Before They Pass Away

Colonial photography and Ethnographic Surrealism

In 2009, British photographer- Jimmy Nelson, embarked on a journey around the world in order to create  a collection of photographs titled ‘Before they pass away.’ Nelson had spent the past three years travelling to the most remote parts of the planet in order to document the last few remaining tribes before they eventually die out. His aim was to create a visual record for future generations.  ‘The past will be but in memory and in pictures.’ [1]


(Photograph of a Kalam tribe member)

His photographs capture the very essence of the tribes, however, one can tell that he has an oriental perspective. He uses the tribes special celebrations in order to portray them as more exotic and mysterious- he does not capture their everyday life. The photographs are staged in order to create the perfect image and at times it took up to three hours to take a photo.

His photographs remind me of colonial photography, the belief that we need to possess the unknown and the exotic. His images suggest an element of ethnographic surrealism, by this I mean, Nelson did not photograph the tribes carrying mundane tasks, because he believed that for every ‘local custom or truth, there was always an exotic alternative.’ [2] Nelson arranged the subjects so as to create awe inspiring images, his aim was not to create a true image of their culture and traditions.

Nelson’s achievement is phenomenal, he has managed to create an archive of images preserving some of the most isolated tribes. However, after having watched his documentary video, it appears that his main motive for carrying out such a monumental task was not simply for the historical achievement of capturing the remote tribes- it also meant to be a tribute to himself:

[1] Anne Maxwell, Colonial photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the Native and Making of European Identities, (London, 1999), p.107.

[2] James Clifford, ‘On Ethnographic Surrealism,’ Comparative Studies in Society and History, p.542.


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