NENETS TRIBE Location: Siberia – Yamal Photographed in 2011. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures

Jimmy Nelson Photography: indigenous people – Before They Pass Away

British photographer Jimmy Nelson traveled to 40 countries around the world for four years and documented indigenous peoples for his project “Before They Pass Away”. Equipped with a historical plate camera, he portrayed ethnic groups whose way of life and culture are threatened by modern industrial society. His expressive photographic works fluctuate between anthropology and subjective idealization.

Kasache. Ursprünglich waren die Kasachen Hirtennomaden in der Steppe. Zur Zeit der Sowjetherrschaft wurden die meisten Nomaden gewaltsam unter staatlichem Zwang sesshaft gemacht und die Herden zu Kolchosen verstaatlicht. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures
 Kazakhs. Originally the Kazakhs were pastoral nomads in the steppe. At the time of the Soviet rule, most of the nomads were forcibly sedentary under state coercion and the herds were nationalized as collective farms. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures

The Kazakhs are a nomadic people who travel together with their herds through the mountains and valleys of western Mongolia. One of the traditions they have been able to maintain so far is hunting with their eagles. Their culture is shaped by the bond with nature and the belief in the soul of the whole world.

© Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson, Kazakhs, Mongolia,
Kasachen . © Jimmy Nelson Pictures
Maori © Jimmy Nelson Pictures
 Maori. The indigenous people of New Zealand are called Maori. Originally from the Pacific island world. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures

The Maori culture can be traced back to the 13th century. Originally from Polynesia, the first Maoris arrived in New Zealand with their seaworthy outrigger canoes. The conquest of the European colonists in the 18th century had a massive impact on the indigenous people. There were violent conflicts between them and the newcomers. The Europeans also brought diseases such as tuberculosis, measles and typhus with them. Almost 200,000 Maoris should lose their lives as a result.

Maori. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures
Maori. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures
Goroka. Papua-Neuguinea. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures
Goroka. Papua-Neuguinea. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures
Die Huaorani sind eine indigene Volksgruppe, die in den Regenwäldern des Amazonasbeckens zwischen den Flüssen Napo und Curaray im Osten Ecuadors lebt. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures
The Huaorani are an indigenous group of people who live in the rainforests of the Amazon basin between the Napo and Curaray rivers in eastern Ecuador. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures
Die Mursi sind eine Ethnie im Südwesten Äthiopiens mit weniger als 10.000 Angehörigen. Sie leben im unteren Omo-Flusstal. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures
The Mursi are an ethnic group in southwest Ethiopia with fewer than 10,000 members. They live in the lower Omo river valley. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures

The Mursi are known for their wives’ lip plates, called dhebi by the Mursi. To use these, girls have their lower lip cut open at the end of puberty and two of the lower incisors knocked out. Increasingly larger copies of the clay plates are used to gradually stretch the lower lip. This body modification is a symbol of a ritual of passage and initiates the girl into the world of adult women.

© Jimmy Nelson Pictures
© Jimmy Nelson Pictures
Die Samburu sind ein Volk im Norden Kenias. Sie sind Viehzüchter und halten meist Rinderherden. Ihre Sprache ist, wie die ihrer nahen Verwandten Massai, Maa. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures
The Samburu are a people in northern Kenya. They are cattle breeders and mostly keep herds of cattle. Their language, like that of their close relatives, is Maasai. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures

Samburu men are polygamous, so they usually have several wives. However, the women often have their own huts. The girls are virtually forcibly married at the age of 15 and the elders of a clan decide who is married to whom. Unfortunately, female genital mutilation is still one of the wedding ceremonies today, which often leads to the death of the girls due to infections or excessive blood loss.

Samburu. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures Samburu. © Jimmy Nelson

The Rabari, who now inhabit western India, are said to have originally immigrated to India from Iran more than 1000 years ago. They are mainly found in Gujarat and Rajasthan today. The women of the Rabari could be described as emancipated, because while the men are out with the herds, they take care of all the family’s financial affairs. They earn their main income from the sale of leather, wool, ornate embroidery and milk.

Rabari. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures Rabari. © Jimmy Nelson Rabari. © Jimmy Nelson Pictures Rabari. © Jimmy Nelson 

The indigenous peoples worldwide are threatened by the industrialized society, which in the name of progress, appropriates land and thus robs the indigenous people of their livelihood. They are often victims of racism and repression.


Jimmy Nelson summed up his photographic world tour to the last indigenous peoples of our earth in the impressive picture book - "Before They Pass Away" - together. Critics criticized the fact that the photographs were more likely to satisfy a Western fantasy than to show the often cruel reality. Nelson himself emphasizes that he has chosen a very personal, aesthetic perspective and that his main concern was to emphasize the diversity and importance of indigenous peoples. The photo book was awarded the Golden German Photo Book Prize

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