Photographer Criticized for Stylized Portrayal of Indigenous Cultures

Photographer Criticized  for Stylized Portrayal of Indigenous Cultures

Photographer Jimmy Nelson is facing backlash over his portrayal of some indigenous people in his book, Before They Pass Away. The book (which is stunning to look at) portrays tribes and cultures supposedly untouched by the modern world. But some people are upset that the photos represent a stylized version of these cultures and are not a representation of how they actually appear today. 

Portraying cultures as more exotic than they actually are isn't exactly something new. Edward Curtis did it some 100 years ago when he photographed the American Indian. For some critics, it's less about the stylized nature of Nelson's work and more about his glossing over of why many of the "tribes" are "passing away." Some are diminishing through cultural genocide and others though political land grabs. Some tribes are even being put into slavery or mutilated, and none of this is mentioned in the book.

For other critics like Nixiwaka Yawanawá from Acre state in Brazil, the effect of Nelson's stylized interpretation hits a little closer to home. “As a tribal person I feel offended by Jimmy Nelson’s work Before They Pass Away. It’s outrageous! We are not passing away but struggling to survive. Industrialized society is trying to destroy us in the name of ‘progress,’ but we will keep defending our lands and contributing to the protection of the planet.” 

These cultures still exist, yet in the context of this book, they almost feel more like dioramas at a museum. What do you think? Does a project like this help these cultures more than it helps the photographer? Should that even matter?

Via Truth-Out via Reddit


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Michael Rapp's picture

Mixed bag of thoughts here:
If Nelson's intend was to help tribal culture and preservation: fail.
If he intended to showcase them in a dignified/ "how it should be" manner: full marks here.

But as I was trying to make up my mind about my comment, it kind of whacked me on the back of my head that it was too kind of scape- goaty to lay the blame on him and let's all be good for upcoming christmas season, ok? </sarcasm>
No, seriously, if you visit, say, Africa, or Egypt, or the South Americas, isn't there a bunch of locals doing a tribal dance, exhibiting their customs? I always feel I'm watching Exhibit A in a zoo.
Or when you buy cheap furniture "genuine teak" for less than a grand; so you can be damn certain that there was no legal timber involved here,

It's easy to lay the blame on some photographer who just happend to put his work forward into the public spotlitght, but as the saying goes: "whenever you point at someone, always remember that 3 fingers point right back at you."
(Or as the bible goes: "He who is without sin... ").
Just my two cents here

Bavarian DNA's picture

"I always feel I'm watching Exhibit A in a zoo", Although this is your opinion but it sounds racism and lack in history knowledge. The world existed as it is today based on the cultural variety and difference between the nations. I really wish that i miss understood what are you trying to say here, because its sad if its true in my opinion.

Chris Knight's picture

I think the point in which Michael may be trying to say is that when one visits many of these places, there are people who "play up their tradition" for tourists. It's akin to going to Hawaii and seeing a bunch of tourists watching at a luau. It's based in tradition, but it's not how these people live their lives today. Some feel that the book is trying to portray this kind of thing as the genuine article.

Bavarian DNA's picture

you might be right, though the Zoo word is wrong. Anyone who reads Zoo his/her mind goes directly to animals !!!.

About " "

From what i understand, that he is saying those tribes are vanishing from the world recognition rather than dying or vanished from the existence, i think what he meant by dying is, the vanishing of their traditions and rituals and not the people literally. This is what i understood

Michael Rapp's picture

I am sorry if I was misunderstood here; any racist remark was the furthest on my mind, quite the contrary here:
I feel kind of ashamed and out of of place, a stranger in a strange land, when watching a display of local cultural heritage. I simply don't feel I haven't earned the right to participate, in fact I *am* the dumb tourist for whom the show is displayed. That's why I avold those displays; for me to *earn* said right would be to share their live and lifestyle long enough to fully understand what said display actually is about.
Again, I apologize if this came down as a racist remark

Bavarian DNA's picture

No need to apologize dear Michael, i misunderstood you, when actually i could've ask you first to clarify your words. So i hope you accept my apology too.

