Before They Pass Away

“As the world becomes more interconnected and globalized, more and more small indigenous groups all over the world are disappearing, assimilated into larger nearby cultures. Photographer Jimmy Nelson has set out to capture pictures of as many of these groups as he could manage to meet over a two-year period in his “Before They Pass Away” photo compilation. The result is a truly visually striking documentation of small tribal groups from around the world surrounded by the things that play an important role in their lives.” (More photos at demilked)












~ by Dver on January 3, 2014.

5 Responses to “Before They Pass Away”

  1. Does he identify the tribes represented? I’m very curious about how they self-identify v how others label them (I.e. If this was for say National Geographic, how would they be identified?)

  2. /Rant on

    These are beautiful pictures but I feel deeply bothered by the ideas carried in the language around the project. If you look at the website they come from: you can see what you think. My strongest objections are as follows.

    1. The language is profoundly othering.
    The tradition of the Noble Savage, going back to Rousseau at least, carries the idea of the “noble other”. This wise and exotic person is said to somehow be better than people living in civilization because they exist away from its’ corrupting influences. This tradition, which I see strongly in the marketing of the pictures linked to, says that we can venerate, from afar, these noble others for their wildness, their beauty, their wisdom. Why this is so harmful is that it creates stereotypes and simplifications about what it means to be a member of these cultures. It paints a two dimensional fake picture of multi-dimensional real people. The people in these cultures have full rich complex messy lives that are done a profound disservice by placing them on a pedestal. Outsiders (mostly of European descent) describing these cultures often note that they don’t have many of the problems well known to Western culture. In doing this they forget that it isn’t that they have no problems, it’s that they have DIFFERENT problems. A lesson that many in Western culture have not learned is that it can be just as depersonifying to view a group as somehow superhuman, than it can be to view them as subhuman. In addition, by placing these cultures on pedestals we rip away their ability to define themselves. If you look at the history books you can find examples of Western groups that, upon finding indigenous individuals or groups that didn’t meet their expectations, felt perfectly sanguine about inflicting horrible trauma because they weren’t “real” Indians. You also find many examples of Westerners using similar reasoning to imprison, constrain, or kidnap indigenous individuals as a specimen to be viewed in a cage. The ideas behind the language of this project are the same ideas that say it’s ok remove other animals from their habitat and parade them around for profit and entertainment “because they’re endangered” AND are the same ideas that say it’s ok to make images of a graveyard full of gods because they’re “basically already dead”.
    2. It plays into a deeply harmful narrative.
    The cultures in these pictures are every bit as alive as the gods in that “graveyard” and by implying, in the title, that they aren’t or won’t be for long makes their efforts at survival and revitalization THAT much harder. Yes many of these cultures are under threat, yes many may vanish as noticeably distinct entities in the near future, but the language in the project ISN’T HELPING. I’ve spent more than a little time in New Zealand and the Maori are decidedly NOT about to “pass away”, despite showing up in the project. Their language is alive, their traditions are alive, they have political power, they aren’t going anywhere and implying that they are is unhelpful at best.
    3. Finally, and most subtly, the language around this project implies that the passing away of these cultures is inevitable. That sadly (but probably for the good of society in the end), these cultures will fade and everyone will become more and more homogeneous (i.e. more like American privileged Christians). As someone striving, tooth and nail, to remind people that the dominant culture is NOT the only way to be, as someone striving to create, recreate, and/or revitalize my ancestral European indigenous traditions I find large parts of this project deeply unhelpful.

    I applaud efforts to celebrate cultural alternatives. I applaud attempts at genuine engagement with indigenous cultures. I applaud genuine allyship in attempts to revitalize old growth cultures. I can see the desire in this project to do all of those things, but for me, they failed badly.

    Willem, at the College of Mythic Cartography, has also written eloquently on this:

    /Rant off

    • You make some good points. Honestly I hadn’t looked at the main site or anything other than the photos, which I found captivating. I do think it’s important to bring attention to these traditions which ARE mostly endangered, but you’re right, language that assumes they are inevitably dead is not helpful, on a psychological or magical level.

  3. Related:
    “Imperialist Nostalgia: a mood of nostalgia that makes racial domination appear innocent and pure; people mourning the passing or transformation of what they have caused to be transformed. Imperialist nostalgia revolves around a paradox: A person kills somebody and then mourns the victim; or someone deliberately alters a life form and then regrets that things have not remained as they were. . . Imperialist nostalgia uses a pose of “innocent yearning” both to capture peoples’ imagination and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination”
    -R. Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis

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