Photographer Jimmy Nelson in Papua New Guinea, Before They Pass Away

Photographer Jimmy Nelson in Papua New Guinea

Jimmy Nelson Photographs Vanishing Tribes in

Before They Pass Away


I’ve been fascinated by tribal cultures for over 20 years, ever since I interviewed my grandfather about our family history and learned we had American Indian blood on both sides. In the years since, I’ve traveled to indigenous communities in DominicaSouth AfricaTahiti, the Peruvian Amazon and numerous other destinations in an effort to learn from the tribal cultures there. So you can imagine how much photographer Jimmy Nelson‘s new book, Before They Pass Away, resonated with me on a personal level.


The project began in 2009, when the British photographer set out on a journey to visit and photograph 31 secluded, visually unique tribes. The quest would eventually take him (and his 4×5 large format camera) on 13 trips covering 44 countries. From the Huaorani tribe of the Ecuadorian Amazon to the Himba tribe of Namibia, from the island tribes of Vanuatu to the Chukotka of Siberia, Nelson’s extraordinary photos document ancient cultural traditions currently in danger of going the way of the dodo.


“I wanted to witness their time-honoured traditions, join in their rituals and discover how the rest of the world is threatening to change their way of life forever,” Nelson says. “Most importantly, I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.”


We were delighted that the intrepid traveler took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the evolution of the Before They Pass Away project, his favorite memories from his journeys, and the importance of the cultural conservation message he’s ultimately trying to convey.



Nenets Man, photographed by Jimmy Nelson in Before They Pass Away

A Nenets (a.k.a. Samoyed) Man from Arctic Russia


Let’s start off talking about the origins of this project. What inspired the concept? 

Our world is changing at breakneck speed. Countries that were considered developing nations not so long ago are now among the world’s wealthiest. It’s inevitable that such rapid progress in affluence and technology ultimately reaches those cultures that, up until now, have managed to preserve their own identity and values. And when it does, their longstanding traditions will gradually disappear.

My dream had always been to preserve our world’s tribes through my photography. Not to stop change from happening– because I know I can’t– but to create a visual document that reminds us, and the generations after us, of the beauty of pure and honest living. And of all the important things it teaches us; ingredients we seem to have forgotten in our so-called civilized world.

I’m privileged to have had the opportunity to fulfill this life-long passion. But it is not about me: it is a catalyst for something far bigger.


Samburu Tribe in Kenya, photographed by Jimmy Nelson in Before They Pass Away

The Samburu of Kenya


I’ve been strongly influenced by tribal societies in my life and work as well. What do you think it is that fascinates us so much about cultures relatively untouched by modern society? 

The main message of this project would be to look closer. We in the developed world are very comfortable with our prejudices and our judgments. Look closer, because you never know what’s around the corner. Some things can be very different than what they seem. We in the Modern world create all these barriers. When you are there with the tribes, it’s all about being human, not about what you can give or take from others.


Rabari man photographed by Jimmy Nelson in Before They Pass Away

A Rabari Man from India


I’m curious about the logistical details of putting a project of this scope together. How did you select the tribes you’d be photographing?

In this first phase of the project I researched the more remote and most aesthetically pleasing of tribes in order to obtain the attention of the world on this subject matter.


The Maori of New Zealand, photographed by Jimmy Nelson in Before They Pass Away

The Maori of New Zealand


How did you go about establishing the trust required to get these remote tribes to pose for your “carefully orchestrated portraits”? 

On a number of locations, when we first arrived somewhere, the people were reluctant to let us photograph them. What we did was to leave the camera behind for the first few days, in order not to intimidate them. We would sleep in their accommodation, because we did not want to give the impression that we felt we were better than them. Wherever we went, we always approached the people with enormous dignity. We tried to communicate, usually with the help of translators. When the people finally had warmed up to us, our enthusiasm worked as a catalyst for theirs. Our passion, our perfectionism, and our teamwork seemed to be contagious. And, in most cases, the locals soon wanted to participate in it. The positive energy and pride that emerged from working together with the people is reflected in the photographs.


The Kazakh People of Kazakhstan, photographed by Jimmy Nelson in Before They Pass Away

The Kazakh People of Kazakhstan


Can you share a few colorful memories from your travels for Before They Pass Away

There is one particular story of a tough moment for me as a photographer. There is a photo of three native Kazakh men from Mongolia with eagles on their shoulders on a mountain. That picture took three days to make, because each morning there wasn’t enough light.

