Tuesday 6 May 2014

"An Irreplaceable Ethnographic Record"?; More Like Diary of a ColonialPhotographer!

In this post, Tayla introduces the three-part takedown of Jimmy Nelson's Before they Pass Away by looking at colonial photography, and the danger of reading photographs as 'truth'. 

It took the Anthsisters a while to decide exactly what we were going to do about ol' Jimmy. The whiteboard in Anthsisters HQ was filled with comments, quotes, ideas and points to make in our post, we had a few meetings where we took notes and discussed what we were going to write, and we read endless reviews and articles on the book. Tarapuhi and I even watched Jimmy Nelson's TED talk (our favourite part was when Jimmy referred to Inuit as Eskimos. So anthropological). After working ourselves up, and feeling every kind of emotion possible, we decided the best bet was to each write a piece focusing on one aspect we were passionate about. I've decided to use this takedown to discuss the introduction of photography and how it became a source of scientific truth, the danger in reading photographs as truth, and how Jimmy Nelson's Before they Pass Away is in my mind, a modern-day diary of a colonial photographer. 
[1] Malinowski 1974                                                                          [2] Nelson 2013
Maybe Jimmy Nelson's wife might publish his diary one day?

In 1904, Dudley Kidd published The Essential Kafir which presented Africans in South Africa as a variegated but single ‘race’. In the text in these treatments, racial and ethnic hallmarks were expressed as departures from a familiar Western norm – from the white, male and middle-class self, and as a reflection of colonial interests, registering the difficulty or usefulness of a population.
In 2013, Jimmy Nelson published Before they Pass Away which presented 31 tribes across the globe, each a ‘visually unique’ race. In the text at the beginning of this book, racial and ethnic hallmarks were expressed as departures from the Western norm – from the white, male and middle-class self, to a reflection of the ‘purity of humanity’ and the ‘last resorts of natural authenticity’.
What do these two books, from two different eras have in common? Photographs and observations by two white men that we are encouraged to believe represent ‘truthful’ insights into the nature of native people.

Sunday 4 May 2014

“An Irreplaceable Ethnographic Record”?; A Takedown of Jimmy Nelson’s 'Before They Pass Away'.

On the 6th of March 2014 when Tarapuhi and I (Hollie) were getting our morning coffee at one of our fave coffee places (which also happens to be a book store) we noticed something gleaming at us from the display table – Jimmy Nelson’s Before they Pass AwayIt probably doesn’t help that the book is humungous, but what really drew us in was the front cover:

Immediately we let out disgruntled sighs, ‘why was it that people continue to promote the idea that indigenous peoples are all going to die soon?!’ But it wasn’t until we stumbled across a section on Māori that our gears were truly grinded. Highly aware of the idea, encouraged during settler colonialism, that Māori were a dying race we were deeply offended that this recently published book (2013) was still going along with the idea, especially since Māori had proven those settlers wrong (yes, we’re still here). Now, don’t get us wrong, the photos are absolutely stunning, and all credit to Nelson’s photography skills, but his aim to create an “irreplaceable ethnographic account” was not, in our opinion, fulfilled.

Back at anthsisters HQ we thought about what we were gonna do about this book, that as far as we could tell, was a subtle reminder of the everyday task indigenous peoples face to be considered living and thriving in today’s world. Our first step, we decided, would be to email said coffee shop/book store and let them know how we felt. Below is a copy of the emails:


Kia ora

I noticed you have a copy of the book Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson. I just thought I would let you know that many indigenous people find this highly offensive as it fetishizes indigenous peoples and represents many groups, including Maori, as primitive and as a homogenised ‘dying race’.

Perhaps it would be appropriate for it to be removed, or to be gifted to the Visual Anthropology department as an example of ethnocentric and offensive photography.

Personally I was really saddened to see it displayed at one of my favourite coffee places.

Tarapuhi Bryers-Brown



I'm a student at Kelburn campus and I noticed today that you're selling Jimmy Nelson's 'Before they pass away' book. I don't know if you guys have actually looked at the book beyond the beautiful photos but it's actually super offensive.

Referring to these cultures as dying is fucking ridiculous! If you just look around you Maori (who are depicted in the book) are thriving and I think it's bullshit that this guy is passing my people off as some sort of primitive people that you have to see, like some 'quick before they're gone' deal at Godfrey's vacuum place.

That's a link to Matika Wilbur's project which is aiming to dismantle the ridiculous ideas this book promotes, which I recommend you guys check out.

I would really appreciate it, as a Maori, as a student, and as a customer, if you would sort your shit and remove this racist and colonial propaganda from your store.



After a week of no reply to our emails, we decided to take it to Twitter, tweeting at Jimmy Nelson directly, and Pita Sharples (NZ MP) who was featured in the book.

Again, no reply. But we had come across some articles that shed some light on a few things, most notably this one which garnered a response from Nelson. Then said coffee place/book store emailed us back: