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Survival Attacks Jimmy Nelson’s Portrayal of Tribes


June 2, 2014

Survival attacks photographer Jimmy Nelson’s portrayal of tribes

The work of famed photographer Jimmy Nelson, creator of coffee-table book “Before They Pass Away”, has been attacked in a new exposé by Survival International Director Stephen Corry as “hubristic baloney” which presents a false and damaging picture of tribal peoples.

Nelson writes that his recent $150 book of “portraits” of tribal people was motivated by the desire to “search for ancient civilizations… and document their purity in places where untouched culture still exists”. The “cultures” he found are supposedly “unchanged for thousands of years”.

But Corry denounces the work as a photographer’s fantasy, bearing little relationship either to how the people pictured look now, or to how they’ve ever appeared.

The photos of Waorani girls from Ecuador, for example, portray them shorn of the clothes that contacted Waorani routinely wear, and wearing “fig” leaves to protect their modesty, which they have never done (previous generations of Waorani women wore a simple waist string). Corry writes that Nelson not only presents a fictionalized portrait of tribal people, but glosses over the genocidal violence to which many of the tribes pictured are being subjected, and even pretends that such tribes can be “saved” from the “inevitability” of “passing away” simply by being photographed.

Corry said today, "Given how much publicity Jimmy Nelson’s book has had, I think it’s important to expose the work for the damaging fantasy it is, because it ignores the crimes being committed against these peoples in the name of ‘progress’. No mention, for example, in the description of Ethiopia’s Mursi tribe, of the forced relocation, beatings, assaults and disappearances to which they’re being subjected.

“No mention, in the description of Tibetans, of China’s brutal oppression. No mention of the estimated 100,000 Papuans who have died since Indonesia’s ruthless occupation. No, the tribes are simply, inevitably, ‘passing away’. That’s dangerous claptrap which plays into the hands of all those who want them to ‘pass away’ as quickly as possible.”


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