Photog Travels the World and Photographs Ancient Cultures that May Soon Disappear


A few days ago, we shared photographer Sasha Leahovcenco’s inspirational project in which he photographed people in Siberia who had never had their photo taken. Photographer Jimmy Nelson’s series/book Before They Pass Away is similar in that he, too, is probably photographing people who have never seen a camera.

But the project takes on a deeper, more tragic meaning as well. You see, as the name suggests, Before They Pass Away is about capturing photographs of ancient tribes and cultures that, before long, may no longer exist to be photographed.

Nelson has spent three-and-a-half years documenting cultures that are on the brink of disappearing forever. In all, 35 populations are represented in Before They Pass Away, tribes so rare the term endangered comes to mind. As Andrew Katz so eloquently put it in his TIME article about the book, these are “populations that have neither adapted to the modern world, nor shown a desire to join it.”

JNelson Umschlag fDummy3.indd

Using his 4×5 plate camera, Nelson often had only a couple of weeks max to bond with his subjects and capture the essence of a people… no easy task. Some tribes were harder to bond to than others. The Banna people in Ethiopia are a great example of this, as he explained to TIME:

The tribesmen were high on khat, he recalls, and holding Kalashnikovs. His way of getting close was by getting small.

“You become inferior and you let them push you around; you do not show fear, but you show vulnerability and insecurity,” he says. After that, he would befriend who he felt was the most empathetic one, warm up to him, praise him, bank on his vanity. Once that tribesman had his picture taken, making him feel good and big and strong, everyone wanted their picture taken.

Here’s a look at a few photographs from the series, kindly provided by the book’s publisher teNeues:








The point of the series is two-fold. In one sense it’s a documentary series that captures peoples and cultures that most of us have no idea exist — it’s “a tribute to vibrant cultures around the world.” But on another level it’s about starting a “conversation” between these disappearing cultures and our own, which Nelson describes as “out of context.”

If you’d like to pick up a copy of Before They Pass Away for yourself, you can do so for $150 on the teNeues website here. And if you’d like to see more of Nelson’s work, don’t forget to stop by the Before They Pass Away website as well.

(via FullyM)

Image credits: Photographs by Jimmy Nelson BV courtesy teNeues

  • agour

    There was a 25 minute video online to accompany it, but it seems to have been pulled down now. Probably because it was horrible to watch, the intro made him out to be some sort of modern day action hero armed with a camera.. Hopefully they’re re-editing it

  • captaindogcock

    Only about a month late on this one. Good work chaps.

  • harumph

    The bit about the Banna people is a bit self-aggrandizing as well, since it portrays them as dangerous people (“high on khat…holding Kalashnikovs”) that he needed to cleverly manipulate in order to get close to. This is complete rubbish. The Omo Valley might as well be a movie set these days with the amount of photographers and filmmakers who have made the Banna and Hamer tribes their subjects.

  • DLCade

    Better late than never :) It just took a while to get in touch and receive permission to share the photos. Sometimes that makes us late, but we refuse to post photos without first reaching out to the photographer and getting the okay (something not every blog chooses to do).

  • MS

    Excellent work!! Thanks for sharing this.

  • Fernando Callo

    4×5, film, YES!

  • p.rock

    Much prefer this artist to the Siberia one.

    That shot of the falconers on the mountaintop…just tremendous.

  • Leif Sikorski

    I’m not sure how I should feel about this, because there stays some kind of bad feeling that those people usually get just abused. Such projects also involve the risk that those tribal folks might get in contact with common diseases of our society they never had to deal with before in their beautiful little world. It wouldn’t be the first tribe getting in trouble because of this.

  • Serhan Oksay

    contemporary colonial type photos

  • Aezreth

    Truly epic photos. The way it’s promoted on the website though is unfortunately very obnoxious.

  • John Icicle Boy

    Will that fellow from a week or two ago complaining about white guys photographing people come in for a comment or two.

  • TurthSeeker

    I smell jealousy !!.. Fire Off Fire Off..

  • Nate Parker


  • agour

    If you’d seen the video you’d understand where I’m coming from

  • foggodyssey

    This guy is about as fake as could be. Case-In-Point: Mitchell Kanashkevich work was done years before Jimmy Nelson did his of the Vanuatu tribe. Nelson basically went on the Internet found photos that people had done, then copied them for his portfolio… a lot to be said about that.

  • Aezreth

    Ouch! That’s some serious plagiarizing right there.

  • deb_ch

    Yeah, that image of the “savage wild”.. It’s a myth.

    Don’t underestimate the people you see in these photos. They know pretty well what’s going on and what does work in a picture and what not. They are no strangers to modelling, even if it’s a different kind of what we might think of when hearing the word..

    Neither Nelson nor Kanashkevich are the first to shoot such pictures or movies. It’s an income for both sides. With all ups and downs. But in the end, it’s just creating an illusion for the beholder..

  • Bill

    White peeps are so cool! Only we would think of taking pics of rare third world primitive societies of little import.

  • Jake

    Your classification of these or any societies as having “little import” basically devalues any bigoted opinion you have on the matter.

  • Vin Weathermon

    Wow…and the price went up to $150 too.

  • foggodyssey

    For anyone who hasn’t seen this video that everyone is talking about, you can find it here on YouTube: Watch it, then you will understand why people think this guy is a tool and full of it.

    And Kanashkevich sheds some light on the Vanutau people that Nelson photographed “lots of the stuff is exaggerated, some is just flat out lies. No one fishes like those guys with bows and arrows until festival
    time and he makes it seem like he just walked in on them. They only
    dress like that for their traditional dance as well. I blogged about it
    some time ago. I shot the image for their local tourism campaign.” ~ Mitchell Kanashkevich

  • Jason Philbrook

    Nice plates

  • harumph
  • yopyop

    I’m disappointed, there’s not even a single explosion in the intro! Michael Bay should have been involved.

  • Bob

    Your sarcasm radar needs a little extra battery life.

  • Timo

    Thanks for sharing! Despite being amazed by the photos (my friend bought the book and showed me), I had a strange feeling about it already starting from the title. The Indiana Jones video clip, the complete Kanashkevich rip-off, and the nuanced Salon article made it all the more clear… pretty books are not always pretty throughout.