Jimmy Nelson Finds Beauty Everywhere
Jimmy Nelson spent an entire day with the Daasanach in southern Ethiopia setting up the perfect shot. He was just waiting for the light to be perfect when all hell broke loose. A fight started between two girls in this family of 30, and his entire group scattered, erupted into chaos. His full day of work had been wasted, but he was still desperate to get the picture. He began an investigation to figure out what went wrong, and over the course of a week getting to know these people and examining their lives he learned it was a spat over a boy. And in that moment, he discovered something that changed the direction of his creative vision. “If I was going to photograph these people in the dignified, respectful way that I had intended, and put them on a pedestal, I had to understand them,” Jimmy says. “It wasn't just about turning up. It wasn't just about shaking a hand. It wasn't about just saying, ‘I'm Jimmy, I'm a photographer.’ I had to get to know every single one of them, right down to whose boyfriend is who and who is allowed to kiss who.” Thus began the true exploration of what resulted in his book ‘Before They Pass Away,’ an arresting collection of photographs he amassed while getting to know 35 distinct groups of people from all reaches of the world.
The lessons Jimmy learned on this multiyear expedition are innumerable, but he offers some of them in a talk he did recently for TED. As much as we can learn from what he found, at its center the journey was about himself. Art is communication and exploration, but must always come from the heart of the artist, something that Jimmy is very aware of. “I kept running and I kept running, and I sort of got somewhere and I sort of stood there and looked around me and I thought, well, where do I belong?” Jimmy says on the stage at TED. “Where do I fit? What am I? Where am I from? I had no idea… Perhaps part of this journey is about me trying to find out where I belonged.” These 35 groups of people in his book represent the thousands of communities all over the world whose ways of life are facing extinction. A human language dies every two weeks as the world becomes globalized. The tragedy of losing unique cultures is part of bringing everyone along into the future. Conservatism is inherently non-progressive, and with the movement of time comes the loss of the way the world is now and was in the past. Luckily we have Jimmy’s work to help us remember these people and their ways before they’re gone forever, whether that happens next week or in the next century.
Above it all, Jimmy reminds us, this is about beauty. He’s quick to point out that he’s not an anthropologist and that the choices he made were about delivering something that we would love to look at. “I think beauty matters,” Jimmy explains. “We spend the whole of our existence revolving around beauty: beautiful places, beautiful things, and ultimately, beautiful people. It's very, very, very significant. I've spent all of my life analyzing what do I look like? Am I perceived as beautiful? Does it matter if I'm a beautiful person or not, or is it purely based on my aesthetic? And then when I went off, I came to a very narrow conclusion. Do I have to go around the world photographing, excuse me, women between the age of 25 and 30? Is that what beauty is going to be? Is everything before and after that utterly irrelevant?” What Jimmy’s work proves is that everything else is entirely relevant, powerfully relevant, foundationally relevant. What is photography but a documentation of the human experience? Every story counts, and each is more beautiful that the last.
We’re thrilled to welcome Jimmy Nelson to the roster at Bernstein & Andriulli. You can find more of his work here.