On the fourth morning, it was about -20º on top of the mountain and the light was beautiful. I took off my gloves to take the photo and my fingers literally froze to the camera. I began crying, and when I turned my head I saw that two women had followed us to the top of the mountain. One of them took my fingers and cradled them in her jacket until I got the feeling back and was able to take a couple of photographs.

What I didn’t know was that these women are actually strict Sunni Muslims, and broke all their codes of modesty in order to aid me. They had noticed my desperation and did what they could to help me achieve what I was there for.


The Tsaatan People of Mongolia, in Jimmy Nelson's Before They Pass Away

The Tsaatan People, Reindeer Herders of Mongolia


Any other favorite memories you’d care to share?

When I first met the Tsaatan people, they were a bit distant and refused to pose for the photographs. It wasn’t that they were unfriendly; they repeatedly offered me vodka, which, not being much of a drinker, I refused. But after failing to gain their trust in order to take their picture, I decided to put my camera away and play the grateful guest.

The result was that I got completely drunk and slumped into an alcoholic stupor. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a teepee surrounded by 30 people, with a bladder fit to burst. Wrapped up in eight layers of clothes, with the temperature -40º outside, I didn’t see any other option but to pee in my pants and drift back off to sleep.

The next moment, I woke up in a tent that had collapsed under a stampede of reindeer, which are apparently attracted to the salt in urine. So there I was, standing in -40º with a reindeer licking my clothes. Well, that broke the ice! After making a complete plonker of myself and becoming the laughing stock of the group, they finally began to open up.


Mursi Man, photographed by Jimmy Nelson in Before THey Pass Away

A Mursi Man from Southwest Ethiopia


Were there any lessons you gleaned from these cultures that impacted you on a personal level? 

If the tribes disappear, we will lose a living example of how to treasure our natural surroundings and values like hope, optimism, courage, solidarity and friendship. We could learn a lot from these authentic cultures that build on principal aspects of humanity, such as respect, love, survival and sharing.


The Mustang People of Nepal, photographed by Jimmy Nelson in Before They Pass Away

The Mustang People of Nepal


We’re big believers in sustainable ecotourism as a way to generate revenue to fund conservation. Did any of these tribes have programs in place where travelers could visit them? Did they express any interest in getting to know outsiders? 

The tribes I visited were remote and did not have any established tourism. But many did express interest in the outside world.


A Drokpa Woman photographed by Jimmy Nelson in Before They Pass Away

A Drokpa Woman, from the Himalayas


When you write that your dream was to “preserve our world’s tribes through photography” and “create a visual document reminding future generations of the beauty of pure and honest living,” it really spoke to me on a personal level. Do you have hope that these tribes will find a way to preserve their traditional way of life?

If we could start a global movement that documents and shares images, thoughts and stories about tribal life, maybe we could save part of our world’s precious cultural heritage from vanishing. I feel that we must try to let them co-exist in these modern times, by supporting their cause, respecting their habitats, recording their pride, and helping them to pass on their traditions to generations to come. Only that way can we help them keep their way of life for as long as possible.


The Huli People of Papua New Guinea, photographed by Jimmy Nelson in Before They Pass Away

The Huli People of Papua New Guinea


Other than the beauty you document with your photos, what message do you hope readers come away with?

Mainly that there is a pure beauty in their goals and family ties, their belief in gods and nature, and their will to do the right thing in order to be taken care of when their time comes. They know what makes them happy, and they choose to live that life.  –Bret Love;  all photos by Jimmy Nelson courtesy of teNeues 


If you enjoyed our interview with Jimmy Nelson on Before They Pass Away, you might also like: 

Green Global Travel’s Photo Galleries

INTERVIEW: National Geographic Photographer Peter Essick

INTERVIEW: NatGeo’s Scott Wallace on the Expedition to Save Amazon Tribes

DOMINICA: Exploring Kalinago (a.k.a. Carin Indian) Territory

SOUTH AFRICA: A Zulu Homestay in Simunye Zulu Village

PERUVIAN AMAZON: A Shaman’s Blessing & a Ribereños Village

GEORGIA: The Cherokee County Indian Festival & Pow-Wow


38 Responses to INTERVIEW: Jimmy Nelson Photographs Vanishing Tribes in Before They Pass Away

  • Maria says:

