I take pictures. I make images. Unlike film, which inundates you with movement and sound, defining the ongoing moment, a photograph just sits there quietly while you decide what it is saying. I strongly believe that artists must always be part of the conversation. We don’t exert tangible power, but we can reflect, ask questions and share ideas. Of course, there is a direction of what I ideally would like to share; my idea of aesthetic and empowerment for a better world.
My idea of representing these people in the most dignified way I can possibly imagine and achieve has a particular purpose. First of all, the idea that more remote people in many cases without a global perspective could get an even slightly better sense of their uniqueness and importance in the world through the work I do is very meaningful to me. I hope it nurtures a pride that will help them to be more resilient to the pressures around them. On the other side, ‘we’ in the developed world always want to represent ourselves in the most dignified way. When on the cover of Vogue or Time magazine, we want it to be respectful and beautiful, don’t deny it. All human beings are vain in one way or another, so who are ‘we’ to say that indigenous people can not be afforded this same virtue? To me, they are as beautiful, proud and worthy as the rest of us and have all the right to be represented in the most aesthetic way imaginable. I strongly believe that in order for them to be fully participating and being taking seriously in their voice, mutual respect is imperative. This personal artistic documentation is a way of re-igniting the fire of indigenous pride and empowering future generations to illuminate their cultural heritage in our ever-evolving world.
Vulnerability is somehow particularly pertinent for my word. As a young boy, I lived all over Africa, due to my father’s job as a geologist for Shell. I was sent away to a traditional English boarding school in 1974 at the age of seven. The next ten years of my life were spent travelling to and from my nomadic parents' remote locations across the world to an archaic English institution. At the age of sixteen, after cumulative stress, I lost every strand of my hair overnight and forever. Total baldness in the early 1980s was not accepted nor understood in contemporary English culture. This led to me being feeling brutally ostracized for my new appearance. As a result of this catastrophic aesthetic confrontation of my visual identity, I ran away to find naive empathy with other “bald children”, in the high and remote Himalayas with the monks of the monasteries of Tibet. This was inspired by childhood memories of losing myself in the stories of the Belgium cartoonist Hergé’s adventures of Tintin. To consolidate this journey of two years I took with me my first camera; a Zenit B. I used this medium to cement the relationships of the people that I encountered along the way. I quickly discovered that with a few rolls of colour negative film, I was able to encounter the warmth and empathy with other human beings that I had been longing for. These new friends of mine adopted me into their extended families and I was subsequently free of prejudices and felt like I had come home.
I was subsequently free of prejudices and felt like I had come home.
BEFORE THEY PASS AWAY
The eventual images from Tibet were published in a variety of worldwide publications in 1988. This was the catalyst for what became a lifelong journey of using the medium of photography to unendingly discover our cultural identity. For the first few years, I lost myself in photojournalism and the documentation of war. Then, a few years later, I met the mother of my children. Ashkaine and I decided to start a family together. I used my creative technical skills acquired in the field and applied them to commercial photography to create ‘safe’ job to be able to look after what evolved into a family of three children. Prior to the easy accessibility of digital photography in the early 2000s, a professional analogue photographer was a lucrative profession. But with the eventual onset of the digital world, all illusions of safety within my profession died and I soon realised that I would have to reinvent myself. The only path that was valid for my skill set was to re-indulge in this eternal quest of human and cultural identity. After a mind-blowing rollercoaster of financial, personal and creative insecurities I was brought to the publication of my first book Before They Pass Away in 2013. Due to its highly controversial title, the project gained unprecedented worldwide attention, which propelled me and my new team to start sharing this cultural discussion. As a result of this, we now use a multitude of mediums which go far beyond the confines of photography to share our vision with the world.
HOMAGE TO HUMANITY
By 2016 we established our own company and a foundation, which are completely independent and self-funded. Based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, my team and I undertook the production of a new book Homage to Humanity, which was to provide answers to the questions, which had arisen from our initial publication (BTPA). This multi-layered book includes interviews with the people portrayed, behind the scenes photography and stories that pose more questions and strive to find answers with original insights. This was achieved by groundbreaking technology in the form of the Companion App. With this mobile application, one can now gain digital access to every two-dimensional picture. By scanning the images with your smartphone, the software enables the viewer to be taken into the world and join in the action and adventure of the making of the images. The viewer can now also share the experience with the immersive technology of the 360 film gallery whilst using a pair of cardboard glasses supplied with every copy.
As a result of both books becoming a worldwide success, our project has now gained a sustainable natural momentum. We seem to have touched upon the Zeitgeist of the global discussion. My industrious team in Amsterdam is now busy creating many exhibits and installations, which will be presented around the world to enable us to share our story. Whilst at the same time I have decided personally to raise the creative bar to levels I have not previously achieved. For the foreseeable future, I will be continuing my voyage of discovery. To conceive the definitive multi-media experience to enable the viewer to come as close as possible to experiencing true human empathy with the other. This story will revolve around the journey of me and my 10x8 analogue camera.
Jimmy Nelson Foundation
My dream is that the art that I create will ultimately sustain the communities that I have visited, through mutual pride and respect. This will be achieved by returning the content that I have created to its original owners and enabling them to present it to the younger generations to come.
Reciprocity is paramount in the telling of the story, so much has been given to me over the past years in insightful learnings. The least I can do is give back the opportunity for these communities to reaffirm their value for themselves. This has culminated into the Jimmy Nelson Foundation.
The Foundation has three pillars and therefore three project categories; raise awareness, spread knowledge and spark reciprocity. With the help of J. Walter Thompson in Amsterdam and India we were able to create two worldwide awareness campaigns; Blink. And they are gone. & The Preservation Robot. In 2018/2019 we proudly launched three awareness projects, in which we have sent a group of volunteers to document the Csikós in Hungary, the Hadzabe in Tanzania and the Inti Raymi festival of the Quechua in Peru. In 2019/2020 we are aiming to fund three more and starting up the first educational and reciprocity projects, and there’s much more to come! For more information on our past, current and upcoming projects and how you can become a friend of the Foundation. Please visit our website: www.jimmynelsonfoundation.com