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Back to Stories

Friends of Six Senses with Jimmy Nelson

For this special episode of Friends of Six Senses, Wellness Pioneer Anna Bjurstam is joined by Six Senses CEO Neil Jacobs and award-winning photographer Jimmy Nelson. Jimmy’s photographs are a visual document of indigenous communities. Through his art, he immortalizes the diversity of their cultures, but also what connects them – their pride, dignity, strength and resilience – and ultimately inspires us all to consider what it is to be human.

The Challenges that Make Us

There are many reasons that people travel the world. For Jimmy, his travels have been driven by the mutual hungers to both disappear and discover.

It was his father who introduced him to the world, taking Jimmy and his sister on scientific expeditions every Summer from the time he was born. Although we don’t seek the challenges that transform us, his childhood prepared him for the extraordinary life he would grow up to lead.

At seven years old, Jimmy was sent to boarding school, as a vulnerable and open child. The priests broke him down to nothing and from there on, he had to rebuild himself. He shared that he disconnected from himself and all his feelings. Then, at 16 because of an illness, he lost all his hair. He remembers waking up and looking in the mirror, already not liking himself very much, and feeling like an alien.

These events led him to jump into the world to rediscover who he was. Reading about Tin Tin’s journey to Tibet to meet the monks as a child inspired him so at 17, Jimmy left school and disappeared into Tibet where he lived and traveled for two years.

The Dark and The Light

Jimmy shared that he has a manic need to feel the light. He never gets up after sunrise. He’s spent the pandemic at his home base in Amsterdam and the sun rises at 4:45 am He greets the dawn every day to acknowledge the journey he is on. The light that he seeks in his photographs though is more about the spiritual light or the beauty and goodness he can capture with his camera, especially through time-honored rituals.

Rituals are very important to him and in his experiences with indigenous cultures, he’s been able to see some very special rituals up close.

When he was photographing the Huli in Papua New Guinea, he learned about their ritual for teenaged boys to mark their transition into adulthood. The boys go into the jungle with a shaman for one year. They take nothing, no clothes, tools, or food. They have to learn how to connect with the natural world and find the resources they need to survive.

During this year, they grow their hair into these fantastic shapes which is challenging when living in the jungle. They spend hours grooming each other and at the end of the year, they return to their village where they shave their heads and turn the hair into a hat.

Then, they go back to the jungle for six months alone. They take their hair hat with them and are told to decorate it with their authenticity.

These stories reflect Jimmy’s deep love for the power of ritual to connect us with ourselves, our environments and with others.

XXIX Chele La Pass, Bhutan

Before They Pass Away

Before They Pass Away, Jimmy’s first book, reflects over thirty years of travel to meet people from the most extraordinary indigenous cultures in the world. His dream has always been to create awareness about our world’s variety of peoples.

There was incredible controversy around the book, though, which came as a massive surprise. The way his challenges in boarding school and losing his hair pushed him to dig more deeply into himself, the backlash against his book was also magical in the way that it made him ask questions of himself that he wouldn’t normally have done. It pushed Jimmy to really question what he was doing and why and this inquiry brought him to the understanding of the real journey that he’s on, not as a scientist or an anthropologist, but as someone who is here to love and protect human beings.

This controversy also pushed him to create his second book, Homage to Humanity, and his non-profit, The Jimmy Nelson Foundation. Because he felt like his experiences with these magnificent communities gave him his life back, the Foundation was his way of giving something back as well.

The Jimmy Nelson Foundation

The mission of Jimmy’s Foundation is to “Inspire humanity to create a deeper connection with their own cultural identity and each other, and help safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage for future generations.”

Creating the foundation was a natural outcome of the work he had done as an artist. He needed to reinvest into the communities that had given him so much and it’s working.

Jimmy shared that he had just came back from Kazakhstan where his foundation had invested in a community center. When he first traveled there, there were only 20 eagle hunters and they were all elderly men. The tradition was dying. When he went back later, they told him that his pictures of them had changed everything. He worried that he and his camera had interfered in their culture and world in a negative way, a common criticism for his book, Before They Passed Away. They took him into a room and his pictures were on the wall. They shared that his pictures had changed everything in the most beautiful way. There were now 400 eagle hunters and they were not only men but women also. The beauty and respect that he saw in them grew a seed of pride that they could then feel in themselves. Their heritage had been reborn. By celebrating them, they could celebrate themselves and see themselves in this glorified light.

Something wonderful to share

As a teenager, Jimmy had disappeared into the Himalayas and it’s a part of the world he still loves. In Spring 2021, he will be returning to Bhutan with Six Senses.

Staying at Six Senses Bhutan Lodges is a way to experience one of the world’s most pristine cultural settings with minimal impact, or as Jimmy calls it, with delicate tourism.

Although travel has slowed down a bit, Jimmy is a big believer in the importance of travel to help us learn and open our hearts to our diversity and our shared humanity. He shared that it’s taken his entire 52 years to really understand the journey he’s on. It has little to do with photography, a camera, or a lens. That’s only one medium he uses to fulfill his perpetual curiosity of discovery. What it’s really about is using the world and the other in the world as a mirror so we can understand ourselves. This is essentially his life’s journey. Ultimately, the journey is never complete. It’s not about making pictures but about being alive and being aware.

BIO

Since his first trip at 17 to Tibet in 1987, Jimmy Nelson has traveled to over 70 indigenous communities, many of which are featured in his books "Before They Pass Away" and "Homage to Humanity". Although the title for this iconic artistic document strikes some as fatalistic, the pride, strength and resilience of the people who have posed for his lens have inspired him. "Before" signals a moment of opportunity, a call for action and an appeal. To that end, he has set up the Jimmy Nelson Foundation to “Inspire humanity to create a deeper connection with their own cultural identity and each other and help safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage for future generations."

Jimmynelson.com

Jimmynelsonfoundation.com


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