Jimmy Nelson: photographing the “last of the untouched”


In Before They Pass Away, the British photographer Jimmy Nelson captures the lives and traditions of the last surviving tribes who have managed to preserve their customs within our increasingly globalised world.

Portrait Nelson

Photo © Jimmy Nelson Pictures BV

Jimmy Nelson‘s dream had always been to create a visual document that reminds us, and the generations to come, of the “beauty of pure and honest living”. The aim of his latest project is to keep the traditions of the world’s last tribes alive for us to learn from.

“For as long as I can remember, I have travelled the world. My father worked for a major oil company and by the time I was seven, I had seen more countries than most people get to visit in a lifetime. Thereafter I travelled back and forth to boarding school in the UK from all corners of the world. You can imagine that from a very early age I was made aware of the rapid cultural changes happening around the world,” Jimmy Nelson says. “At the age of sixteen I lost all my hair due to the accidental use of the wrong medicine. This event changed me not only aesthetically, but also personally, I felt different from everyone else due to my new appearance”. 

Instead of going to university, Jimmy decided to embark on a year’s journey to find himself. He travelled the length of Tibet by foot and on his return the photo diary that he made was published. This was the start of his career as a photographer. In the years that followed, Jimmy worked as a photojournalist in various locations like Afghanistan, Pakistan, El Salvador, Nicaragua and former Yugoslavia. He then moved to China for a three-year project called ‘Literary Portraits of China’, which was eventually published to a wide international acclaim. In 1998 he settled down in Amsterdam, where he worked as a commercial photographer and began a family.

Photo © Jimmy Nelson Pictures BV - -

Photo © Jimmy Nelson Pictures BV,,

At one point however, he understood that what he really wanted to do was get back into the world and search for ancient civilizations. In 2009, he planned to become a guest of more than 30 secluded and visually unique tribes to witness their time-honoured traditions and discover how our increasingly globalised world is threatening to change their way of life forever.

 “Our world is changing at breakneck speed. Countries that, not so long ago, were considered developing nations are now among the worlds wealthiest. It’s inevitable that such rapid progress in affluence and technology ultimately reaches those cultures that, up until now, have managed to preserve their own identity and values. And when it does, their longstanding traditions will gradually disappear,” Nelson says.

Jimmy Nelson has photographed 35 tribes so far, based on “aesthetic beauty, geographical location, and the diversity of the nature they live in”. The photographs in the book “Before they pass away” show the enormous diversity of extraordinary nature on our planet; this exquisitely photographed showcase for world tribal culture is not only a joy to look at, but also an important historical record.

Cover Before They Pass Away

© Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson, published by teNeues, € 128, –

Wherever Jimmy and his team went, they always approached the people they photographed with “enormous dignity”. They would try to communicate, usually with the help of translators.

“As with all relationships in life, the key to profoundly connect with someone is trust. Only when one is stripped of wealth, class, colour and culture disparities, true humanistic communication can start flowing”, Nelson explains. The first next step for Jimmy is to go back to the tribes that he photographed and show them the result. He wants them to realize how important their existence is for the rest of the world and the future of humanity.

For the book: Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelsonpublished by teNeues, € 128, –




Bibbi Abruzzini
Bibbi Abruzzini is a foreign correspondent for the BALTIC REVIEW and international news agencies in South Asia. She is Italian, grew up in Brussels and has reported from several countries, including Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Croatia, France, India, Italy, Lebanon, Nepal, Tunisia,Turkey and the US - writing largely about social and development issues.

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