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Back to Stories

Behind the lens with photographer Jimmy Nelson

For Jimmy, life isn’t a journey, as much as a perpetual odyssey. He has spent (a lot of) time living, laughing, crying, and generally flapping his arms about with indigenous peoples in remote French Polynesia, Mongolia and South Sudan.

About Jimmy

Beyond reportage, Jimmy creates art. Art uses forms and structures to make the truth more beautiful, more comprehensible. It also challenges us to open our eyes, hearts, minds and – above all – it provides a positive platform for discussion.

“We all want to be seen. Loved. We want to be acknowledged and accepted. I disappear into these communities, because their day-to-day reality is captivating. But I can only open up their world if I open up my soul. I submit in as humble a way as I can. Only when we are comfortable together, and they understand what is motivating me, do they come to me at their most celebrated, so I can capture the purity of their beauty and humanity.”

His first book, Before They Pass Away, has prompted acclaim and discussion. His second book, Homage to Humanity grabs this discussion by the horns.

“I don’t have all the answers. I am an artist, not an academic. But I can take you with me to ask questions, and search beyond our familiar frame of reference to listen to the people I photograph. That’s why Homage to Humanity is a more immersive experience. Swipe the app and your smartphone comes alive with people’s stories. I was at an event recently and a boy put on the VR glasses and danced with the Huli in Papua New Guinea. He didn’t want to take them off. Watching him gave me the most amazing feeling. This unending journey of searching I am on had enabled this seven year-old to feel fully connected and seen.”

Aged seven, Jimmy’s own nomadic childhood spent in Africa came to a brutal close

He was sent to a catholic boarding school, which over the course of a decade stripped him of everything, including his hair. He escaped to Tibet, “to connect with the monks, because they also had no hair” and thereby started his own process of reconnection.

Today he is still restless, but more content. “I like myself more. I have these lines, but they’re my contours. Iron them away and we all become homogeneous.”

However, the obsession that drives his continued pilgrimage is just as burning, to create art at the extremes of personal existence through experiencing psychological and emotional vulnerability.

“There is so much left undiscovered, so much left to do. There’s Australia. I’ve been four times. The aborigine history and culture is heartbreaking and complex, the connection doesn’t feel right yet. I have a yearning for the Middle East and some of the –istans. That’s a whole new world for me. But then closer to home, I love Amsterdam and the way people live and communicate here. My eldest daughter is an old soul; I’d love to document her as I see her: our generation has touched and taken so much, but I’ve seen how there is so much beauty out there, the younger generation has to carry our hope with them.”

Biography

Since 1987, Jimmy Nelson has been traveling the world photographing people from many of the planet's remote and unique cultures.  For his books "Before They Pass Away" and "Homage to Humanity" he has visited over 70 Indigenous communities. 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.”

Join projects, donate and see the bigger picture at the Jimmy Nelson Foundation.


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