Some encounters really impact you. Let me tell you about the one we experienced on Tuesday, September 13th, 2016 at the La Hune gallery in Paris, in the Saint-Germain des Prés neighborhood. One name: Jimmy Nelson. An amazing photographic body of work, a story or rather several extraordinary stories, an outstanding personality, timeless people. It took us on a journey right before we embarked on our own.
We meet each other in front of the gallery, because we had heard that the great Jimmy would be there for a 2-hour book signing. I had been walking around since the morning with his book “Before they pass away” for the occasion. I am a huge fan of Jimmy Nelson’s work, and am fascinated by his stunningly beautiful portraits. We had already come to the gallery to see his exhibit there, which had been showing since the 8th of June. This time though was different, my heart was beating even faster. I knew I was going to be overwhelmed, but I dreamt of meeting him and asking him all the questions I’ve had since I first saw his portraits of the Maasai and of Mongolian hunters.
I could see myself coming in, shyly handing him my copy of his book after waiting in the line of fans, quickly asking him some questions and leaving almost as quickly as I had come in. Of course, it happened completely differently. There weren’t that many people for one, and Jimmy was in the middle of a conversation. While we were waiting, we looked at the exhibited photos again, and quickly realized that there were a few of us gravitating around Jimmy while waiting for him to be available to chat.
That moment finally arrives. I was quite overwhelmed, so Emmanuel had to come in and rescue me to complete my speech in unsure English. I got to tell him what a big fan I was and to quickly tell him about our project. He was frequently looking over my shoulder as some journalists were waiting for him, so he had to quickly go away. “Ok, you know what,” he said while taking my book to sign it, “come back at 19h, I’m doing a talk and will tell many stories and anecdotes.” We gladly accepted even though we were a bit surprised as nothing indicated he would be doing a conference. I put my book back in my bag and we left to go get a drink at a café while waiting for the time of his talk. I had trouble realizing what had just happened and how approachable Jimmy Nelson was.
It’s not something you expect from an internationally renowned photographer like him.
He wasn’t born with a camera, but almost: at barely 20 years old, Jimmy Nelson started a photojournalism carreer, covering big and historic events, such as Russia’s 1980s incursion in Afghanistan, the war between India and Pakistan or the war in ex-Yugoslavia. In 2009, he started what remains his biggest project to this day, traveling for 3 years throughout the world to go see the last indigenous tribes, unaffected by modern life: this project is “Before they pass away”. That’s the man who welcomed us.
And we’re back at the gallery, curious, impatient, but also a bit skeptical as we think the place is a bit small and there doesn’t seem to be the necessary equipment for a conference. At the entrance, a young woman asks for our name to check we’re on the list, so we tell her it is probably for something else as we came on Jimmy Nelson’s invitation, so it’s probably not the same event. She tells us: “oh of course, go right ahead!” On the floor of the exhibit, we are welcomed with champagne and “petit fours”… Ok, so he had us crash a private reception! That’s definitely cool.
Clearly we are a bit out of place: all the guests know each other and are well-dressed, everyone’s shaking each others’ hands, we definitely stand out… but who cares, we’re staying!
There is a bit of a commotion in the next room, so we hurry up to have a good spot, right under the projector. Buckle your seatbelts, the Nelson plane is taking off, with Jimmy just a couple feet away. Before he starts, he takes his sandles off and connects with the audience rushing to listen to him.
He starts by telling us that he never really started photography, that it just came along without him realizing it. He shows some pictures on the screen behind him, accompanying his tale. The son of diplomats, he grew up in Africa, Asia and South America. At age 8, he was sent to a Jesuit school in England, his native country, as his parents had to work abroad and couldn’t take him with them. He tells this story very funnily, but it seems he doesn’t have very fond memories of that time. At 16, he became very sick and permanently lost his hair. This disease seems to be a turning point for him, the beginning of a new life over which he wants to have more control. At 17, when “others have their teenage crisis by running away, drinking or taking drugs,” Jimmy Nelson left everything to travel alone for a year in Tibet. He followed his childhood dreams, marked by Tintin, and took photos of everything he saw. While nobody had ever been interested in him, the media starts to contact him to publish his work. And thus, a great career started.
Despite all this, Jimmy is a normal man. He told us about the problems he has with his teenage son, and how humor can break the ice. He told us about the difficulties he had when he went to meet the Eskimo and reminded us how much depends on luck and pure chance. He told us some of his secrets to approach and communicate with peoples who don’t speak the same language or share the same cultural values. Notably he told us of one time in Sudan where he almost lost his life and was saved by the power of pictures. Throughout his talk, we got one clear resounding message: the importance of humility and vulnerability. That’s what makes us human and equal in short.
This message in found in all of Jimmy Nelson’s work: focusing on the beauty of the human race, and reminding us, that however beautiful it is, it remains fragile. That we have to preserve it. The method he uses to convince these tribes to be photographed is telling: he shows himself has weak and at their mercy, to flatter their ego and vanity. This way, he earns their trust. But it is only because he manages to make them all contribute and participate that he can get the perfect shot: to recreate the conditions of a photo studio, he gives each member of the tribe a photographic reflector (like a mirror), to direct the light towards the subject depending on the sunlight.
It becomes a team effort, beyond all their differences, to immortalize human beauty. And to get his message across, he uses the same tools, making his audience participate, to turn them into village chiefs, women in charge of the hearth, or warriors, all the while dressed in their suits and ties.
Gratefulness and consideration is also what enabled him to make peace with his son. With unwavering humor, he sent him a picture of himself with Ikea kitchen brushes stuck to his bald head by their suction cups. His son shared it on social networks and got the most likes, comments and shares he had ever had. You rock, Daddy!
The beauty of humanity also saved his life in Sudan: child soldiers, armed to the teeth, stopped his truck and were very menacing until they saw picture in his book that contained pictures of members of their tribe. They then protected him throughout his travels in the region.
Jimmy Nelson’s work features 35 tribes throughout the world: it is a rare testament of cultures not yet affected by globalization. From the fascinating face painting of the Huli Wigmen of Papua-New Guinea, to the exoticism of the Karo tribe in Ethiopia, to the captivating scens of the Himba in Namibia, it is urgent to discover and share this photographer’s work. He is an inspiration for the guardians of the riches of Humanity.
We left there enthralled, and as you can imagine, transformed. An adventure in itself. We were so overwhelmed, that we hadn’t even looked at what he wrote in our book: