jimmy Nelson at TEDxAmsterdam, 2014
James Philip Nelson

1967 (age 51–52)
Sevenoaks, Kent, England
ResidenceIbiza, Spain
Spouse(s)Ashkaine Hora Adema

James Philip Nelson (born 1967) known professionally as Jimmy Nelson, is an English photojournalist and photographer. He is known for his portraits of tribal and indigenous peoples.


James Philip Nelson was born in 1967 in Sevenoaks, Kent.[citation needed] He spent his childhood in Africa, Asia and South America until he was sent to Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit boarding school in Lancashire, at the age of 8 because his parents had to work abroad. When he was 16 he had a stress related reaction to illness and antibiotics and developed Alopecia totalis, a condition in which all the hair falls out.[1]

He left boarding school in 1985 and started to trek the length of Tibet on foot when he was 19.[citation needed] He took a small camera on his trip and photographed his journey, which lasted about a year.[2] After his return Nelson started to work as a professional photojournalist.[3] In 1992 Nelson was commissioned by Shell Oil to produce the book "Literary Portraits of China" and travelled the country for 36 months together with his wife, Ashkaine Hora Adema. Hora Adema wrote the commissioned book and became the business partner of Nelson.[3]

From 1997 and onward, Nelson began to work in commercial advertising.[1]

Before they Pass Away[edit]

In 2009, Nelson started to work on his biggest project to-date, Before they Pass Away. He travelled for 3 years and photographed more than 35 indigenous tribes around the world in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the South Pacific, using a 50-year-old 4x5in camera.[4]

Nelson said that the project was "inspired by Edward S. Curtis and his great photographs of Native Americans".[1] The tribes that Nelson photographed include the Huli and Kalam tribes of New Guinea, the Tsaatan of Mongolia and the Mursi people of the Omo River valley in southern Ethiopia. Nelson borrowed the funds for the project from a Dutch billionaire, Marcel Boekhoorn.[1] As a result of the project, a limited edition book was published as well as printed photo portraits.[5]


Nelson's work has been the subject of much criticism from a variety of different sources, including the very people he photographs and represents in his book. In June 2014 Nelson’s project Before they pass away came under attack from Stephen Corry, director of Survival International , the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights. In a review entitled “Turning a Blind Eye to Pure Old Vibrations” published on the Truthout website, Corry attacked Nelson’s work for presenting a false and damaging picture of tribal peoples.[6] Corry maintained that Nelson’s pictures bear little relationship either to how the people pictured look now, or to how they’ve ever appeared.[6]

Corry writes, "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. […] 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."[6] Corry goes on to allege that Nelson not only presents a fictionalized portrait of tribal people, but more importantly that he glosses over the violence to which many of the tribes pictured are being subjected and fails to mention, that many minority peoples, especially tribal ones, are not "disappearing" but that they are being destroyed through illegal theft of their land and resources.[6]

Nelson defended his work against the criticism of Survival International in an article in the Amateur Photographer saying that every image is a "subjective, creative document of the photographer". He admitted that he staged and directed the individuals, but said that it was done with their co-operation and consent.[7] In an article published in The Times, Nelson defended his book by saying that it was never meant to be reportage, but an "aesthetic, romantic, subjective, iconographic representation of people who are normally represented in a very patronising and demeaning way."[8]

Papuan tribal leader Benny Wenda has also criticized Nelson for describing his tribe as "headhunters", when in fact the Dani have never practised cannibalism. Mr Wenda said: “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.”[9]

Nelson's work has also been criticized for harmful inaccuracies and generalizations, which Nelson uses to make himself and his photography look good, but which harm the cause of the tribal people he is using. Julia Lagoutte writes in the OpenDemocracy: "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." [10] Her main point is that presenting tribal peoples' disappearance as natural and inevitable is a harmful lie - if they are disappearing it is because of active discrimination, deaths, land grabs, and repression.

She writes "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." [10]

Several indigenous commentators have also objected to the outdated and colonial idea that tribal people and indigenous people are disappearing. Many indigenous commentators, especially Maori, took issue with Nelson's characterisation of those he photographs as 'remote' and 'passing away', on a post on George Takei's facebook page. One commentator amongst many stated: “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.” Another comment read: "As a Maori man, I can go ahead and say the lack of research on this photographers part is straight up offensive." [11]

Personal life[edit]

He is married and lives with his wife, Ashkaine Hora Adema and their three children in Ibiza.[12]


  • Literary Portraits of China (1995) (authored under the name of James Philip Nelson) with Ashkaine Hora Adema, Nigel Cameron, How Man Wong, published by Odyssey, ISBN 9622174051
  • Before They Pass Away (2009) published by teNeues, ISBN 9783832733186

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Trebay, Guy (2013-10-18). "Images From the Edges of the Earth". The New York Times.
  2. ^ Roads and Kingdoms Accessed 19 April 2014
  3. ^ a b Official website for Before they pass away Accessed 6 June 2014
  4. ^ O'Molloy, Colm (2014-01-09). "Before they pass away: Jimmy Nelson's photos of at-risk tribes". BBC. Retrieved 2014-06-15.
  5. ^ Vidal, John (2014-10-29). "Photographer criticised by indigenous people and Survival International". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-11-21.
  6. ^ a b c d Truthout Accessed 6 June 2014
  7. ^ Cheesman, Chris (2014-06-05). "Photographer hits back at tribal images 'baloney' attack". Amateur Photographer. Retrieved 2014-06-15.
  8. ^ "Photographs depicting remote tribes are 'baloney'". The Times. 2014-06-03. Retrieved 2014-06-15.
  9. ^ "Amazon tribal person holds protest outside gallery against exhibition". The Morning Star. 2014-09-26. Retrieved 2014-10-20.
  10. ^ a b "Jimmy Nelson's wrong: tribal peoples aren't passing away, they are fighting against brutal oppression". openDemocracy. 2014-10-29. Retrieved 2018-03-08.
  11. ^ "George Takei". www.facebook.com. Retrieved 2018-03-08.
  12. ^ The Humanity Initiative Accessed 6 June 2014

External links[edit]