    These are gorgeous. Saw Jimmy’s work via Outbounding . org and was spellbound for a week. So happy to see them here.
    Maria recently posted..Just 5 Little WordsMy Profile

  • Love this interview, especially the backstory to the amazing photos!
    wandering educators recently posted..Norway’s Dancing Auroras and CoronasMy Profile

  • T-roy says:

    You know I have been reading GGT for a long while now. I don’t comment much but this article is one I’m going to let loose on.
    – Did anyone bother to ask Jimmy Nelson about his ‘true’ work and fabricated photos. For example; Mitchell Kanashkevich work being copied by Nelson on the Vanuatu tribe (see article here and read the comments about it: which shows example).
    – His over the top Hollywood promotion of this book, promoting it as being authentic. His work is good, not arguing that, just that he’s portraying himself as some kind of savior/Indian Jones which is kind of a joke in itself. I mean for god sake, if you seen his original promo video you’d know what I mean by this (which he removed and reposted/edited after the backlash of it originally). You can see the original here: The video wasn’t about the tribe it was about Jimmy acting like a super hero of some sort.
    – His comments on the Vanuatu tribe alone has been debunked by Kanashkevich. There was a full Facebook tread that talked about this and Kanashkevich made it clear that all the authentic things shot there (hunting fish in the ocean for example) were staged by Nealson, add-lipped and were basically a big ball of “I just made sh*t up to sell my book”. They don’t hunt fish with bows and arrows for daily fish consumption, they use poles and nets like most people do. Kanashkevich was hired by the country’s tourism board to make the shots, which again debunks Nelson’s statement of “The tribes I visited were remote and did not have any established tourism”. It’s crap like this that just makes my eyes roll on anything he says.

    As I said before, I’m not knocking his work photography wise, just his tactics and self promotion (which this article screams even more, almost like it’s a sponsored post to sell more books). It’s obvious I have no love for Nelson after seeing his actions for this book but before you bash me about this comment, look at the examples and do a little research, then feel free to tear me down for it. He went out, copied other peoples work, made up narratives about the tribes that aren’t true to even misrepresenting/labeling some of the tribes in the book… so yeah I’m not a fan, rightfully so.
    T-roy recently posted..16 Funny Signs From India: Lost In Translation Hindi StyleMy Profile

    • I can assure you this is not a sponsored post, Troy. Not only did we not get paid for it, we didn’t even get a hard copy of the book (they sent a PDF version for our review). As for Nelson’s tactics and self promotion, I wasn’t aware of those until today, but I can’t say that it colors my perspective on the book in any way. I think his photographs are extraordinary, and they speak to me on a personal level.

    • Milene says:

      Hmm.. it´s a pity that this happens. I love the photos though, just hate it that its staged! Thanks for informing us regarding this, the pics still are beautiful but the stories are less of a sparkle now.
      Milene recently posted..The day of loveMy Profile

  • Rachel says:

    Wow and wow! An amazing interview accompanied by outstanding photos. As photographers, whether one is taking photos of people or nature, it is often a striving point to take photographs that make a difference and help bring awareness about a situation to the world. These photos do that and more. This interview is helping to inspire me to do more with my photos. Thanks so much for posting!
    Rachel recently posted..Abraham Lake, Alberta RockiesMy Profile

  • Absolutely fascinating, and the pictures are mesmerizing. If you haven’t read “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” about a Hmong family’s experience with Western medicine, you really should – I have a feeling you’d both like it for the paradigms it presents, as well as how the story seems to be written in two interlocking voices.
    Cat of Sunshine and Siestas recently posted..How Bratislava Surprised MeMy Profile

  • Talon says:

    Great photos, and I absolutely love his attitude about how he approaches these groups and earns their trust.
    Talon recently posted..Thoughts on Valentine’s DayMy Profile

  • Elle says:

    I always find this subject matter quite difficult to view (in any medium). It is sad to see less and less tribves surviving the rest of mankind and its desire to incorporate / overcome / “improve”.

