What initially might seem to be the very best of anthropology meets photography, Before They Pass Away eventually turns out to be a (talented) photographer’s imagination at work. Jimmy Nelson tells the kind of stories we want to hear and takes the kind of photos we want to see, but in the end they create a imaginary that does not reflect the reality of the people photographed. Plus, most of these tribes are not really about to disappear.
The photos are without a doubt…fantastic. If there’s something not to be discussed, that’s the quality of these images. They’re so good that questioning how they’re made and what they do might not be something to cross our minds. They tell the kind of stories that we want to hear. The stories of a remote life, of community and symbolism, of meaning and beauty, in short of everything we feel we’ve lost nowadays. Those worlds are right here, in front of us, and in Nelson’s understanding, they’re also about to disappear. Obviously because of us, our greed, ignorance, consumerism, capitalism, etc. Now isn’t that a romantic and dramatic story?
“I saw the photos and I didn’t like them,” says Brazilian Yanomami spiritual leader Davi Kopenawa for The Guardian. “This man only wants to force his own ideas on the photos, to publish them in books and to show them to everyone so that people will think he’s a great photographer. He does whatever he wants with indigenous peoples. It is not true that indigenous peoples are about to die out. We will be around for a long time, fighting for our land, living in this world and continuing to create our children”.
Truth is Nelson is a great photographer, technically speaking. But making a biased portrayal of a subject you claim to be documenting doesn’t really define a photojournalist’s work. Bias in any social science research will compromise the researcher. Does bias in photojournalism do the same? Should it do the same? I think to a certain extend it does shake one’s credibility, but the line between when something inaccurate is really bad and when it’s one’s understanding is not precisely drawn. Yet, I have the feeling with his set arrangements and all adjustments Nelson crossed the precisely drawn line in the direction of a shaky credibility (read this article as well for a better understanding of what is wrong with these photos).
To all the criticism he recieved (there’s much more, check the Guardian article), Nelson said his photos are celebratory and intended to be aesthetic rather than factual. They’re his view, meaning his staged view, including clothing adjustments and everything else. “I am aiming to document the variety and importance of what is left of indigenous culture. Yes, it’s idealistic. Indigenous peoples are usually portrayed [by groups like Survival] as impoverished. But they have a wealth and a pride. It’s not only about material possessions” Nelson says for The Guardian, after he initially said that his photos are an ‘irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world’, which frames the work very differently.
Now the question is: for us to understand the variety and importance of what is left of indigenous culture, do we need a glamorized portrayal of them? Do we empathized more with this idealized version of them than with their realistic image? Well, here’s where I’m afraid the answer is yes. In the end it is Nelson’s portrayals that put the issue on the agenda. Thinking a print of the photos goes up to 45.000 pounds and a special edition book costs over 5000 pounds, while he doesn’t pay the people he photographs even though they are his models and work for him…well, this might raise some moral questions and some questions about his attitude. Thinking he explained the photos are idealistic and staged only after a pile of accusations, that raises other ethical questions. But on top of that, what should raise more questions is the fact that it is this approach that put the issue on the agenda, it is the title suggesting they’re about to pass away, it’s the glamorous portrayal, the beautiful story tapping into our imaginary. It’s not the realistic portrayals what made us care. Bad on Nelson, but most important, what does this say about us and the way our visually saturated/media saturated world works? Is it just that organisations like Survival International don’t reach far or it’s just that sugar coated stories work best for PR? And in the end, do we respond better to PR than to empathy? To aesthetics than to poverty?