Matt BuckShots's picture

Wow, very interesting. At first, I went right to the website and looked at the photos and story of the Kazakh (it was the image shown on this article) before reading what this Fstoppers story had to say. My first impression was "Wow, what amazing photos" not to mention the structure and delivery of information on the website. I then came back to this article and read what the proclaimed issues are.

I feel the same way as I do when contemplating my political views. A little confused and left in the dark. I never feel I am receiving the entire story. To me, this story and the issues that arise feel (to me) drenched in politics. And it makes me want to look the other way, just after I sit in amazement at the photos and the idea that cultures like this still exist. And ya maybe they exist in a different light then what is being shown. However, for my own sanity, the thought of modern civilization not infiltrating every square inch of this planet is a nice one. Guess there is a chance I am fooling myself. Unless I visit all of the places to see for myself...

Chris Knight's picture

I agree. It's a complicated conversation. I think if we classify this as fine art, there's less of a problem - art is meant to ask questions, not give answers. The murkiness for me lies is how the package is delivered (more as a stylized documentation) - it appears to represent a genuine portrayal of these cultures in their everyday life, and it's simply not.

Bavarian DNA's picture

I do agree with you on how the photos look and the idea that he spent 30 months on this project is something unique and inspiring

Mark Guerre's picture

Mountain out of a mole hill......People complaining about the poses being to fashion, or that some of the tribes have only recently started wearing figs to cover their modesty....thats really your issue?

The photographer never claimed to documentary photographer, his images are quite obviously contrived rather than reportage and He also acknowledges that its the rest of the world that is threatening to change their way of life forever, rather than the tribes themselves.

It seems like his project is being used as a pawn to illustrate an ulterior agenda (be that good, or bad) rather than anyone taking real offence to the project. For example Tribal leaders are commenting on his project being detrimental to their culture, a tribal leader that now lives in one of the UK's most affluent areas, Oxford.

Do I think thats really how they live their, but I could say that about any image of an culture. I for one think, they're great images which have enlightened me to some other cultures.

Ralph Berrett's picture

"One of the most bizarre premises of quantum theory, which has long fascinated philosophers and physicists alike, states that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality."

The big issue that I is that this work projects a stereo type of people. That is a doubled edge sword. What we are seeing is a romanticized view of these cultures. If the work had been paintings instead of photographs we would not be having this conversation.

The reason we are having this is photographs have a certain amount historic weight that other art forms don't have. As far a photojournalist view of culture these images do not fit niche. What you are seeing is how Jimmy Nelson views ideal spirt of these different cultures.

If you view in that context then the backlash is more about how other people want their message delivered. The biggest issue here is Jimmy Nelson is see these cultures are losing his ideal image because of social, economic and environmental pressures.

In trying to deliver that message with photographic art format instead of a photojournalist approach has left himself open for attack.

Greg Taillon's picture

This. Photography is still viewed by-and-large as only indexical, and socially realist. Your quantum theory point about autoaffective states is significant, too—Foucault has made similar points about the establishment of knowledge in humanism. Whether he has endeavored to represent these people as they "truly are" or not, the very presence of a photographer (a viewer; inspector; surveiller; anyone with a scopophilic mandate) will influence the subject matter from the very get-go. It is an illusion to believe there is a "natural" state to be captured which can be entirely free of observational influence.

james digiorgio's picture

Photographer David LaChapelle once said: "If you want reality, take the bus." The pics weren't published in NatGeo. If they were, and the true plight of these peoples was glossed over or disregarded, that would be different. But this book isn't NatGeo and, like many if not most photography books, it's intended to showcase the photographer's work for those who appreciate such work, and to hopefully earn the shooter a few bucks, whether the photographers cop to that or not.

Ricky Perrone's picture

This guy owes nothing to anyone. The people who think they can tell him how his vision should have been presented are delusional at best, arrogant and unintelligent at worst.