    Stunning article and photos – thanks!
    Elle recently posted..Spanish Crosswords – Words beginning With MMy Profile

  • Jennifer says:

    I thought, reading this, how utterly remarkable these photos were — and how bittersweet to read the context. I felt almost…still looking at the photos you’ve shown here. But then one of the earlier comments’ authors just left a pretty convincing argument as to why we should not take these without at least a HUGE grain of salt. Are you going to do some follow-up investigation? I’d hate to think you just got hosed.
    Jennifer recently posted..Top Four Reasons to Book a Getaway to the Washington School House Hotel in Park City, UtahMy Profile

  • Milene says:

    Oh my god, I need to buy this book! I´ve also been incredibly interested in indigenous tribes and visited a few – not nearly enough though. Great post, thank you so much for sharing!!
    Milene recently posted..The day of loveMy Profile

  • Wow! I love his work and his vodka, reindeer story is nothing short of hilarious! It’s funny how when we show our vulnerable side, we then gain trust.
    Valen-This Way To Paradise recently posted..San Miguel, “It’s Not You, It’s Me”My Profile

  • Karisa says:

    What amazing photos! It’s just incredible to think about these groups of people who live so off the grid.
    Karisa recently posted..Be a Girl Who TravelsMy Profile

  • We’re struggling to get our heads around the fact somebody’s complaining the photos are staged. Of course they are. There wouldn’t be a book otherwise. He could hardly go uncover. Risk of death and all that. On the whole, the photographer seems to have been very open.
    Gran Canaria Local recently posted..Casa Del CamineroMy Profile

  • James Paulson says:

    Great images of native people that are still dedicated to upholding the traditions of their ancestors. Reminds me of a book on CD that I just listened to about Edward Curtis, one of the last photographers to truly capture Native Americans in their original surroundings.

  • Alfredo Begazo says:

    Great looking people all over the world.
    Alfredo Begazo recently posted..Española IslandMy Profile

  • Stunning photos. Doesn’t matter what anyone’s gains are, what matters is the preserving of these people’s appearance and cultures.
    Sarah Bennett recently posted..Sino-Sunday #7My Profile

  • Dan says:

    Great interview and such amazing photos! Love the idea
    Dan recently posted..The Amazing Race For The Rest Of UsMy Profile

  • I had never heard of Jimmy Nelson before now, so thankyou for highlighting his work. Seriously stunning photographs. As sarah mentioned above, regardless of his tactics or gains here, “what matters is the preserving of these people’s appearance and cultures.”

    Even though there is mention above of these photos being staged, it doesn’t make them less stunning. We see staged photos every day – you’ll be hard pressed to find a genuine wildlife photo, for instance, in any magazine which wasn’t staged at a zoo. Even in the world’s most highly regarded international publications. What matters is raising awareness of these people and tribes.
    Megan @ Mapping Megan recently posted..Words And Phrases To Know In Every LanguageMy Profile

    • Good point, Megan. One of my favorite photo series is the one Nat Geo photographer Joel Sartore is doing to document endangered species around the world, where he basically puts zoo animals in front of a black studio-style backdrop. Every writer, photographer, or other creative artist conveys a message in their work, and I think the message Nelson is trying to convey is an admirable one. He openly acknowledges his photos as “Carefully Orchestrated” and openly admits to scouring the web for locations in which to shoot. He’s not the first photographer to shoot these tribal cultures, but that’s not the point. The point is that tribal cultures are in danger of losing their ancient customs and traditions to globalization and modern technology. And they’re worth preserving, by any means necessary. In my eyes, all the finger-pointing by other photographers is primarily just sour grapes that Nelson’s work has proven so successful…

  • There’s nothing more intimate than portraiture. I just love all the images you’ve showcased here. Thanks for highlighting such an interesting individual and his work.
    Charli | Wanderlusters recently posted..Valentine Tales From Travel’s Top CouplesMy Profile

  • I have been reading about this problem about Nelson copying Kanashkevich already few months ago. It is a big case. Both take amazing pictures, that goes without saying! Both do something amazing to somehow preserve those tribes in picture for future generation. But we can not close our eyes on such clear crossing of the line between having someone to look up, someone who inspire your work and just styling your photographies in almost 100% the same way. It is like a new travel blogger would just copied all post with little adjustment with Nomadic Matt’s posts!
    Marysia @ My Travel Affairs recently posted..Turkey – Endless reasons why I love it so much!My Profile

  • Regardless of the controversy behind his tactics, the photos are still amazing. It’s just a pity about the falseness behind them.
    Devlin @ Marginal Boundaries recently posted..Life on the Road: The Business of Travel Blogging – A PreviewMy Profile

  • Dang I love your pics man! You’ve been to so many exotic places! Did you bump into any head hunters down there? Ha!
    Henry Ranger recently posted..Boyah Chapter 2My Profile

  • Beth says:

