Jimmy Nelson

Profile Jimmy Nelson

© Jimmy Nelson

“I aim to leave a living artistic legacy for all of humanity to remind them of the inevitability of a homogeneous world.” – Jimmy Nelson

─── by Josh Bright, May 2, 2023
  • Jimmy Nelson is a world-renowned artist who has spent the last decade traveling the globe, capturing powerful portraits of indigenous cultures whose traditions and ways of life are increasingly under threat.

    Photography by Jimmy Nelson. Portrait of Maori,
    Maori, Bay of Islands, Haruru Falls, North Island, New Zealand 2011

    Nelson’s passion for documenting indigenous cultures was ignited at a young age, thanks to his father’s work as an exploratory geologist, which took him on many trips across the globe. These experiences had a profound impact on Nelson, fostering intrepidity and a sense of fearlessness that would shape the course of his career.

    Photography by Jimmy Nelson. Group portrait of Gauchos in Argentina.
    Christian, Alfonso & Requelme, Gauchos, Brazo Sur, Lake Argentino, Cerro Christal on horizon, Patagonia, Argentina, 2011

    e first introduced me to some of the world’s last indigenous cultures. As a result of these first encounters, my lifelong curiosity was sparked.”

    Photography by Jimmy Nelson. Portrait of Indian man.
    Rabari, Ranthambore National Park, Aman Bagh, Rajasthan, India, 2012
    Photography by Jimmy Nelson. Portrait of Maasai girl
    Maasai, Ngorongoro, Serengeti, Tanzania, 2010

    His first photographic project was the result of an epic journey he made on foot across Tibet in 1987. The captivating visual diary he produced following the year-long trip, featured images of rarely-seen places and landscapes, leading to widespread international acclaim and assignments from leading publications.

    Photography by Jimmy Nelson. Portrait of Marquesans, Vaioa river, Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia
    Marquesans, Vaioa river, Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, 2016

    Seven years later, Nelson documented the newly-opened People’s Republic of China, in the project Literary Portraits of China, which was exhibited in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, before touring globally.

    Nelson later began working commercially for international brands while simultaneously traveling the globe to photograph remote cultures using a traditional 50-year-old plate camera. This set the foundation for his acclaimed project, Before They Pass Away, a series of portraits depicting 35 different indigenous communities across the globe who have retained their unique traditions and practices in the face of the threat of globalization and industrialization.

    Portrait by Jimmy Nelson of a Wodaabe tribe member
    Wodaabe, Gerewol festival, Bossio, Chari-Baguirmi region, Chad, 2016
    Portrait by Jimmy Nelson of a Kazakh girl, Mongolia.
    Kazakh, Sagsai, Altantsögts, Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia, 2017

    Captured in traditional dress and often against backdrops of the landscapes with which the people are familiar, the images demonstrate Nelson’s masterful apreciation of color, texture, and form, which endows them with a painting-like quality. While somewhat ethnographic in nature, they also stand as works of art that capture the individualities of each person, thanks to Nelson’s approach and the trust he builds with those he photographs through, “a combination of humility, vulnerability, compassion and a lot of time.”

    Portrait by Jimmy Nelson of a man in traditional Dutch clothing
    People of the Axel, Netherlands
    Portrait by Jimmy Nelson of two Huli bachelor boys, Tari, Hela province, Papua New Guinea,
    Huli bachelor boys, Tari, Hela province, Papua New Guinea, 2017

    Released as a book in 2013, Before They Pass Away received widespread acclaim, demonstrating Nelson’s unwavering commitment and respect for the cultures he documents. He continued his mission in 2016 with the launch of the Jimmy Nelson Foundation, which aims to foster an appreciation for cultural diversity and connect people from all over the world to celebrate polychromatic cultural identity.

    Portrait by Jimmy Nelson of Kazakh men in the Altai mountains
    Kazakh, Altai mountains, Bayan-Ӧlgii province, 2017

    “My favorite experience is the realization that I will never make the ultimate picture. Although every sittings aspiration is to get closer and closer to that goal and that is ultimate happiness for me.”

    Portrait by Jimmy Nelson of a Peruvian, Indigenous man
    Fredy Flores Machacca, Q’ero, Qochamoqo, Hatun Q’eros, Andes, Peru, 2018
    Portrait by Jimmy Nelson of a Dutch girl in traditional clothing
    Rhodé, Noordwest-Veluwe, Gelderland, The Netherlands, 2021

    Nelson’s dedication to his craft and passion for the subject are the cornerstones of his work, which includes some of the most absorbing portraits of today. According to Nelson, the key to creating great portraiture is straightforward: “First, fall in love with the subject. Then, regardless of the outcome – whether you win or lose the award – your hearts will forever be connected and bound together by the process.”


    All images © Jimmy Nelson

    Jimmy Nelson was judge of our 2023 Portrait Photography Award. You can see the results here.