Jimmy Nelson (photographer)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Jimmy Nelson at TEDxAmsterdam

Jimmy Nelson (born 1967) is a British photojournalist and photographer known for his portraits of tribal and indigenous peoples.


Jimmy Nelson was born in Sevenoaks, Kent. 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. 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 and was commissioned to cover a variety of themes, ranging from the Russian involvement in Afghanistan and the ongoing strife between India and Pakistan in Kashmir to the beginning of the war in former Yugoslavia.[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. Upon its completion the images were exhibited in the children's Palace on Tiananmen Square, Beijing, followed by a worldwide tour.[3]

From 1997 onwards Nelson began to work in commercial advertising.[1] He is married and lives with his wife and their three children in Amsterdam and Ibiza.[4]

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.[5]

Nelson said that the project was "inspired by Edward Sheriff 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.

Jimmy borrowed the funds from a Dutch billionaire, Marcel Boekhoorn.[1]


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]


  • Literary portraits of China (1997) (under the name of James Philip Nelson and Ashkaine hora Adema)
  • Before they pass away (2009) published by france2


  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. ^ The Humanity Initiative Accessed 6 June 2014
  5. ^ O'Molloy, Colm (2014-01-09). "Before they pass away: Jimmy Nelson's photos of at-risk tribes". BBC. Retrieved 2014-06-15. 
  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. 

External links[edit]