    I also had never heard of Jimmy before, but I think what he’s doing is wonderful and extremely fascinating. These photographs are absolutely beautiful.
    Beth recently posted..You Asked, I Answered. Your FAQs About Moving to Hong KongMy Profile

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  • Rafaelinho says:

    Absolutely stunning images. I discovered his work about a month ago and was blown away. The images from Africa are my favorites. Love them all.
    Rafaelinho recently posted..Welcome to Monte AlbanMy Profile

  • This is one of the best interviews I’ve seen in a long while! It’s amazing how hospitable some of the people in these remote tribes can be. A truly inspiration story of his travels, I hope Jimmy achieve’s what he’s set out to do!
    Ron | Active Planet Travels recently posted..Budget Australia: 5 Tips for Seeing the Country on the CheapMy Profile

  • What a smart idea — and what splendid pictures. I like that these are formal portraits with a nod perhaps to Edward Curtis, who took on the same assignment with Native Americans a century earlier.
    Terry at Overnight New York recently posted..The Lowell: Light My FireMy Profile

  • Wow, these are spectacular photographs. I saw a similar show at the Annenburg Space in LA. last year. This is so important for people to grasp.
    Penny Sadller recently posted..Anatomy of a Mardi Gras ParadeMy Profile

  • Travelogged says:

    The photos are gorgeous but the story behind them is heartbreaking!
    Travelogged recently posted..Geneva and the South of France: My 10-Day IntineraryMy Profile

  • Jenna says:

    Beautiful photos–it’s so great to hear the story behind them as well. The are all such stunning photographs, but my favorite is the man from Arctic Russia–wow.
    Jenna recently posted..Mermaids of Weeki Wachee SpringsMy Profile

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  • This is a great article and the photos are beautiful. I’m fascinated by tribal culture, and I think it is important to document the tribes of the world. Increasingly tribal people are losing their land to development and so the more people who can appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of tribal peoples, then the more people might help to preserve them. I think there are a lot of things that we can learn from these cultures.

    I just wrote an article on the visiting tribes such as the Maasai, Himba and Samburu. As increasingly, as they become involved in a money economy, they are being exploited through tourism which is something I think everyone needs to be aware of when they think of visiting a tribe. But then there are some tribal customs and practices that perhaps the modern world could have a positive effect on. For example, the Samburu, pictured above, still widely practice FGM, despite it being illegal and highly dangerous and life threatening. Women are also often forced into marriage. So I think there’s an argument for both. Although, I agree that many of the customs should be preserved, but I think some the world can do without.

    It’s a really delicate balance.
    Helen | Helen in Wonderlust recently posted..Life Lessons Learned from the OscarsMy Profile

  • trish says:

    Kia ora Jimmy, and viewers.The photographs are great, BUT, the Maori of New Zealand are hardly ‘a vanishing tribe”. Our population is 4.5 million approx. and 1 in 7 of these are Maori. Maori play an active part at all levels of New Zealand society, and although, like all colonised indigenous people they are over represented in the negative statistics, they have a vibrant and living culture- check out their participation recently in welcoming the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their royal tour of NZ. Their language is one of the three official languages of this country(the others being English and Sign). Elements of Maori culture permeate all aspects of our society’s daily life.
    Sadly,the romanticised photo of two Maori women in this series, reminiscent of the Victorian era(19th Century) photographers’ pictures, is so atypical, as to make me doubt the veracity of the portrayals of the other cultures in the series.

  • This book is part of the problem that tribal peoples face, it certainly isn’t part of any solution.

    To learn more about why Jimmy Nelson’s project is dangerous and not true, see the review in Truthout by Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights.

  • Wow – what amazing photographs!! It’s sometimes hard to even still imagine that we live in a world full of these wonders and diversity, when you see globalization happening so rapidly now. Not that ‘all’ globalization is bad – access to clean water, healthcare, technology (if desired) – but it is sad to bare witness to the passing of some styles of evolved civilizations. Of course – one day this civilization of ours will pass away into the next as well… starting with those ‘kids these days’ 🙂
    Ian Ord – Where Sidewalks End recently posted..Eating London – A ‘taste’ of the historical east endMy Profile

  • These photos are gorgeous – GREAT work! They remind me of the work of Joey L, one of my favorite photographers. He’s taken amazing photos of sadhus in India.
    Miriam Risager recently posted..A glimpse into Cambodia’s dark pastMy Profile

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