“I aim to leave a living artistic legacy for all of humanity to remind them of the inevitability of a homogeneous world.” – Jimmy Nelson
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.
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.
“…He first introduced me to some of the world’s last indigenous cultures. As a result of these first encounters, my lifelong curiosity was sparked.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.