In a time when everything around us feels so ephemeral, one photographer was able to skillfully capture some of the world’s most remote cultures, forever preserving fragments of their customs in a new book. Before They Pass Away is the result of photographer Jimmy Nelson’s three-year mission to document 29 different tribes in 44 countries. It contains stunning, real depictions of tribal cultures, serving more aptly as what Nelson describes as “a museum of knowledge.”
According to the book’s description, “This historic volume showcases tribal cultures around the world. With globalization, these societies are to be prized for their distinctive lifestyles, art and traditions. They live in close harmony with nature, now a rarity in our modern era. Jimmy Nelson not only presents us with stunning images of customs and artifacts, but also offers insightful portraits of people who are the guardians of a culture that they–and we–hope will be passed on to future generations in all its glory.” Before They Pass Away contains 500 color photographs of individual portraits, breathtaking locations, and groups of people, mostly untouched by the modern world. All of the photographs were taken with a traditional plate camera, and every image captured seems more striking than the one that came before.
Time Magazine explains that Before They Pass Away is “a massive book—both physically and thematically […] In what is perhaps the most comprehensive contemporary look at some of the world’s last remaining tribes, the book chronicles Nelson’s experiences photographing populations that have neither adapted to the modern world, nor shown a desire to join it,” of the enormous undertaking. Nelson aimed not only to document remarkable cultures, but to inspire a dialogue surrounding the major cultural imbalance he discovered in the world’s remotest tribes.
“I didn’t start this project anticipating that I could stop the world from changing,” explains Nelson. “I purely wanted to create a visual document that reminds us and generations to come of how beautiful the human world once was.” Nelson believes that the technological changes of more developed countries threaten to permeate the authentic cultures of many tribes. He suggests that it won’t be too long before much of their unique culture is erased, a realization that inspired the title of the project. Nelson describes the body of work as “an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world,” of his intention to photographically preserve cultures that face impending change.
The subjects of Nelson’s works are captured with impeccable quality. Admiring these remarkable photographs should not be done without a fair amount of social consciousness, however. Western society has a sordid history of treating other cultures as exotic objects to be appraised, or worse, conquered. It is the viewer’s responsibility to employ empathy while admiring Before They Pass Away, and to consider the layers of complicated cultural understanding needed to truly appreciate what Nelson has captured.
What do you think of the striking, poignant photographs in Before They Pass Away?