David Vaughn's picture

I can see what the critics are saying. It's akin to street photographers going out and photographing the dirtiest, most homeless-looking homeless person and then selling the images as a portrayal of homelessness.

This feels somewhat exploitative under the facade of cultural preservation. The whole of a culture is much more than the interesting/stereotypical aspects that fascinate people in the first world.

Then again, Joey L has done a similar project and people treat him as a photo god, so maybe I'm just entirely off-base.

Greg Taillon's picture

Perhaps the issue is that we're *supposing* that activism and documentarism necessarily go hand-in-hand. Communicating through verbal linguistics is just as rife with poetic license in terms of metaphors and analogies, and the argumentative premises (if done correctly) are not considered any weaker for it. That is the essence of persuasion and the work of the rhetorician—it's polemics and sophistry. Why would the photographic analogue to that be any different? This is visual polemicism, intended to convince an audience of a position considered worthwhile to take a stake in—not a value-free representation of "things as they are", but "things as they should (or could) be". By definition, value-statements are subjective—thus, to apply standards of objectivity in terms of their reality-referent would be missing the point and nonsensical.

David Vaughn's picture

It's a representation of "what could/should be" from the perspective of someone who is basically a cultural tourist.

I understand that activism is about persuasian, but that doesn't make this work any less exploitative (Hey, I have high quality images of things first world people find inherently exotic and cool, buy my book).

Also; there's a reason there are so many parodies of those ASPCA commercials and others like them. They are disingenuous. Glossing over cultures with an industrialized, commercialized, first world brush, does not make me want to take a stake in these cultures, because the product does not represent the reality of the cultures.

Maybe some people are moved to action by them. I am not one of those people.

Gene Lowinger's picture

He's a photographer. He produced a beautiful book of wonderful images. He doesn't pretend to be an anthropologist, sociologist, or historian. He did what photographers do, and did it very well. Kudos to him. And to anyone who finds fault with his success, go home, grow up, and stop whining.

Stephen Hunt's picture

Maybe this is purely a recognition of what we still have, and what we have almost lost? The tribes depicted are a part of the reality those tribes have, and not a stereotype of their society today.

Kim Brown's picture

He could have photographed them exactly as they appear today, and he would have been criticized for portraying them as they are, struggling, rather than when they were in their prime.
It doesn't matter what you do any more, the complainers are a very sad given.

Jeff Wilson's picture

I find it beyond words that our westernised society , with its obsession with image, celebrity , photo touching up have the gall to criticise a photographer giving others cultures an opportunity to project how they would like to be seen. The images we export of our culture are by no means a true reflection of our lives, and we build entire industries on that fallacy. I have lived and worked with many of the tribes and often is the case that given the choice of how they would like to photographed, they project the same image the Jimmy has captured. So to those critics of this project I say take a long hard look at your own culture and the people working to portay it before you voice some sort of false piety on behalf of the " unprotected"

David Vaughn's picture

But your comment is a fallacy within itself.

Michael Kormos's picture

Man, I guess he did a great job. He's getting a lot of press (good or bad, it's all good), and I'm kind of curious to see the book myself. If this helps him boost his sales, I guess he's succeeded (on the commercial side anyway). As for the artistic side, well, you know what they say. All good art provokes strong opinions, so I guess he's succeeded there too.

Jason Whitman's picture

I generally get rather annoyed by criticisms of this nature, however the photographer definitely muddies the water with the quotes that he highlights on the project website. It is not terribly clear if the intention is to primarily create art or rather to engage in photo documentation of these cultures with an activist bent, and the intentionality in this case does matter. As with so many things in life and art, this is not a black and white issue. That said, the photographs are quite good and enjoyable to view.

Spy Black's picture

I'll give the benefit of the doubt that Nelson was trying to do good here, and not just make a buck, but unfortunately his "outside looking in" perspective is what did him in. Yawanawá's criticism pretty much nailed it.